My mom’s hickory nut cake was the best. It was moist and nutty.
It was a supreme labor of love. Hickory nut cakes don’t come out of a box. They are created over a long period of time.
An old gnarled shaggy-bark hickory tree grew behind our barn across the creek. It stood alone in the middle of the pasture. When other trees surrounding it were sacrificed for wood or to clear the way for more farm ground, someone spared the hickory tree. After a hard frost the nuts would begin to fall to the ground and my mother and I and sometimes my brother would trek back to the tree and gather them. Some already had worm holes. We tossed those out into the field so we wouldn’t pick them up again. We placed the good nuts in an old bucket and hauled them back to the house. Upstairs in the old spare bedroom, Mom would spread out newspapers on the floor and scatter the nuts on the paper to dry out. There was no heat upstairs and that was important; the nuts needed to be kept in a cool, dry place.
Some evenings after supper, Mom would head upstairs to crack hickory nuts. She had an old brick and a hammer and had done this for so many years, she knew exactly where to hit the nut to make it crack in half. She would crack a bowlful of nuts, but not too many because picking the nuts out of the cracked shells took a long time. She only cracked as many as she could pick in one evening. After cracking the nuts, she would use a darning needle to carefully pry the nutmeats out of the shell and then she would place these in a separate bowl. The cracked shells were eventually taken to the basement and burned in our wood burning stove. The sweet smell of burning hickory wood or hickory nuts is like no other fragrance. The freshly picked nutmeats were then placed in the refrigerator.
Sometimes if it were really cold outside and really cold upstairs, mom would bring everything downstairs and would work in the living room while we watched TV or did our homework. Eventually she determined that she had enough hickory nuts for her recipe, and nut-picking would be over for another year. I always tried to help but never developed the skill that she had in cracking and picking the nuts. Somehow she would always manage to pick enough perfect “halves” to adorn the top of the cakes she made.
Hickory nut cakes were for special occasions. We usually had one for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. If it were a good year and mom had time to pick lots of nuts, she would have one for her birthday in February, too. It was a cake made from scratch. A white cake with chopped hickory nuts in the batter, homemade caramel icing made with lots of brown sugar and butter, and topped with perfectly picked hickory nut halves. Quite a treat. Even as a child, I understood all the work that went into a cake like that. We were always careful not to waste even a crumb.
My husband and I bought an Amish farm in the 1980’s with a small stand of woods on the south east side of the farm. I loved this woods because it was not too far off the road and was clean and easy to walk through. I was delighted to find not one but several hickory nut trees in the woods. I am not as dedicated as my mother was, though. I have gathered them over the years but never found the time to crack and pick, let alone make a cake from scratch. In my mind, I planned on changing this when I retired. But the first year I retired was wet and mucky and I got there too late … the squirrels and other critters had taken the nuts. The second year of retirement I had knee replacement surgery and I was in no shape to go traipsing through the woods.
I headed back a few weeks ago with my new knee and my plastic bag and discovered that my timing was perfect. I was able to collect quite a few nuts, although many of them were wormy I still may have enough to make a cake. They are spread out on newspapers, upstairs, in an unheated room awaiting my brick, my hammer, and my darning needle.
Hickory Nut Cake
3/4 cup shortening
2/3/4 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 Cup nut meats
1/1/2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 egg whites, beaten
Cream Shortening with sugar. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, cream of tartar together. Add to the mixture alternating with milk. Beat thoroughly. Add flavorings and nuts. Fold in egg whites. Bake 30 -40 minutes @ 375 degrees. Use a 13 x 9 x 2 pan or two 8″ round pans for a layer cake.