Martha was our next door neighbor when we were 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 usually on and supper preparations were already well under way, so there were usually some enticing aromas wafting above the kitchen table. The whole idea of cooking and the pleasures of those long gone lunches have lingered and shaped my own thoughts about food and cooking.
Every fall, around late October or early 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 icky leathery decomposing green balls with a gross acrid odor that were begging to be kicked at one another. Of course what was encased inside those retched balls were Martha’s prized cache of black walnuts that would later be baked into her sublime black walnut cakes.
What we didn’t know then was that those Black walnuts that fell from our trees were from native north American black walnut trees. Black walnuts have a unique assertive flavor unlike the larger milder English walnuts that are commonly found in baked goods and in the baking section of your local grocery stores. Shelled black walnuts are smaller and have a distinctly unique walnut flavor all their own. I urge you to seek them out for this recipe that follows. If you don’t have a source where you live, they are available online. If that is not an option, toasted English walnuts will do in a pinch, though there really is no comparison.
Back home, once our walnuts were gathered up we put them in an oblong rectangular wooden tray with a wire mesh screen bottom. The walnuts were then put up to air cure until the green skin blackened and was soft enough to pull away revealing the hard black walnut nestled inside. This was very messy business and wearing rubber gloves was a must to avoid having sticky black stained hands.
The hulled walnuts were then set out to cure for several days before cracking the shells with a small hammer and meticulously removing the prized walnuts inside. This was very tedious work that we kids usually quickly lost interest in, leaving Martha to finish the harvesting all on
That said, all the laborious preparations do pay off handsomely once you are digging into a slice of Martha’s gloriously moist and delicious black walnut cake. I try to make Martha’s black walnut cake every fall so I can revisit those fond memories from my childhood spent in Martha’s kitchen all over again.
For this recipe I have referenced a penciled recipe from Martha herself along with some of my own recollections.
Martha’s Black Walnut Cake:
- 4 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cup chopped black walnuts
- confectioners sugar for dusting.
Preheat the oven to 350 f/ 180 c
Prepare a 9 or 10 inch round or a 13 x 9 inch rectangular baking pan, buttered and the bottom lined with parchment paper.
Using either a stand mixer or a hand mixer and large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Then add one egg at a time, mixing in each until combined into the butter sugar mixture. Then beat in the vanilla.
In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, 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.
Then using a silicone spoon fold in the walnuts by hand until evenly distributed throughout the batter.
Spoon the cake batter evenly into the prepared baking pan. Shake the pans slightly to even out the batter.
Transfer the pan to the preheated oven and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes. Test by inserting 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 pan to a wire rack and allow to cool to room temperature.
When the cake has cooled you can place a plate over the baking pan. Then, holding both the plate and the pan together, flip them over and remove the baking pan. Gently peal off the parchment and let the cake cool a bit longer.
When you are ready to serve, dust the walnut cake with confectioners sugar and serve.
You can store the cake, tightly sealed with cling film at room temperature for several days, or refrigerated for up to a week. However, from my experiences, this cake is not going linger much past when first served! Everyone’s going to want seconds!