One of my fondest childhood memories was born at this time of year. As the days grew shorter and cooler and as the scent of autumn leaves filled the air at my family’s home in Howard County, a black walnut hunt was usually in the offing.
After breakfast, my mom would go out to shop, and my dad would take me and my brother Ivan on a hike in the “back field,” what was then an open sloping ground where my grandfather grew strawberries, string beans, potatoes and corn.
We each carried small paper bags along with walking sticks that we found along previous hikes — mostly for aesthetic value, but especially useful when crossing the stream to the pine grove behind our home. Beyond that area was relatively young forest and a place we termed “the sand dunes,” where Ivan and I once found our childhood dog, a mutt that we named Austin.
After taking a break to snack on a small tin of sardines and saltine crackers, we walked south of the field, emerging to a clearing bearing a majestic tree, void of most leaves at the time, but where dozens and dozens of black walnuts still clung, not quite ready to drop to the ground.
Dad, Ivan and I got busy, eagerly gathering enough walnuts to fill our sacks. Once our bags were full, we’d head back the way we came, typically taking turns crafting imaginary tales, until reaching home, where we would combine our walnuts into larger paper bags that were stored in a cool place to give the hulls time to dry.
Although black walnuts can be freed of their soft green or brown hulls immediately — and that may be the easiest option, our family often let the skins dry over a short time. After that, we had a stash of organic, healthful nuts to enjoy — as long as we were able to crack open the extremely hard shells.
For this task, my dad used an ordinary hammer from his tool box. I remember the pinging sound of the crack as he split open a walnut on top of a brick. I was just as happy using one brick against another to open mine, being careful not to crush the meat inside, or my fingers.
Black walnuts are labor intensive and not easily cracked. But that was part of the enjoyment, as we each got busy at different spots in the garage, striking the shells, trying to outdo each other to expose the largest single nut of the day. Afterward, we would enjoy making fudge brownies and chocolate chip cookies packed with black walnuts, or even a sweet and crunchy black walnut brittle.
The flavor is much more intense than English walnuts — I scoff at the prospect of eating those to this day. My favorite is a slightly shriveled black walnut, which has a mellow sweetness and a taste that never fails to bring me home.
Karl Merton Ferron is a photographer for The Baltimore Sun.
Black walnut tips
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, black walnut trees are common in Maryland and have a life span of up to 250 years. The trees most often germinate from nuts buried by squirrels.
Wait until the green skin turns brown. The nut is still evolving. Store in paper bag, not plastic, since the nuts need to breathe.
The shells are hard to crack. Black walnuts have a very tough shell. Using a hammer or a brick to open the nut usually works but requires skill and attention to safety. If possible, you should use gloved hands to remove the hulls while they are moist or wet, when tender and green.
Beware of the pitch inside (it does dry), which can cause deep stains. Seriously, you do not want these stains. Use old gloves and be careful not to track anything into the house.
Black Walnut Banana Bread
Recipe courtesy of Hammons, black-walnut.com
1 cup sugar
½ cup shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 bananas, mashed
½ cup black walnuts
Dash of salt
2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
Preheat oven to 350°F, grease a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.
Mix sugar, shortening, eggs, and vanilla thoroughly; add mashed bananas and black walnuts, then dry ingredients. Bake 1 hour.
Black Walnut Cake
Serves 12 to 16
2 cups white sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened
4 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 to 1 1/2 cups chopped black walnuts (not too small)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour well a large tube pan. This cake rises very high.
In a large bowl, cream sugar and butter until you cannot feel granules of sugar when rubbed between fingers and mix is of a very pale color (about 4 minutes). Add egg yolks and vanilla and mix well.
In a smaller bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Add flour mixture and milk alternately to sugar/yolk mixture. Stir each addition until just blended. Don’t over-mix or the cake will become tough. Beat egg whites until very foamy but not at all stiff. Gently fold into batter, lifting mixture to allow air into batter.
Mix in the black walnuts just until they are fully incorporated but don’t flatten batter.
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Bake for 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (Oven times vary so start checking doneness after 45 minutes). Cool on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and allow to cool completely on rack before storing. The cake tastes better the next day after walnuts have fully released their flavor.