Yep. I spent a lot of time looking for things in the woods, and it drove me to nuts. Walnuts, that is. Juglans nigra to be specific, the eastern black walnut.
I was quite familiar with the English walnut, or Juglan regia, which grows throughout the Old World from China through the United Kingdom. We had trees of this type in the backyard where I grew up. When we were lucky enough to beat the squirrels (or when we occasionally found their secret hiding spot of cleaned nuts), we had plenty to enjoy.
We had couple of black walnut trees, too, but they were left to the squirrels. Too much work to get the nuts, and such a mess to deal with! While I loved the flavor of black walnuts, I never felt motivated to harvest them myself. There were the stories of past generations, grandparents and elderly neighbors, who tediously picked the nuts, hulled them by driving over them in the road with a car, dried them, and then cracked them open with a piece of railroad iron and a sledge hammer. Meticulously picking over the remains to get a meager handful of nut meat. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother, Grammy, made some killer chocolate chip cookies with black walnuts. The flavor was quite special, forever ingrained in my flavor memory.
Then about 20 years ago, I discovered Nocino. The nut elixir of Italy. It required nuts, lots of them. I started with the English walnuts, but sometimes had to resort to the black walnuts. It turned out that the black walnuts added their spicy twist to the beverage. I made them a routine addition to the mix each year.
Thoughts started to come into my head. Uh oh! I knew where all these nut trees were. I knew which ones produced the best fruits for the Nocino, and the Nocino harvest being in June gave a good advanced look at how laden the trees were each year.
2017 was a massive mast crop year. Nuts of all types were in abundance. As I stalked the woods for Fall mushrooms and deer, I noted that this was a big year for nuts, and I determined that I would see about collecting some black walnuts.
It took about 10 minutes to fill a five gallon bucket. The next step was to peel off the green outer husk. That took a bit of work, but I figured out how to score the husk and give a twist to get most of it off. The rest I blasted off with a hose.
I did two buckets full like this. I could have gotten a lot more, but I knew there was a lot of work ahead in the cracking. I wanted to keep the task to a manageable level. I know you’re thinking that seems out of character for me!
I bagged the nuts in onion bags and hung them in the basement to dry.
Now when I was husking those nuts, I was quite aware that the juice would turn my hands all shades of black and purple. I wore multiple layers of gloves to protect myself from this. I have a job where I interact in a professional environment and could not show up looking like I lost a boxing match with a brick wall!
Alas, the gloves failed! All was well though. If I noticed someone looking at my hands, I told them the truth. Some folks took one look and knew right away what had happened. Many offered solutions they had heard. None worked.
Something good did come of it though. A boy I know told me of a great walnut cake his dad made. I asked if he had the recipe. I then asked his dad for the recipe, and learned it was something special from his grandmother in Romania. He kindly recorded the recipe for me. It is delicious, and I will share my rendition of it with you below.
First I had to get at the nuts. As it turns out, it wasn’t that hard to get the nuts after all. I put a large plastic food lug on a counter top. I put a towel in the lug and then set an anvil on the towel. The small anvil was my maternal grandfather’s. I imagined him cracking walnuts on it many years ago.
One by one, I put the nuts on the anvil and gave them a good whack with a ball peen hammer. When all the nuts were broken, I removed the anvil and towel and set out two small buckets. One for shells and one for nuts. Once I picked through the pile in the lug, I then dumped the nut meats out and looked it over for bits of shell. I did this twice more. I’m sure I didn’t get them all, but it was pretty clean.
I could have easily done twice this many nuts. Oh well, there’s always next year!
In addition to the Romanian cake, I thought of other things to do with these precious nuts. An article on maple syrup caught my eye. I planted a grove of sugar maples here, but they are years away from being large enough to tap. Walnut syrup! Yep, you can tap walnut trees the same as sugar maples and make syrup.
I went on Amazon and bout a set of 10 plastic taps and hoses. I drilled holes in some buckets to accept the hoses, and tapped a few trees. In a day, I had over a gallon of sap. I boiled it down just to check if I was wasting my time. The gallon of sap made about three ounces of syrup. The syrup is gelatinous and nutty, and sweet, very sweet! I’d call it a success.
The 10 taps produce about 10 gallons of sap per week, and that boils down to a bit more than a pint of syrup. It would take between 60-80 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup!
This year’s Nocino will be extra special with some of the syrup replacing a portion of the sugar. For now, I used a bit of the syrup to make this cake recipe from my friend a bit more special than it already is.
Romanian Walnut Cake
For the cake, this will make 6 layers (Two 3-layer cakes):
1/4t ground cinnamon
500g all purpose flour
100g finely ground walnuts
Heat the honey, sugar, and cinnamon in a pot until the sugar is fully melted. Cool slightly so the heat does not cook the eggs in the batter. Mix with remaining ingredients until it forms a homogenized dough. Cover and refrigerate over night.
The next day, preheat the oven to 400F convection (or 425F conventional). Divide the dough into six equal parts. Oil a 9 inch spring form pan and press one of the pieces of dough into the pan. It will make a round disk about 3/8″ thick. Bake in oven for 10 minutes until golden brown. Remove from pan to cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining 5 layers.
For the filling:
1 cup whole milk of cream
200g finely ground walnuts
6T walnut syrup (can substitute honey or maple syrup)
1 cup sugar
Heat over medium heat in a sauce pan until thick and bubbly. Stir constantly to avoid scorching. Cool and then use to glaze the layers of the cake.
I have it on good authority that this cake pairs well with a glass of Nocino.