1.5.12 Totally Nuts

Black walnut in shell 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife
I am officially obsessed with black walnuts. It may be some sort of genetic thing. As far back as I can remember, my mother was always craving black walnut ice cream. It used to make an occasional appearance at our local ice cream parlor in Santa Cruz, but since that heyday it seems to have completely fallen off their still impressive roster of flavors. Were she still alive, I could now proudly present my mom with a bowl of the stuff, made by me from walnuts gathered on a friend's land. This particular wild-crafted version may have been a one-time thing, though. Why? you ask. Well, that would be because of the incredibly labor-intensive ordeal it is to process black walnuts. After we'd endured it, we discovered that these nuts can actually be purchased at nutsonline for a mere $13 a pound. Shelled. By hand. (They must have some illegal Guatemalan children doing the work.) Anyway, G doesn't agree, but I think it was worth the effort. Full disclosure: He did most of it. But the ice cream was incredible. Divine. The best yet. Made with a recipe from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, of course.
Husks 790 xxx
in their green husks they look a bit like tennis balls
The Eastern black walnut, julans nigra, is a species of flowering tree in the walnut family that's native to eastern North America. It's a forest tree, also cultivated for its high quality wood. The extraction of the kernel from the fruit of the black walnut is legendarily difficult. It has a thick, hard husk that it easiest removed when green and pliable.
Moldy shells 790 xxx
left to their own devices, they can turn black and moldy
If you don't remove them when green, they turn black and can begin to mold. Apparently this affects the flavor of the nut as well, giving it even more cheesy, fermented notes. I'm not sure if this is true, since we did two batches—one green and one black— and I didn't separate them. Either way, they were all delicious.
Black shells 790 xxx
something's rotten
G said it was horrible to remove the husks once they had gone all black and soft. There was a gooey reside that stuck to the ridged shells despite much brushing with wire bristles.
Gloves 790 xxx
show me the glove
Industrial-strength gloves are essential any time you're dealing with black walnuts to contend with their deeply staining pigments and tannins. They exude a brownish-black dye that was used by early American settlers to dye hair. This natural dye is still used for handicrafts and as a wood stain and dark ink. (Scroll down here to see artist Michael Capotosto's mural painted with black walnut oil on my friend Scott's wall.)
Vise 790 xxx
vise squad
G got a special table vise to remove the husks. This is the first step of the process, after you've collected the walnuts from the ground, where they fall from the tree when they're ripe.
Newly shelled 790 xxx
newly shelled
The thick hard shell is tightly bound to the husk by very deep ridges. Once removed, the nuts must be left to dry in their shells for several weeks. You can crack one open periodically to monitor the progress.
Shelling 790 xxx
vise president
When the nuts were dry, G brought them inside, attached the vise to a bench in front of the fireplace, and proceeded to crack all the shells. (The mess it made almost gave me an anxiety attack.) Then the two of us sat there for many, many hours and picked the nut meats out. This is where a large family would be quite useful; a passel of kids, say, or even a few spinster aunts with idle time on their hands.
Black walnut shells 790 xxx
a tough nut to crack
Black walnut shells are not only much, much harder than English (Persian) walnuts, they are also much more furled and complicated inside. We used slender nut picks and all sorts of tools plucked from my arsenal of manicure supplies. This is the type of work from which you can go blind. I have to admit, I find this sort of thing rather fun.
Shelled walnuts 790 xxx
go nuts
Once out, the nuts came to a paltry 4 or 5 cups. But their flavor goes such a long way. I know I've already waxed poetic about them, but you have to try black walnuts to appreciate how unique they are. Rich, complex, musky, winey, sweet, umami. Jeni describes them as having "notes of honey, celery leaves, vanilla and wine with a lush, fragrant finish."
Black walnut ice cream 790 xxx
died and gone to heaven
And combined with cream? Nirvana. On Christmas Eve, we ate black walnut ice cream with a pear upside-down cake. A few days later, G and I polished off the rest draped in bittersweet chocolate sauce. That was perfection. But the cake was pretty good, too. I probably won't make it again because it's a little too "white" for me, but you might like to try it.
Pears 790 xxx
perfect pears
I used this recipe from Karen DeMasco, pastry chef at Locanda Verde (and, formerly, Craft) who has a way with all things sweet and baked.
Pre baking 790 xxx
fancy, but easy
You make some caramel (or, like me, use some coconut caramel from a jar you have on hand), artfully arrange some juicy slices of pear on top and pour a cornmeal-enriched cake batter over that.
Cooling cake 790 xxx
cool off
It's incredibly simple. The cake is pleasantly dense and not too sweet, the caramel seeps into the top layer and the pears give it a glamorous look.
Pear upside down cake 790 xxx
right side up
For us, though, the cake was really an under-appreciated foil for that ice cream. Black walnuts are just that powerful. I like to think my mother stirred in her grave.I believe this is the first time I've posted one of Jeni's recipes for you. She has a very particular way of making ice cream that uses no eggs, but almost always incorporates a little cream cheese and a couple of tablespoons of corn syrup. These make a huge difference in the texture. You will be truly amazed at how smooth and creamy your ice cream turns out.

Jeni's Black Walnut Divinity Ice Cream

from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home
makes about 1 quart
  • — 1 1/4 cups organic heavy cream
  • — 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • — 1.5 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
  • — 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • — 2 cups organic whole milk
  • — 1 cups black walnuts
  • — 2/3 cup sugar
  • — 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

PREP: Preheat oven to 350º. Spread walnuts out in one layer on a baking sheet. Toast in oven until just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

Grind ½ cup of the warm walnuts in the food processor until they become a smooth paste. Reserve the remaining walnuts. Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.

Whisk cream cheese, black walnut paste and salt in a medium bowl until smooth.

Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

COOK: Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry.

Bring mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

CHILL: Gradually whisk hot milk mixture into cream cheese mixture until smooth.

Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge bag in an ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

FREEZE: Pour ice cream base into frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy.

Pack ice cream into a storage container, folding in the remaining black walnuts as you go. Press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface and seal with airtight lid. Freeze in coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Download recipe  Download Recipe

Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce

makes about 1 cup
  • — 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • — 8 ounces best quality bittersweet chocolate, like Askinosie or Scharffen Berger
  • — 1 cup organic heavy cream
  • — generous pinch fine sea salt

Coarsely chop the chocolate.

In a medium saucepan, heat the cream just until small bubbles appear around the edge. Remove from the heat, add the chopped chocolate and let stand for 1 minute. Add the vanilla and salt, and whisk until smooth. Best served warm.

Keep refrigerated in a glass jar. To reheat, remove lid and place jar in a small saucepan with water coming up about halfway. Heat over medium flame until sauce liquifies.

Download recipe  Download Recipe


This cracked me up. What a nightmare! George really is a good man!
Lisa on January 5, 2012 at 2:48 am —
Yep. Your mom would be proud.
laura on January 5, 2012 at 3:01 am —
http://snapbamsplat.blogspot.com/2010/09/two-cats-and-sea-lion.html I used Walnut ink, made by Tom Norton Design, in a few watercolors I did last winter. Such a beautiful color! It is re-wetable and acts a lot like watercolor in some ways. I plan on making my own ink soon. Will be a great feeling to use every part of the walnut and use these recipes!
Jim on January 5, 2012 at 4:38 am —
I just ordered some black walnuts. David had wanted to make black walnut shortbread for a while! Thanks!
Rob on January 5, 2012 at 4:48 am —
laura on January 5, 2012 at 5:04 am —
I'll look forward to that post...
laura on January 5, 2012 at 5:04 am —
My mother and my grandmother both loved black walnut ice-cream with chocolate sauce. Must be a Chavez thing.
Fred on January 5, 2012 at 9:11 am —
I love that fact! I knew it was hereditary! Thanks for sharing, cousin!
laura on January 5, 2012 at 10:08 am —
This post is total sensory overload. I don't know what to look at, imagine tasting or smelling, or ponder first. Wonderful. We have black walnuts around here,too, but I've never braved the process. And, thanks to your detailed evocation, may not want to, though you never know. But what, pray tell, is "coconut caramel"? You kind of threw that one away, but it sounds like it merits explanation.
Paige Orloff on January 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm —
Paige, coconut caramel is like a dulce de leche made from coconut milk. I discovered it at the fabulous pan-Asian market in Flushing mentioned in this post. I think the jar I have is from Thailand, but I bet you could easily make your own version by cooking coconut milk and palm sugar together. It's pretty delicious.
laura on January 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm —
A "paltry" 4 or 5 cups! That's a whole lotta black walnut love! My favorite nut, much like stinging nettles are my favorite green. Super description of process, guts, flavor and rewards. Yes, ice cream is the perfect raft to float them in. The only word I choked on was spinster-eek! Thanks for championing this concentrated treasure. Love the vise--brilliant George!
Anne Watkins on January 6, 2012 at 5:17 am —
Anne, words like "passel" and "spinster" are just my addled attempt at wry humor. All the single ladies get endless love here. xo
laura on January 6, 2012 at 9:27 am —
happy new year, lovely. must be telepathy as i was thinking of visiting your blog today and then appeared a comment from you! hope you are well. what a labour of love it is to peel these black walnuts- and that pear cake looks delicious. i love this Italian liqueur- nocino, made from green walnuts, i am wondering if some sort of digestivo can be made from these black walnuts. such beautiful photos, Laura. x s
s on January 6, 2012 at 10:22 am —
I'm familiar with nocino, but don't know of anything similar with black walnuts—although I've heard they can be pickled in the shell!
laura on January 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm —
I must have felt sensitive for lack of ice cream.
Anne Watkins on January 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm —
It will be a while before I can try this out, but I can't wait. I really love the ice cream recipe. Cream cheese! And I love that you described the black walnut situation in details. You guys are heroic! One of my favorite things to do as a child was to "feed" the squirrels walnuts, a long arduous task that filled my eight-year old days with purpose.
julia on January 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm —
Love that image of you. We awaken every day to a squirrel convention around the bird feeder behind our bedroom window. Let me know how you like the ice cream...
laura on January 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm —
Goodness, so much work! My Great Uncle ( and now me) would just wait until they turned black on the ground, tumble them in the cement mixer, and crack them from there! The "Black Walnut" cracker was much heartier than any other nut cracker, I admit! We had black walnut taffy as well as ice cream! they are a bit bitter. Today I am using the fruit to dye wool! Enjoy!
kris on April 9, 2013 at 8:49 pm —
Cement mixer! Dye wool! Two great ideas...
laura on April 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm —