Though they seldom appear on standard lists and menus, black walnuts are both growing on today trees and widely available for purchase in supermarket produce sections and by mail order. Even back when they were familiar as a Southern pantry ingredient for baking and sweets, buying them shelled was common practice and shelling them for sale a good little home-based business, given the ordeal of extracting the treasure from the proverbial tough nut to crack. I remember their distinctive flavor from my childhood. I loved them in fudge or in pound cakes, and most likely encountered them only at big gatherings at Christmastime and June family reunions, when the old-school cooks presented their fine handiwork and watched it disappear. Until I began working on Southern Pies, I had never had black walnuts in a pie. For today’s pie, I picked up a bottle of Karo syrup at the grocery store and followed the pecan pie recipe on the label, using 1 1/2 cups of black walnuts in place of the pecans. The pie came out wonderfully, and the combination of earthy black walnuts and silken chess-pie filling made for a worthy autumn dessert. Fortunately for me, it was meeting night, and since we still have apple pie in the cupboard at home, I carried most of the black walnut pie out to church, where my fellow Racial Reconciliation Ministry members pronounced it worthy indeed. Few of these brand-new fans of black walnut pie had come across these nuts before, but judging from the condition of my pie plate (almost shiny-clean, with naught but a scattering of crumbs and a wavelet or two of syrup), they would like very much to hear of them again. I can do that. My supermarket here in central North Carolina carries black walnuts in the produce section throughout the cool weather months (baking season), but if you don’t find them easily, check the major national source, Hammons of Stockton, Missouri, for mail order information. <www.black-walnuts.com>. (888) 429-6887.
Black Walnut Pie
I adapted this recipe from a pecan pie recipe currently on the label on bottles of Karo Dark Corn Syrup.
1 unbaked deep-dish 9-inch piecrust
1 cup dark corn syrup
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups black walnuts (about 6 ounces)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Stir together the syrup, eggs, sugar, melted butter, and vanilla in a medium bowl, using a fork or a whisk to combine everything smoothly, evenly and well. Mix in the black walnuts and stir well. Pour this filling into the piecrust and bake in the center of the 350 degree F oven, until the filling is puffed up and fairly firm, with a little softeness remaining in the very center, 45 to 60 minutes. Place on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool for two hours.