It’s hard to find good black walnuts that are ready to use. I sometimes find them at farmers markets, church bazaars, or in the classified ads, but somebody else usually gets there first and they’re all gone by time I arrive. I usually end up shopping in a health food store or the Stringtown Grocery near Kalona, where they are much fresher and considerably cheaper than those bitty little packages in the grocery store.
My husband’s aunt gave me a recipe for black walnut cake that, when I bake it, seldom turns out as flavorful as hers. She cooked on a wood-burning stove all her life and that just might have something to do with the wonderful flavor of her cake. The fact that she used nuts that had been picked up under the trees on their farm; husked, dried, and cracked them herself, spending many winter evenings picking out the nut meats from those hard, rough shells might have more to do with it. The few times I’ve tried making that cake with store-bought nuts, I had to cheat by adding black walnut flavoring to the cake batter. I got a stronger flavor, but not quite the same as Aunt Esther’s.
When we lived in town, I sometimes took my kids to the woods on sunny fall days to pick up walnuts soon after they’d fallen to the ground. These we dried between two old window screens in the garage until the husks came off easily, then washed them so that our hands wouldn’t be permanently dyed from handling them. (I remember my dad putting them through a hand-operated corn sheller and washing them in a ;portable cement mixer.) At first, my kids were relatively enthusiastic about cracking the nuts with a hammer on the concrete basement floor and picking out the tender nut meats, but once they had eaten their fill, they were uninterested in picking out more for me to bake cakes and cookies with, or to stir into fudge at just the right time.
Then we moved to the country and I found myself with our lane bordered by about a dozen mature walnut trees, and several more scattered through the timber near our house. The first year, my sons were enthusiastic about all the new adventures and projects they encountered with this new country life. They eagerly gathered bags of nuts and we put them between some old window screens supported by saw-horses, just as we had in town. I didn’t, however, consider the squirrel population in our grove– considerably greater than in our Iowa City neighborhood. The walnuts seemed to be drying out nicely at first. Then, one morning I looked out and noticed the screens seemed to be a bit askew. When I walked out for a closer look I was astonished to find the screening torn away from the frames and only a few of the walnuts remaining.
I had initially considered the possibility of squirrels stealing the walnuts, but as abundant numbers of walnuts had fallen on the ground around the trees where the squirrels were used to finding them, I’d mistakenly predicted they wouldn’t bother with mine, which were out of their sight in an open shed. I gathered more nuts and tried again, this time covering the screens with heavy, half-inch hardware cloth and wiring the frames together. Then, not having access to a hand-operated corn sheller, I adopted one of my mother’s methods of getting the blackened husks off the nuts. She had scattered them in the driveway where she would run over them with her car every time she drove in or out. Our driveway was covered with crushed rock just like hers was and, since the squirrels had given up on filching my walnuts, I figured they’d be safe for a day or two. Guess what. It rained. And it rained. The driveway became soft and, those twice-a-day visits of the school bus (much heavier than my car) pressed the walnuts deep into the soft ground where I imagine they still remain – preserved in stone like the city of Pompeii.
So much for trying to do it the lazy way.
The next year, I donned rubber gloves and husked the walnuts the old-fashioned way, with my hands and a big wire brush. It didn’t take so very long after all, and I had a nice pile of nuts that I didn’t have to share with the squirrels. Nobody seemed very interested in helping with the cracking and picking-out parts, though, and after a couple more years I gave up the project in favor of more useful ways to spend my time. I found other sources for decent walnuts when I was in the mood to bake with them, and I still keep a bottle of walnut flavoring in my cupboard in case the ones I buy aren’t quite up to standard. The walnuts fall all over the yard and driveway every fall and not a one ever stays there until spring. We have lots of well-fed squirrels.