The Local Food Report: black walnuts

There are some tastes you never forget. The flavor of wild American black walnuts is one of them.

I first tried black walnuts this fall, when my forager friend, Richard Bailey, gave me a sack of them. I'd been hearing about them for years: from my grandmother, who grew up with them, and from my mother, describing the black walnut cake she used to make with them. They both got a sort of dreamy, far away look when they talked about the nuts---the kind of look people get when they talk about tastes and memories that belong to another time, another place. When I finally bit into a slice of my grandmother's black walnut cake for the first time a few weeks ago, I understood: black walnuts are all wild, all American, all history.

They don't grow on the Cape, not naturally. Their range extends from Western Massachusetts and Vermont out to southern Ontario, down to central Texas, and then east into Georgia and up the coast. But an Austrian couple in Wellfleet planted a tree half a century ago, and each fall, it produces.

The tree itself looks sort of like a locust---compound pinnate leaves and scratchy bark---but it's actually in the hickory family. The nuts are housed in a fleshy husk that's green straight off the tree, then slowly fades to black. They're famously hard to open: Richard Bailey uses a knife and a bench vice, but others have used hammers, rocks, the tires of their cars. Once you get through the husk, you find a hard shell, same as an English Walnut, so you still have to crack that. Finally, you get to the nutmeats, about a cup for every two pounds un-shelled.

It's a lot of work, but when you taste that flavor, you know it was worth it. The recipe my grandmother handed down to me is called Maryland Black Walnut Cake, and it comes from the Shields Chesapeake Bay Cookbook, circa 1990. She used to have an older recipe, the one my great-grandmother made, but that one's gone and this one is close, she says. It calls for all the usuals: flour, butter, sugar, eggs, a little bit of vanilla and baking powder and milk and salt. But then you add the black walnuts---1 and 1/2 cups of pure ground musk, and it changes the whole game. The flavor is something like really good banana bread soaked in port and black currant cordial with a little bit of smoke mixed in. It's good straight out of the oven but it gets better over the course of a few days---more moist, more pungent, somehow more rare.

I can't hand you a slice through the screen, but I can give you the next best thing: everything you need to bake your own cake, grow your own trees. You can buy black walnuts online, over here, and this company sells the trees online. And thanks to my grandmother, here's that cake recipe.


My grandmother talks about a recipe Gransie (her grandmother) used to make, but we can't find that anywhere. Instead, she sent me this recipe card from her files, with a note at the bottom that says "Shields Chesapeake Bay Cookbook, 1990."

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup milk
1 and 1/2 cup ground black walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a tube or Bundt cake pan.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl cream the butter and sugar until they're light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and egg yolks and beat well. Alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the creamed butter mixture, mixing well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they're stiff but not dry and gently fold them into the batter along with the ground black walnuts until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until a piece of straw comes out clean. Turn the cake onto a rack to cool, then dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.


Anne said...

Good post :) We have a lot of them rounded up this year even though it is an off year. (They produce heavily one year and then not so heavily the next typically.)

Husk them (gloves needed.. they stain like crazy!)

Wash them.. then lay them out or use mesh bags to let them cure in a dark area with good air flow.

Caution with the husks as Black Walnut is notorious for the juglone it produces.. the tree also has it in the leaves and husks (as in.. do not put the tree trimmings, husks, leaves in the compost pile. Juglone will not play nice with garden veggies or most orchard plants.)

Fruits you can grow around black walnuts.. wild black raspberries, gooseberry, elderberries

Black walnut is what some of the old farmers used to plant as a "retirement crop". They'd plant a grove and decades later the trees were sold.

They bear fruit at about 10 years of age, really get into good crops at about 30+. The trees around here sell for quite a bit. Care in planting is best so they are not too crowded, but a little competition encourages tall straight growth. They prefer rich well drained soil.. and because of that they were a marker in the old days for finding "good" land.

Alexandra said...

This post was fascinating, as was Anne's comment. I had never heard of black walnuts before and plan to order some. Are you planting a walnut tree, Elspeth? The sugar in the recipe, is that 1 and a half cups?

Karen said...

Thanks for the inspiration, the recipe and to Anne for more detailed instructions on how to husk these green softballs. We have them all over the side yard this time of year but usually let the squirrels feast... Maybe I'll go gathering!

barter411 said...

I love the beauty of walnut wood, the smell of walnut smoke, and the flavor of walnuts in my oatmeal. They are so good for you too. I confess, I buy the walnuts now but they just about doubled in price recently. Maybe I will try to harvest some as you suggested.

Elspeth said...

anne, thank you so much for all of this information! i am glad to know we have a black walnut expert in our midst.

alexandra, we didn't plant a tree this year (no space) but as we do more clearing on our property it's certainly a possibility. and the sugar in the recipe, yes, is 1 and 1/2 cups. thank you for helping me fix that!

happy cooking and gathering to everyone...we are still getting settled in here, but i am hoping to be back with regular monday posts next week. my parents left today, so at the very least we have to start doing our own cooking again!


David Velten said...

Wow, blast from the past. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and we had a black walnut tree. It made a mess, dropping twigs and catkins as well as nuts all over the driveway. The husks of the nuts would stain your hands. My favorite ice cream flavor was black walnut, just vanilla ice cream with chopped black walnuts blended in. I have never had a black walnut cake but I can imagine how tasty it must be.

Unknown said...

Wow, how timely. We have a black walnut tree hanging over our commercial building in Yprt that we recently bought. I was considering cutting it down as they are so messy. However, I am a big forager so now I will gather the nuts and think again before I cut it down. Can't wait to try the nuts with ice cream! Thanks for all your great knowledge everyone!

Ariel Wilson said...

Black walnuts: Nature's bold flavor in a nutshell! ­čî░Considering hiring help for my dissertation – any takers for who can i get someone to do my dissertation? Bump in please!


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