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Mountain Home Magazine

Aunt Marie's Black Walnut Cake

Every few seconds, I ducked as the green balls thudded down around me, thrown off by the two towering black walnut trees on our farm in Sugar Run. As they bounced with varying velocity down the hill, I wondered why no one ever picked them up. Maybe I’ll make a black walnut cake, just like Aunt Marie used to do, I thought. And, just like that, my adventure began.

With bucket in hand, I once again braved the falling missiles, ready to gather enough nuts for several cakes. In flashbacks to childhood, I saw black walnuts lying in the two tire tracks of our dirt driveway, waiting for the car to run over them. I chose a more immediate hull-removal method, stepping on older blackened balls and twisting my foot until the hulls broke loose from the nuts. In a little over an hour, two buckets of hulled, wet nuts sat on the front porch to dry. I could almost smell black walnut cake.

A few days later, ready to start cracking, I found two bucketfuls of molded nuts! Disappointed, but determined, I gathered and hulled again. This time, I washed and scrubbed each nut individually, taking off pieces of hull clinging to the hard, jagged shell. Not taking any chances, I laid each nut on a drying rack making sure they didn’t touch each other, the better to dry properly. With blisters on both thumbs, four hours into the process, and black hands that lasted for days, memories of Aunt Marie urged me on.

Time to crack! With the first whack of the hammer, the uncracked nut flew left out of reach. Another whack, and the second uncracked nut popped equidistant to the right. There must be a better way, I thought, holding a nut with pliers this time. Whack! Whack! Whack! WHACK! Finally, my first nut cracked open, but not like those wonderfully easy to open English walnuts we crack at Christmas time (first try, and two perfectly shaped halves ready to pop out of the shell). Apparently, black walnuts are the Fort Knox of nuts, nearly impossible to get into and equally impossible to get precious goods out of!

If the nut cracked into two halves, tiny, intricate labyrinths clung tightly to the nutmeat making it difficult to pick out pieces any bigger than a baby aspirin. Cracking the half again smashed the meat, leaving black walnut crumbs. I moved inside, watching videos of two people and one squirrel, desperate to learn from experts. All three made it look easy; it wasn’t.

So, for the next two hours, I whacked, whacked, whacked, picked, over and over and over, only driven forward by a promise to honor the memory of my aunt. With sweat pouring down my back, heart pounding like I’d run a five minute mile, and teeth clenched in desperate defiance of defeat, I finally swirled the tiny nuggets of black walnut gold around in the dish, and laid my hammer down. After seven total hours of effort, I had gathered enough black walnut pieces to make my cake. I was triumphant!

The day before baking “The Cake,” I visited with Aunt Marie’s sister and two daughters. Launching into my woes of black walnut harvesting, I proudly proclaimed my reason for persevering: “Because Aunt Marie always made black walnut cakes that way.” Total silence followed until they laughed in unison, “She never made black walnut cakes, she made hickory nut cakes!”

I never made the cake. I did make delicious black walnut cookies that could only be shared with my husband and very close friends, who were warned to bite lightly to avoid pieces of whacked shell impossible to see before baking. With free material and minimum wage, my nuts cost a whopping $106 per pound compared to a ridiculously reasonable price of $15 per pound at Amazon. I flung my remaining uncracked nuts into the woods where they belonged—with all those squirrel experts who know what they’re doing.

Aunt Marie made hickory nut cakes? Maybe next year...

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