Saturday, January 28, 2006

I Have Black Walnuts (and You Don't)

I may have said this here before (or I may only have said it in other blogs' comment sections, and I could go back and figure out which, but there's no point since even if I've said it before, I'm going to say it again; surely my prose is sufficiently mind numbing that you can't actually remember anything that shows up on this site, anyway), but black walnuts and I go way back. Many years ago, I had a brief flirtation with wild foods generally, but most of those interests have since waned (I would still like to make wild rose hip jam sometime, but the rose hips from the local wild rose bushes are itty bitty, and the recipe I have calls for ten pounds of them, and one November or December I went out in the cold and spent two hours subjecting myself to the thickets and thorns, and I ended up with about a pound of them. And then when I went to Germany ten years or so ago with the then-wife and A., I saw really big hips on their wild rose bushes growing in what used to be the buffer zone in the border between the FRG and the GDR, so I took four or five hips [the seed pods, I believe] and I put them in a pocket of something and brought them back to the U.S., probably totally illegally, and then never planted them, though I held onto them for many years. But, you know: someday.), but in all that time, I have never stopped taking note of wild berry bushes (rarer and rarer all the time these days) and black walnut trees (still relatively common).

The taste of the black walnut is complex and decadent (and otherwise hard to describe), and if you have never had them, I might reasonably feel like a crack dealer introducing you to something that you're going to want a lot more of except that a) black walnuts are legal and probably not bad for you, and b) the first one is most certainly not free. You can obtain the nutmeats via mail order at exorbitant prices (I used to be able to find bags of the nutmeats at Costco at reasonable prices, but time happens), or you can gather your own at exorbitant difficulty. The difficulty is not so much in gathering the fruit of the tree, though you will want to wear gloves because the green fruits will stain your hands, as it is in separating the shell-and-nut from the pod and the nutmeat from the shell. I remember one year where I had gone out and gathered two grocery bags full of fallen nutballs (I don't know the proper term, but they look like green tennis balls, only a bit smaller), and brought them home, only to be completely stymied as to what to do with them next.

I mentioned this problem to my grandmother, and she told me that she had seen people put them in pails and take the green covering off with shovels, and that she had seen people put them on the road and drive over them. I tried the former, with no success, and I thought that perhaps she was pulling my leg about the latter. But recently, I was searching the net for information, and I came upon an extension site for the University of Minnesota, which informed me that

Removing the husk is an important step in storing black walnuts properly. If the nuts are stored with husks attached, the heat released as the husks decompose will discolor walnut kernels and ruin their flavor.

Hulling walnuts, removing the husk, can be a difficult and messy task. The indelible dye from the husk stains hands, clothes, tools and work surfaces. If you are working with dry nuts, the husk can be removed by applying pressure to the ends of the nut. This can be done by pounding side to side with a hammer, of course while wearing safety glasses.

The husks can also be softened in a container filled with a slurry of three parts nuts to one part water and a handful of gravel. Stir the mixture vigorously. It may take more than one attempt to completely remove the husks.

If you are hulling a large quantity of nuts, the slurry can be used in a small portable cement mixer. An old-fashioned corn sheller will also be useful in hulling black walnuts.

Take care when hulling or shelling walnuts. The practice of driving over nuts with an automobile can be a dangerous one. Nuts and broken shells may be thrown into the air by the tires, possibly causing bodily injury or property damage.

I did not actually go to the CDC or another government site to determine how many people die each year in black-walnut-shelling-by-automobile-related deaths, but it is difficult to imagine that the number is not in the tens of thousands.

Clearly I was doing the wrong thing with my shovel and pail, but that method certainly sounds like too much work. It will perhaps not surprise you to read that my initial thought was that I really needed to have my own cement mixer, but given the eruption that occurs whenever I add a small bottle of something to the pantry, I decided that I would not suggest the cement mixer to V. In any case, even after you have the hulls off, you still have to separate the nutmeat from the shell, and this is much, much harder than shelling a pecan (when I was a child, we did this by squeezing two pecans together until one of them broke; it is not much harder than shelling a peanut) or an English walnut, so while I still think that owning my own cement mixer would be über cool, it would perhaps not be the best way to ensure a supply of black walnuts.

I am not entirely clear as to how the increase in technology interacts with the decrease in such practices as gathering, hulling, and shelling one's own black walnuts, but I am always suspicious of both technology and capitalism (though I also benefit greatly from both, obviously), and I fear that somehow my use of email, for example, is inextricably linked to the fact that my favorite blackberry patch was sacrificed for highway improvements. If there is a linkage, however, what technology takes away with one tentacle, it gives back (sometimes, and at a higher price, of course) with another: you can buy good black walnuts on ebay.

A couple of weeks ago, I bid on two one-pound lots of black walnut nutmeats (you can also buy whole nuts that have had the hulls removed; good luck with that), and I won both auctions with my initial bids of $6. The person who was selling them sent them by priority mail and insured them, so I ended up paying somewhat more than that, but each pound still costs less than a bottle of moderately good wine, and it's not a purchase that I'm going to make every week, though I might email the seller back and see if he and I can arrange some sort of regular supply deal. It would be good to have a reliable source of good black walnuts. And these nuts are most decidedly good. They arrived promptly in vacuum packs, and I immediately tossed them in the freezer. When I opened the first pack last night to make a cake, I tasted a few, and they were splendid.

I knew that I wanted to make a cake with the first of my black walnuts, and I knew that I'd likely use a recipe that called for pecans and substitute the black walnuts (which can be used in most places that pecans are used, where they will give a completely different but still wonderful result), but I was torn between the Clementine Paddleford recipe that Bakerina posted and the Joy of Cooking's "Fruit Cake Cockaigne" recipe, which I have made many times and which has always been received with enthusiasm. I had initially thought that the recipes were closer to each other than they really are, but the JoC recipe calls for four times as much flour for the same amount of nuts and dried fruits. The odd thing is that, even with all that batter (it also calls for twice as much sugar and roughly twice as many eggs, as well as half again as much butter), my white fruitcake has always seemed very dense and very packed with fruits and nuts. As it happens, that density is likely due largely to the extended storage period during which I apply copious amounts of rum, but last night, I was unwilling to go with either one cup or four cups of flour, so I took a middle course. The middle course was meant to be two cups of flour, but I only had seven ounces of flour, which is likely 1.75 cups, but it's hard to say since it's tough to measure when there's so little flour in your bag, so I just weighed it. (I really should probably pretend that I always weigh my flour, since it's a more exact way of measuring, and it sounds better than me running out of all purpose flour and having to flour the cake pan with whole wheat, but my thinking here is that if one cup of flour and four cups of flour both produce terrific cakes, then the difference between 1.75 cups of flour and 2 cups of flour, or between 6.5 and 8.5 ounces is probably really not as crucial as we'd all like to think it is. In cake, anyway: pastry is another matter entirely.) The amounts of the other ingredients are mostly from the Paddleford recipe, with some adjustments. I tend to like my fruitcakes a little spicier than the recipes call for (though I did not add any ground cardamom, and I wish I had), and I made other adjustments just because they seemed like a good idea at the time.

When I thought about a dried fruit to go with black walnuts, I really wanted dried (not candied) cherries, but I didn't have time to make a stop at Trader Joe's last night, and I didn't have anything in the pantry except dark raisins, prunes, figs, and dried apricots. Dried apricots are wonderful in fruitcake, but there is a slight appearance problem in that the pieces that are up against the side of the pan inevitably burn slightly. This does not ruin the taste for me, but I think that either dried cherries or craisins would be even better. I also probably should have lightly toasted my black walnuts before putting them in the batter; what was I thinking? Regardless, I tasted a slice of the cake this morning, and it was very good. I tested a second slice just to be sure. And then I got out a piece of loosely woven cotton, soaked it in dark rum, and wrapped it around the cake. Then I wrapped all that in a sheet of extra strength aluminum foil and stuck the cake in the pantry. It gets even better with time and the assiduous application of additional rum.

As I almost always do these days, I used Rose Levy Beranbaum's method of mixing the cake batter. The more I use it, the more I like it, and I can no longer fathom the notion of creaming my butter and sugar separately and then mixing in wet and dry ingredients alternately. So much fuss! The only difficulty with the Beranbaum method is remembering to have your butter at room temperature, and our new microwave has a soften setting, even that is no problem for me (as far as I can tell, the soften setting and the defrost setting are the same, but in either case, you can put a stick of butter in the microwave at 30% power for 30 seconds, and it will be about right). Butter does not always soften evenly in the microwave, but if part of it is melted, it doesn't seem to hurt the cake.


7 ounces all purpose flour
2 cups chopped dried apricots
2 cups black walnuts
1 cup granulated sugar
pinch salt (if you are using unsalted butter)
3/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/4 t. ground ginger
3/4 t. baking powder
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, AT ROOM TEMPERATURE
3 eggs
1/4 cup dark rum

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9" bundt pan.

Chop your dried apricots and put them in a bowl. Take a tablespoon or so (the exact amount is not important) of the flour and toss it with the apricots to keep them from sticking. Add the nuts and toss them in, too.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, put the remaining flour, the sugar, the salt, the spices, and the baking powder. With the whisk attachment, beat together for two minutes. With the mixer still running, add the softened butter, a tablespoon at a time. Add the eggs one at a time, then add the rum, beating briefly after each addition. Scrape down the bowl if necessary; the batter should be very smooth. Add the nuts and fruits and fold in by hand.

Turn the batter into the prepared bundt pan and bake at 325 for about 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.


Blogger bhoygary said...

try this next time you're looking for a little snack for aperitf. take a tiny wee bit of baguette, put some roquefort cheese on top and a lobe of walnut. Make sure you have a bottle of sweet white wine to go with it.

1:38 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

Whoa, I've been looking around on ebay and there are so many. I can't decide which one to go for. Hmmm. I needs me some.

3:08 PM  
Blogger anapestic said...

You will want to choose the auction that ends soonest, of course. Provided the nuts have been properly handled.

And you will want to avoid any where the nuts are still in the shell.

3:12 PM  

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