Walnuts, who doesn’t love them? How about Black Walnuts? I can’t believe I’ve spent so much of my life not enjoying this delicious wild (and free!) edible. Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) is a robust tree in the Hickory family, Juglandaceae, with alternate pinnately compound leaves and grey-black bark. In older trees the grey-black bark is deeply furrowed and the tree can reach heights of 138 ft making this tree both magnificent and beautiful. It is bisexual, meaning it has separate male and female flowers. This time of year the female flowers develop into its fruit: a walnut surrounded by a hard shell and a beautiful light green hull.
Black Walnut as used in medicine can be traced back to at least the 17th century where it was employed in Russian folk medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine states that eating Black Walnuts builds strength. Juglans is an abundant and useful medicine that is still in use today. Modern herbalists employ the hulls and leaves (more precisely the leaflets) for digestive issues, low thyroid function and sometimes to kill parasites. This post, however, will focus on a too oft overlooked part of this incredible and versatile tree: the fruit.
As I mentioned above, the fruit which ripens around now, is covered by a hard outer shell (and I do mean hard!) which in turn is covered by a somewhat soft-fleshy husk. The husks are easy enough to remove and can be covered by oil, isopropyl alcohol or ethanol and used for medicine (more on that in a future post). Once the husks are removed many people suggest to let the nuts sit in their shell for a few days which matures the fruit and deepens the flavor. I have not yet done this but I intend to try it, let me know if you do!
So if this fruit is so spectacular, why is it so often overlooked? Perhaps it’s due to that hard shell I keep mentioning. In this microwave savvy fast-food society it’s east to see that it might be just a bit too much work for people. But listen up folks! The effort pays off, promise. Nothing can compare to the delicate and yet complex flavor that this nut offers. Somewhere between intoxicating perfume and deep earth this nut is the perfect accompaniment to, well, everything.
So how best to crack open this nut? I think there are as many answers as there are people who are willing to do it. One popular method is to place the hulled nuts in a sack and run them over with a car. Haven’t tried it but it sounds promising. At this point I have just done the slow and steady method of beating them with a hammer. As we begin to shed our leaves with the trees and begin our descent into warmer, richer and deeper foods that will nourish and sustain us in the coming cold months I particularly like it in this adaptation of a walnut cake. The original recipe was adapted from Gourmet magazine and I have further adapted it from Smitten Kitchen. I’ve adapted it to make it lower in the sugar and gluten department and of course we’re using wild walnuts in this recipe. Rich in protein and fat plus trace minerals like manganese, phosphorous and zinc this walnut cake is nourishing and even a little bit healthy. The jam can be anything but this time of year I especially like elderberry jam,
and if you’re lucky fig jam.
1 1/4 cups walnut, toasted
1/2 cup honey
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 cup rye flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice (optional)
1/2 cup elderberry or fig jam
2/3 cup chilled heavy cream
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour an 8-inch round cake pan, best if it has one of the cool, removable bottoms.
Pulse cooled walnuts and in a food processor until finely chopped. Cream butter and honey, then add eggs and vanilla. Add to walnuts and process until combined. Add flour, baking powder, and salt and pulse just until incorporated. Spread batter in cake pan.
Bake until cake is just firm to the touch and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes in pan, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
Whisk lemon juice (if using) into jam. Spoon jam over cake.
Beat heavy cream with sour cream and vanilla until it holds soft peaks, then spoon over jam. Try not to eat the whole thing all at once.