I developed an obsessive interest in nut cake recently after reading the Mammy Jane book. My mother wasn’t a nut cake maker, but I ate plenty of nut cake on occasion at other people’s homes, particularly when we visited West Virginia. You’ll also find nut cakes at church suppers. The older ladies bring them. Look in any old cookbook (at least the 50s and on back) and you’re likely to find a nut cake. I didn’t have any trouble finding a nut cake recipe everywhere I looked in my old cookbooks, but my new ones? No nut cake. Nut cake fell off the culinary planet.
Well, not exactly. The older ladies kept making them and the recipe kept showing up in church group cookbooks and so on. The nut cake has survived due to the people’s determination to keep baking them in spite of its banishment by major cookbook publishers.
Jane made nut cakes all the time (and they’re mentioned repeatedly in the book, which–by the way–includes none of Jane’s recipes). There was no special occasion, particularly Christmas, that didn’t come with a nut cake at Jane’s house. It called me like a mission, like my pursuit of burnt sugar cake. I looked in my old cookbooks and I browsed around the internet. You can find Chocolate Nut Cake, Cinnamon Nut Cake, Kentucky Nut Cake, Black Walnut Nut Cake, Apple Butter Nut Cake. And so many more. I wondered what is the true old-time nut cake? What kind of nut cake did Jane make?
I’m not obsessed with Jane. Really. Like, I didn’t search online to find old photos of the house and family and I certainly didn’t read her will. (You can find a photo of the house and family here, her birth, marriage, and death record here, and here’s her will.)
Anyway! (SUZANNE!) Back to nut cake. Nut cake is quite probably a type of treat that has origins going all the way back to medieval times as this is no American-only tradition, but American pioneers certainly brought it with them and claimed it in their own way. The basis for all the competing nut cake variations is the plain nut cake that is but a simple and delectable cake with nuts. Ergo, the appellation nut cake. (Aha! My discovery process is that of a genius!!!!)
We forget how much a treat was a treat in the days when you might have a limited amount of sugar. Nuts were also a treat in and of themselves. They were harvested in the fall and time-consumingly cracked, the nut meats carefully extracted and lovingly stored to show up on the holiday tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas and on other special occasions through the year. Your average pioneer wasn’t buying nuts–they were using what was available to them where they lived.
In West Virginia, that meant black walnuts. In other areas, the nut cake might have meant English walnuts or pecans because that was what was available where they lived. And traditional old-time nut cake is just that–a simple nut cake made with what is available to you.
After poring over numerous nut cake recipes, I came to a conclusion about the basic nut cake recipe, and surmised how it must have been varied by creative–or practical–cooks in different parts of the country. The most common nut cake in West Virginia is an apple butter black walnut cake. Apple butter is pretty darn popular here, and black walnuts are falling off every other tree. The type of nuts were different, according to the area, and the additions were, too. Instead of apple butter, it might be applesauce. Or some type of jam. (If you made a nut cake in Georgia with peach jam and pecans, you’d be right in line with pioneer culinary philosophy.)
I baked several nut cakes in the past week. One was an apple butter nut cake. I added raisins, but you don’t have to. You could add chopped apples. Or any other fruit that is available to you. Or don’t add fruit at all. I also used a lot of spices. I baked this one in loaf pans.
It was absolutely wonderful with no frosting at all.
I tried a blackberry jam nut cake. I baked it in an 8 x 8 pan (using a halved recipe) and cream cheese frosting. I put the frosting on while the cake was still a little warm and it was all oozy and delicious. (See Judge Judy on the TV screen? The only show I watch semi-regularly. I love Judge Judy.)
Then a cat got into it and I had to give it to the mommies in the goat house.
I also made a plain nut cake, adding only the extra spices, and with the nutty-buttery broiled topping from my gingerbread recipe (here–doubled since this was for an 11 x 9 cake), using black walnuts instead of pecans in the topping.
Nut cake is an amazing cake that deserves a comeback. It’s a truly versatile recipe, and its longevity speaks for itself. It’s a quintessential American-claimed cake, beloved of our pioneers who carried it with them from their homelands and turned it into one of the most classic old-fashioned treats of this country.
So, without further adoring praise of this cake (and I could keep going!), here is the plain nut cake recipe along with my directions for how to turn it into any kind of nut cake you want. Be a pioneer–make it your way!
How to make Nut Cake:
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup chopped nuts (any)
Cream the butter and sugar; stir in eggs and vanilla. Using a sturdy spoon (or an electric mixer), alternately mix in the milk with the flour and baking powder. Stir in the nuts. Transfer to a greased pan (or pans) and bake in a “moderate” oven (350-degrees).
This is the plain nut cake I made (using milk, no apple butter etc) and only adding spices. I used 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.
I used black walnuts, of course. If you’ve never had black walnuts, taste them separately before adding to a recipe. Black walnuts have a strong flavor.
Not everyone likes them, even around here, and Roane County, West Virginia, is the home of the Black Walnut Festival! Me, I love black walnuts. Some people prefer the milder English walnut. (I like them, too. I’m a nut lover.)
You can use any type of pan(s) you want. When I did this in loaf pans, I divided it into two large loaf pans. You could also do two 8- or 9-inch cake rounds, an 11 x 9 cake pan, a tube or bundt pan, or cupcakes. For me, it took an hour for an apple butter black walnut cake in two loaf pans. When I did half a recipe in an 8 x 8 (with blackberry jam), it took about 30 minutes. When I did a plain nut cake (using milk, no jam or apple butter) in an 11 x 9, it took about 30 minutes. Depending on what you add and what type of pan(s) you use, there are a lot of variables for baking time, so just keep an eye on it and do the toothpick test.
You can add one variation, or combine variations to make unique nut cakes.
*Add chopped fresh fruit or “plumped” dried fruit such as raisins, cherries, dates, etc. “Plump” dried fruit first by placing the dried fruit in a small pot of water (just enough to cover the fruit), bring to a boil, then let sit at least an hour or overnight. Strain the liquid before adding the fruit to the recipe. When adding fruit, use 1 cup of fresh or dried fruit and add at the end, when you mix in the nuts. You can also plump dried fruit in rum or fruit juice, etc, for additional flavor.
*Instead of milk, add 1 pint of apple (or other fruit) butter, applesauce, or any flavor jam or marmalade. Yes, the quantity of milk you are taking out is much less than the quantity of apple butter, jam, etc, you are putting back, but the consistency is different.
*For a chocolate nut cake, melt 2 squares of unsweetened baking chocolate. Add to the recipe along with the eggs and vanilla.
*For a spicy nut cake, add up to 3 teaspoons of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, and ground cloves. Use them in equal quantities, or not. Up to you! Add along with the flour and baking powder.
*Use no frosting, or any frosting! Cream cheese frosting works great. Streudel or buttery broiled topping (as in my gingerbread post above) is also good. Or poke holes in the cake and drizzle a rum, bourbon, apple cider, or juice mixture into it. (See the rum glaze recipe for my Drunken Rum Cake here.) By the way, a popular “little old church lady” way to serve nut cake is baked in an 11 x 9 pan, cream cheese frosting, cut in squares with either nuts sprinkled over the top or a walnut or pecan half placed in the middle of each cake square.
*Cut the recipe in half if you don’t want this much cake. Either use one extra large egg or two small eggs. I used one large duck egg when I halved the recipe. (If all you have are medium eggs, don’t worry about this too much. A little more or less egg will not ruin the cake.)
Okay, tell me your nut cake stories! I know you have them!
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