This rustic-looking fig and walnut cake is one of our favorite baking treats. It's also a great way to get family and friends to spend more time with you in the kitchen.
It's a yeast-leavened cake (using active dry yeast), but still a super easy Holiday or weekend bake that pairs best with coffee, family, and friends.
The only thing you need is a bit more time and patience because the yeast has to do its work. But yeast in cake gives its own unique taste that's so well worth that little extra time.
Jump to: Ingredients and notes | Yeast in cake | How to activate dry yeast | Notes on mixing the ingredients |Notes on the bake | A Holiday dessert or perfect brunch cake | Variations to the fig cake | Storing the cake
I still love to keep some of these favorite baking traditions alive. It's when everyone loves to gather in a cozy kitchen, don't mind getting their hands a little dirty with mixing dough, and when the oven has to do a bit of overtime.
But some classics, like this fig and walnut cake, never go out of favor because they taste like the holidays, and they feel like sweet, cozy Christmas or lazy Sunday mornings—a tradition worth passing along.
This older recipe uses beaten eggs and active dry yeast to bring air into the cake instead of baking powder or baking soda—yes, yeast isn't just for bread.
But this gives a lovely delicate flavor to this bake, and you only need a bit of extra time to let the dough rest.
Let's look at the ingredients, how to activate dry yeast, making the cake mix, and you'll see how ridiculously easy this Holiday bake is.
Ingredients and notes
The original recipe only calls for unbleached all-purpose flour. But I love to replace half of the all-purpose flour with Spelt flour.
It will give this fig cake a more rustic look and a more natural sweeter flavor.
This caramel-colored sweetener tastes similar to brown sugar.
If you plan to use brown sugar instead, note that your fig cake might turn out a tad sweeter.
Also, you might need to add a bit more water to the dough since coconut sugar is naturally also less moist.
Grated zest and lemon juice
Two large unpeeled and washed lemons (about 155 grams) will give you about two tablespoons of lemon zest and two tablespoons of lemon juice.
You want both in this bake. The citrus zest adds a lovely aroma and brightens up the sweet flavors of this yeast cake. At the same time, the juice adds a bit of a tart, acidic element to balance that sweetness.
One (¼-ounce or 7 grams) packet of active dry yeast is all you need in this recipe. I'll show with pictures how to activate dry yeast. It's quick and easy.
My grandmother made this fig and walnut cake recipe with fresh compressed yeast. I can still remember it wrapped in silver paper on her kitchen counter with its distinctive smell—I love it—and looking like a cube of butter.
But due to fresh yeast's short shelf life, the need to be refrigerated, and it isn't easy to find sometimes, this baked recipe changed with the times using the more readily available active dry yeast.
If you want to use fresh compressed instead of active dry yeast, double the amount of yeast the recipe calls for, crumble it, and let it soften and dissolve in ¼ cup lukewarm water before adding it to the flour.
You want four large farmer's eggs at room temperature because they're easier to whip, mix much better with the batter and allow for it to rise more easily.
And if you're wondering how to bring eggs at room temperature? I rest mine in a bowl on the kitchen counter for about 30 minutes before starting my bake.
You also want your butter at room temperature. It should be soft and easy to knead to mix well with the rest of the ingredients.
How to bring butter to room temperature? First, take the amount of butter you need from the refrigerator and let it rest on the kitchen counter for about 30 minutes to one hour.
I like to cut the butter into smaller cubes, which will speed up the process.
If you forgot to take it out in advance, which has happened to me before, you could always microwave the butter for a few seconds or until enough softened.
Dried chopped figs and walnuts
It's a dried fig cake, and although you could leave out the walnuts, I recommend adding them. It's delicious.
You can use either black mission or Smyrna figs. Just make sure that they are sweet and still moist inside with their distinctive seeds and have not already dried out—which can happen if not properly stored in an airtight container or well-sealed bag.
To avoid significant clusters in the baked result, you also want to chop the walnuts and figs into tiny pieces.
Yeast in cake
Can you use yeast for baking a cake?
Yes, of course. But I would add that this is more of a European sweet yeast-risen fig cake.
Growing up, we never used the more conventional baking powder or baking soda as leavening agents for our cake recipes.
But using yeast in cakes changes the baking process a bit and the outcome. For example:
- You require a little more patience because the batter needs time to rise (about 40 minutes to one hour).
- It's best to use flour with a higher protein content. I like to use a mixture of all-purpose and Spelt flour for this recipe. These proteins are necessary for the development of gluten which yeast needs to form the structure of the cake.
- And although the texture will be still light and fairly crumbly, this fig and walnut cake is a bit more dense than cakes baked with the other leavening agents making it more of a bread-like treat perfect for breakfast or brunch.
- This yeast cake will also have more of a rustic looking browned crust with a soft interior. It's not your typical big fluffy cake but so well worth making.
So, what happens when you put yeast in your cake?
The simple answer is fermentation, which in turn creates air bubbles in your dough or batter giving it that lighter texture and a slightly crumbly cake structure once baked.
But I also love how fermented yeast adds a noticeable albeit delicate own unique taste that improves the overall flavor.
This yeast bake also tends to hold its moisture better and can be stored longer on the counter without drying out too quickly.
Baking a cake with yeast has its perks, especially when you're making one for pairing with coffee or tea in the mornings.
How to activate dry yeast
Active dry yeast is usually sold in small jars or packets. It is dormant granular yeast that needs to be rehydrated and proofed.
A few notes:
- You need warm water between about 110°F-115°F. It will stay inactive if too cold and the yeast will die if too hot. You can use an instant-read thermometer. I usually test the warmth of the water with my wrist. It should feel very warm but not hot.
- Make sure that the bowl you use to proof the yeast is large enough for the yeast to bloom and expand in size.
- In the winter, I cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel to keep it warm for the yeast to proof.
A few notes:
- It's best to use a stand mixer with a dough hook but you can make this cake batter by hand (I often do).
- Since the batter is fairly wet, you can't knead here in the conventional way like when making bread. But mix it through more than with a regular cake and to ensure all ingredients are equally worked in.
- Rising the dough batter: this batter won't double in size like regular bread dough. But it will definitely increase in size (by a few inches). The resting time will also add air to the bake and eventually result in a nice baked cake crust.
A holiday dessert or a perfect brunch cake
This lovely fig and walnut cake is a perfect coffee-type cake to add to your fall or winter baking.
It has a deliciously subtle sweetness with rich complex flavors of a non-bread yeast bake and makes one lovely coffee treat for brunch around a cozy Holiday table—so worth making.
The chopped fig and walnuts add a nice surprise with each bite and although great on its own, it's equally lovely when served with a touch of butter and jam.
This bake doesn't need any decoration, just a beautiful plate to present on the table with your favorite hot drinks and sweet spreads. Or make it part of a breakfast grazing board.
Variations to this Italian fig cake
A more bread-like variation is to use half the amount of sugar and sprinkle the cake dough with dried thyme leaves before placing it in the oven.
You could even use finely chopped fresh thyme leaves (two sprigs max) and add them to the batter mix.
This variation to the fig and walnut cake will have just a hint of sweetness and tastes great served with a spicy jam, preserves, or apple butter.
The thyme adds a wonderful aroma and pleasant flavor.
If stored in an airtight container, the yeast cake keeps well for five days at room temperature.
You can also store any leftovers in the freezer for two or three months. If stored in the freezer, it is best to slice it into individual pieces, wrap them in parchment paper and then store them in a container.
Defrost by letting it sit at room temperature for a bit. I like to pop the slices in a toaster (or microwave for a few seconds).
- 4 cups (500 grams) flour (I use a combo of all-purpose flour and Spelt flour, but feel free to only use all-purpose flour)
- 2 cups (305 grams) coconut sugar (you can use pure cane sugar, if preferred)
- Grated zest of 1 large lemon or equivalent to 2 tablespoons
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 (¼-ounce or 7 grams) packet active dry yeast, rehydrated according to package instructions (see notes in post)
- 4 large eggs at room temperature, beaten
- 9 ounces (255 grams) butter at room temperature plus more to butter the spring form
- 15 dried chopped figs
- About ½ cup (50 grams) chopped walnuts (you can go up to 80 grams)
- You can use a stand mixer with a dough hook or opt to make this cake dough by hand (I often do).
- In a large bowl (or bowl of a stand mixer), combine the flour and the sugar with a whisk to break up any lumps.
- Add the grated lemon zest, lemon juice, rehydrated yeast, beaten eggs, and butter.
- Use your hands to combine the ingredients, ensuring no chunks of butter are left (see note). If using a stand mixer, let the dough hook mix and knead your dough on a low to medium setting.
- Don't over-knead it, just enough to work in the butter.
- Work in the pieces of fig and walnuts. If done by hand, I simply stir them in using a wooden spoon.
- Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and let the dough rest for about 1 hour (see note).
- Close to the end of that one hour, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/ 180 degrees C.
- Butter the springform pan, then shake in a bit of flour (coating all sides) and tap out the excess.
- Use a spatula to spread the dough evenly in the prepared pan.
- Bake in the center of the oven for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean with no wet crumbs clinging to it.
- Allow the cake to cool completely before removing it from the pan.
- Serve as is or top with sifted powder sugar for a more festive look.
Equipment: one 9-inch round springform pan.
Using your hands to mix and knead the dough: I have made this cake so many times just by hand. Note that the dough feels sticky when the butter is thoroughly worked in with the rest of the ingredients. So that's something to keep in mind. It's best to use a spatula to remove any bits from your hands.
Rising the dough batter: this batter won't double in size like regular bread dough. But it will increase a couple of inches. The resting time will also add air to the bake and eventually result in a nice baked cake crust.
Figs and walnuts: this cake is best when figs and walnuts are chopped into small pieces.
Make a more bread-like cake (variation): use only half of the sugar and add ⅓ more walnuts and figs. Before placing the cake dough in the oven, sprinkle it with dried thyme leaves ( alternatively, work in a few freshly chopped thyme leaves (about 2 to 3 tablespoons) into the batter). You can also use bread flour for this variation. This bread-like cake will have just a hint of sweetness and tastes excellent served with sweet-spicy preserves or apple butter. The thyme adds a beautiful aroma and pleasant flavor.
Storage: If stored in an airtight container, this cake keeps well for five days at room temperature. You can also store any leftovers in the freezer for two or three months. If stored in the freezer, it is best to slice it into individual pieces, wrap them in parchment paper and then store them in a container. Defrost by letting it sit at room temperature for a bit. I like to pop the slices in a toaster (or microwave for a few seconds).