Laura Dean Bennett
This time of year, our black walnut trees are dropping their hulls by the bushel, and it’s time to gather them, but you’ll have to hurry if you’re going to beat the the squirrels.
Black walnuts are walnuts with original American character. They are native to the U.S. and Canada, growing wild throughout the eastern deciduous forests. Black walnut is “the” American walnut tree.
Their nuts were a staple of the Native American diet here, along with our other wild nuts – hickories, chestnuts and butternuts. The black walnut was, in fact, an important source of protein in Native American diets. They were often ground with water into a nutritious nut “milk” that would be drunk plain or added into soups.
And our ancestors also made good use of this nutritious food. Besides learning to use them in all the same ways as did Native Americans, early settlers even ground the precious nutmeats into flour. Nothing about black walnuts need to wasted – hulls have been used to make dyes and walnut wood stains for hundreds of years.
Black walnut trees grow wild from Massachusetts all the way south to Florida, and west to Texas and Nebraska. They can be found on old farms and along the edges of woods, often in groves. Summer is the easiest time to locate them, when their fern-like feather-compound leaf structure is on display and the green fruits containing the nuts (they resemble large limes) can be spotted from a distance. These “hulls” drop to the ground in the fall when they’re ripe – in September or October.
These days, the walnuts that most Americans usually eat are English walnuts. “English” walnuts are actually native to the Middle East and Asia. Though English walnuts and black walnuts are related, they’re miles apart in flavor.
Because English walnuts are easier to grow commercially, they cost less. They have a much milder taste than black walnuts. Add that to the fact that they have shells that a person can crack with a nutcracker, and it’s fairly easy to understand why they have become the favorite of most consumers.
Black walnuts, on the other hand, are the ornery sort.
Their hulls require some effort to break through. Although most people have success by rolling the hills arums under foot to loosen the hulls away from the shells, many advocate collecting them in feed bags and driving over them with a car to break through their tough exterior.
I’m not kidding.
And, remember, unless you are wearing gloves, tearing and peeling away the hulls will stain your hands like dark brown shoe polish.
Then you are up against it again when it comes to shelling them.
Their shells are almost impenetrable – like black cement, thick and tough to crack. A nutcracker will have no effect, but a hammer or a vice will get the job done. And once you get into them, their nutmeats are smaller than their English cousins, requiring more work again.
But to many of us here in the Appalachians who grew up with the taste of black walnuts, the extra work is well worth it.
Black walnuts are considered a delicacy and are often used in high-end restaurants in dishes with a hefty price. They sell for fifteen to twenty dollars a pound raw.
Fortunately, black walnuts are found in abundance in Pocahontas County, offering themselves for the price of a little – okay, a lot – of elbow grease.
Black walnuts are healthy little fortresses of protein and fatty acid. Their uniquely bold, earthy flavor is still integral to many old-fashioned recipes, both savory and sweet. No English walnut can come close to their strong taste.
Back in my grandmother’s day, starting around Thanksgiving, family recipes calling for black walnuts would start being dug out of cookbooks, envelopes and kitchen drawers. My mom, of course, followed suit, making sure that a few favorite black walnut recipes were never overlooked.
Come cold weather, cakes, cookies and fudge that during the rest of the year could manage nicely without them, now needed the traditional flavor of black walnuts. Mom could find lots of uses for them on a Thanksgiving or Christmas table and in lots of winter foods. They’d be sprinkled in with the brown sugar on butternut squash and sweet potato casseroles. They’d add an earthy zest sprinkled on top of a green salad and a rich touch in a molded jello salad, too.
But first we had to get them out of those hulls.
And there they sat, stored in paper bags behind the kitchen door on the back porch, waiting to be worked up. This was not a job for just anyone – it took experience, patience and persistence. Thankfully, Daddy had those qualities in spades.
I remember him soaking the hulls in five gallon plastic buckets for several days, changing the water frequently, then taking them around back wrapped in burlap, where he’d hull them by whacking them with the flat side of an ax on the chopping block. Sometimes a few stubborn husks had to be encouraged to let go with a wire brush.
Then back to the porch he’d come, where he would spend countless hours cracking their shells with the vice down in the basement or a hammer on a cinder block. If he wasn’t wearing gloves, his hands would have been stained black for days.
To keep them from molding, the de-husked walnut shells were left in the sun to dry in a single layer on paper lined trays for about two weeks. If you cracked one and the meat came out dry and oily, it meant they were ready to process.
That meant it was time to “pick out the meats.” And that was another tedious job.
And we didn’t throw away those hulls – oh, no! Not with “Waste not, want not” as the family credo. Crushed up, soaked in water and with the addition of plain ammonia, black walnut hulls would make an beautiful walnut wood stain.
If you ever decide to plant a black walnut tree in your yard, be sure to remember that these trees contain a toxic substance called juglone in their roots which will prevent many other plants and vegetables from successfully growing under their canopy. Always leave plenty of room between a black walnut tree and any other landscaping or garden.
If you’ve never tried cooking or baking with black walnuts, you might like to start with my Aunt Lizzie’s black walnut fudge or my grandmother’s black walnut cake. Of course, English walnuts can be substituted for the black walnuts in these recipes, if you must.
While I can’t promise you’ll prefer the bold – and some say bitter – flavor of black walnuts to the gentle taste of English walnuts, I do promise that you’ll taste the difference.
Walnut Bundt Cake
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter or margarine, softened
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup black walnuts, chopped finely
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt pan or tube pan.
2. Sift together flour, baking powder and baking soda.
3. Beat butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs. Beat well, then add flour mixture and buttermilk alternately. Stir in nuts.
4. Transfer into pan and smooth the top. Bake until done, about 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.
5. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes, then turn out of pan.
For the Icing:
In a small saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and syrup over medium heat. Whisk into the hot mixture, 1/4 C maple syrup (grade 3 is best) and 1 C confectioners sugar until smooth. While still slightly warm, pour over cooled cake.
Black Walnut Fudge
3 cups white sugar
3 Tbs. cocoa powder
3 Tbs. butter
1 1/2 cups sweet whole milk
dash of salt
1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
1 cup black walnuts, chopped fine
In a heavy saucepan combine the sugar, cocoa, butter, milk and salt and cook until it reaches the “soft ball” stage. Best to use a candy thermometer and test until it reads 240 degrees Fahrenheit, but you can also drop some in cold water and see if it forms a ball to test it.
Remove from heat and add the vanilla. Beat until creamy. Stir in the nuts and pour into a buttered 8”x 8” dish and allow to cool. Cut into squares.