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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Hickory Nut Cake


Memorial Day is upon us, so I thought it would be fun to dive right in to some American culinary history, featuring one of our many indigenous trees that just happen to produce some delicious nuts. The Americas are home to many different kinds of trees, and the nuts of said trees can be foraged at no cost to you, other than a simple "please" to the owner of the land that you're on. I've got a neighbor that has a hickory tree and an oak tree, so they let me gather nuts and acorns as I please. In return, I like to bake them some cookies every so often, or - if you like - a delicious cake, such as this one. Remember, a neighborhood full of victory gardens is made even better when you share your bounty; so be good and share and share alike!


Hickory Nut Cake
Recipe adapted to be dairy-free from American Cake by Anne Byrd
  • 11 oz all-purpose flour
  • 4 oz tapioca starch
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • A fat pinch of kosher salt
  • 8 oz vegan butter
    • I like Earth Balance, but you can - of course - use dairy butter if that's what you have
  • 14 oz granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 c almond milk
  • 1 tsp good vanilla extract
    • I like this Mexican vanilla from Global Goods Inc. Use code "LFVanilla" to get 30% off!
  • 1 c hickory nuts, chopped
    • If you can't find any, you can use walnuts instead!
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Take a 10" tube pan and butter and flour it liberally. Don't skip this step, and don't be skimpy on the flouring of this tin. The cake batter will rise and will need something to cling to!

Sift together all of your dry ingredients and set aside in a bowl. Separate your eggs, and set those aside. Combine your milk, lemon juice, and vanilla extract into a container and set aside. Grab yourself a large bowl and a long spatula, and set that aside as well. 

Cream the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer on medium for 2 minutes and then on high for another 2 minutes. Lower the speed to medium-high and add your sugar, a few spoonfuls at a time, until all but 2 oz of it are left in your container. Let that mix until sugar is completely incorporated, and add in your egg yolks, one at a time. Scrape all of that goodness into your large bowl and give your mixing bowl a quick wash with soap and water. 

Using your spatula, stir in your flour mixture, alternating with your milk mixture, until everything is just incorporated. Go slow, as you're stirring by hand, and you don't want to overwork it. Take the remaining sugar and your 4 egg whites into your now clean mixing bowl and whip it with a whisk attachment on high until stiff and glossy peaks form and the mixture has tripled in volume. Fold in your egg whites gently in thirds. Fold in your chopped nuts as gently as you can, as you don't want to knock out all that lovely air.

Pour your batter into your prepared mold and smooth the surface. Bake at 350 for 55 - 60 minutes, never opening the oven until the 45-minute mark hits. Then, you may open your oven and rotate your pan once, and let finish cooking. Err on going towards the 60-minute mark, as this cake can be a little doughy if not cooked well enough. You want your cake to be a nice golden-brown, and to have a lovely crack going down the middle of the cake. While we're waiting for the cake to bake, let's learn a little bit about the hickory nut and the history of this cake! 

Hickory nuts come from - you guessed it - hickory trees. We here in the midwest are more than familiar with hickory wood, as it's incredibly popular to use for BBQ smoking. Hickory also makes beautiful furniture. Their nuts are a little bit of a pain to harvest, and the nutmeats are small, but they're quite buttery and delicious. They grow quite fervently here in America, so you'll likely not have a problem finding a neighbor that'll be happy to get them off their lawn. If you don't have a hickory tree, nor a neighbor with a hickory tree, I highly recommend heading over to Burnt Ridge Nursery, an awesome small business, that has hickory nuts in stock!

The hickory nut cake was specifically a favorite of President James Polk. Although the civil war began years after his presidency, this cake was still popular during that time, where not every township had a proper general store that was able to get regular shipments of walnuts or pecans during the war, and most folks wouldn't mind sending their youngins out to the field to gather nuts and acorns for supper. Through necessity comes ingenuity, and the classic tube cake shape was a great way to ensure a cake was going to rise instead of falling flat in a simple circular cake pan. The civil war is timely now not just because we're in a pandemic and every day feels like an episode of Little House on the Prairie, but because Memorial Day is coming up next weekend and that holiday was established to honor the fallen of the Civil War. You can find all sorts of fun tidbits of information on Memorial Day here. Is it a bit of a reach, just to justify making a cake? Sure; but who cares? You learn something and you get to eat some delicious cake. It's a win-win.

If you are curious, or if you still have a few minutes before your cake is done, check out this fellow here, teaching you all about hickory nuts and what to do with them.



Is your cake done yet?

Remove from the oven and let cool on the rack, right-side-up, for 20 minutes. After that timer's gone off, turn your cake tin upside-down and let cool entirely. Most tube pans have feet that will help give air between the surface of the cake and your counter, but if yours doesn't, you may balance it on a bottle to let it be suspended instead. To serve, run a knife or spatula around the edge of the cake tin. Dust with powdered sugar, and serve!

So light.
This cake is just fine on its own and has absolutely no need for extra glazing or frosting. Have it with a cup of coffee or some green tea. It's light as a cloud, thanks to the tapioca starch, and I know you'll have a great time baking this cake. It makes quite a bit, so feel free to take a slice with you to the grave of a fallen soldier, light a candle, and offer it to them. Remember, Veteran's Day is for those that are here with us that have served, and Memorial Day is for those that have fallen.

I hope you're all keeping your spirits up! If you make this cake, leave a comment below, and feel free to share this recipe around with your friends and family. Happy cooking and happy eating!

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