Martha was my next door neighbor when I was growing up in rural Lancaster County Pennsylvania. I didn’t know much about cooking back then, but we kids always enjoyed having lunches together in Martha’s kitchen. The radio was always on and supper preparations were usually already well under way with wonderful aromas wafting over the kitchen table. The whole idea of cooking and the pleasures of those long gone lunches have lingered and helped shape in their own way my own passion for food and cooking.
Every fall, October-November, we kids would help Martha collect the walnuts that fell from the black walnut trees in front of our houses. To us they looked like leathery decomposing green balls with an intense acrid odor that were begging to be thrown at one another. Black walnut trees are native to North America as apposed to the milder English walnut trees that produce larger nuts that are commonly found in the shops. Shelled black walnuts are smaller and have a more intense walnut flavor. I urge you to seek them out. If you don’t have a source where you live they are available on line. If that is not an option, toasted English walnuts will do in a pinch, though there really is no comparison.
Once the walnuts were gathered they were put in an oblong rectangular wooden tray with a wire mesh screen bottom. The walnuts were then put up to cure until the green skin blackened and was soft enough to pull away revealing the hard black walnut inside. This was a very messy business and wearing rubber gloves was a must to avoid badly stained hands.
The hulled nuts were then set out to dry for several days before cracking the shells with a hammer and meticulously removing the walnut’s meat. Very tedious work that we kids usually quickly lost interest in, leaving Martha to finish the harvesting on her own.
However all of the laborious preparations paid off when digging into a slice of Martha’s gloriously delicious black walnut cake!
I make Martha’s black walnut cake every fall and revisit those fond memories from my childhood in Martha’s kitchen.
For this recipe all I have is a penciled list of Martha’s ingredients and my own recollections.
Martha’s Black Walnut Cake:
- 4 ½ ounces / 128 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 ½ cups flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup chopped black walnuts
Preheat the oven to 350 f/ 180 c
Prepare two well buttered 9 or 10 inch round layer cake pans, or buttered and lined with a circular parchment paper.
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium high speed until fluffy. This may take 4 or 5 minutes.
With the mixer running add one egg at a time and mixing until fully incorporated. Add the second and third egg, again mixing each until fully incorporated.
In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and stir until combined.
With the mixer set on low speed begin adding a third of the flour mixture alternately with an equal part of the milk and mixing until combined before adding the second and third additions of flour mixture and milk. Try not to over mix the batter so it retains its airiness.
Stop the mixer and add the walnuts. Stir the walnuts in in by hand until evenly distributed.
Spoon the cake batter evenly into the prepared cake pans. Giggle the pans slightly to even out the batter.
Transfer the pans to the oven and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. Test by sticking a skewer into the center of the cake. If the skewer comes out clean the cake is done. Keep an eye on the timing so the cake is not over baked which will dry it out.
Transfer the cake pans to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature while you make the frosting.
Fluffy White Mountain Frosting:
Don’t be skeptical about making a cooked frosting. This is a tried and true Fannie Farmer recipe that never fails. I like the light fresh taste of this frosting that compliments the flavor of the black walnuts perfectly.
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tarter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 3 egg whites
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- ¾ cup chopped black walnuts
Combine the sugar, water, cream of tartar and salt in a stainless saucepan set over medium high heat. As the mixture heats up swirl the pan to mix the ingredients. Let the mixture come to a boil, swirling the pan now and again, until the mixture is completely clear- about 4 or 5 minutes. Put the lid on the pan and let cook another minute.
Uncover and attache a candy thermometer to the pan being sure the tip does not touch the bottom of the pan. Let the syrup continue to boil uncovered until the temperature reaches 240 f /115 c .
Meanwhile, using a stand mixer, beat the egg whites in the chilled bowl until stiff moist white peaks form. When the syrup is ready, continue beating at medium high speed and pouring the syrup into the egg whites in a slow steady stream. Continue beating for a couple more minutes until the frosting has cooled a little and stiff enough to stand in peaks. Beat in the vanilla.
At this point the frosting is ready for spreading.
For this cake you can frost the cake and then garnish with chopped black walnuts or simply stir the chopped walnuts into the frosting as I have done.
You will have some frosting left which you can cover and refrigerate for a week or so.
Ideally use a cake storage container for storage so the frosting is undisturbed.
Serve at room temperature!