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An Old-Fashioned Nut Cake

Feb
18


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!

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How to make Nut Cake:

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
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.

Variations:
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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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on February 18, 2011  

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  1. 2-18
    5:12
    am

    Ah, so this is what happened to the traditional fruit cake?! They got rid of the fruit and just kept the nuts! Yup, this is basically my recipe for fruit cake, but I add raisins and currants in with the nuts. Plus a little rum.

  2. 2-18
    5:38
    am

    This looks wonderful. I’m going to be doing a lot of cooking and baking over the long weekend, and nut cake just made it onto my baking list. BTW, it was so sweet of Little to make sure the goat mommies got their share. You can tell just by looking at him what a thoughtful, considerate cat he is!

  3. 2-18
    5:39
    am

    :) I just baked a berry cake for valentines which had a similar ‘to-do’ process. Of course mine was a whole wheat version, an experiment that worked. Yippie!!! Loved the way you make your cake so desireable (‘wanna eat it right now!’)…

    You can take a look at what I baked @ http://flavorandtang.blogspot.com/2011/02/whole-wheat-berry-sponge-cake-for-my.html

  4. 2-18
    7:31
    am

    Black Walnut Cake for me….yummmm!
    No icing please…baked in a loaf pan…a warm piece sliced with a cup of coffee for breakfast..devine…

  5. 2-18
    7:33
    am

    These look so good – I have been collecting pou)nd cake recipes – now you have me hooked on finding different nut cake recipes!! Will have to ask my friends in WV and PA to send theirs!!
    thanks for this new addition to my dessert (or breakfast foods) (depending when you decide to eat it!) lists!!! Oh the goats look like they just know you made it all for them!!!
    :snoopy:

  6. 2-18
    8:00
    am

    I don’t really have a nut cake recipe, but I do have a good fruitcake recipe with pecans and coconut that’s pretty tasty. http://windowontheprairie.com/2010/12/23/homemade-pecan-fruitcake/
    Have a good day all,
    Suzanne

  7. 2-18
    8:20
    am

    I don’t have a nut cake story, but my mouth was watering before I got half way through your story. Can I get through this day without making (and eating)a nut cake?

  8. 2-18
    8:56
    am

    I think the goat mommies paid that cat to get into the cake, don’t you?! They are stuffing their cake holes and thinking “Score!”

  9. 2-18
    9:10
    am

    My Big Mama used to make the best Nut Cake. I grew up in south Georgia in a pecan orchard so we put pecans in everything. I’ll try to post her recipe in the recipe section today for everyone. It wasn’t too sweet but really really good.

  10. 2-18
    9:25
    am

    Lucious pictures-made me hungry. Brought back lots of childhood memories. The nut cake I grew up with in Western NC was a hickory nut cake. You really had to work hard on the shelling to get to enjoy that one, so they were few and far between! I also love black walnuts and remember the work and stained hands to hull and shell those.

  11. 2-18
    9:32
    am

    Have to confess that my kitties eat with me quite often! They do live in the house only, though. :help: I probably would have crumbled the cake in a bowl, added milk & ate it.

  12. 2-18
    10:00
    am

    I make what I call ‘John-Boy’s Applesauce Cake’…we watch a lot of Walton’s here & several years ago my son asked me what applesauce cake was & why the Walton’s got it & he didn’t? I had a recipe for it of my grandmother’s that I had just never bothered to make, so I made it…I don’t know why I never made it before..I just hadn’t.
    My son loved it & it has become part of my repertoire of things I now frequently cook. After that, I felt bad for anybody that has never tasted a really good cake.
    Mine usually has pecans & raisins in it with cream cheese frosting & chopped pecans on top….mmmmm, it’s delicious!

  13. 2-18
    10:47
    am

    Here in southern Ohio it is Hickory cake. The only time I can get any is at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in October. There is a church booth (Emmitt Chapel) that has it every year. Love that cake!

  14. 2-18
    11:22
    am

    The cakes look wonderful. I read your posts and see all the deserts you make. I have always wondered who ate all of them. I can see from the pictures you like to share with your goats. i don’t have goats so I have to share with my chickens and ducks.

  15. 2-18
    11:43
    am

    That looked so good, the cat wanted some.

  16. 2-18
    12:10
    pm

    I absolutely love black walnuts–a much more intense flavor than English walnuts–and order them online each fall so I can make black walnut fudge for Christmas. I envy you having them readily available everywhere. You probably miss fresh pecans which pop up everywhere in Texas growing wild—until the subdivision moves in and mows everything down to build McMansions. Sigh! I think fruit and nut trees are God’s gift to us in recompense for losing the Garden of Eden. How did the fruit trees you planted work out, Suzanne?

  17. 2-18
    1:26
    pm

    My husband positively DROOLS over his aunt’s nut cake. At a family reunion, where we hold an “auction” to help pay for the picnic pavilion, she brought her nutcake to auction off. My husband won it for $30 !!! She was nice enough to give me her recipe, which is almost the same as yours, Suzanne, except she adds a cup of sour cream and a tsp. of baking soda. She also tosses her walnuts with cinnamon and sugar before adding them to the cake, and the bakes it in a bundt pan.

    I’m so glad you brought this up . . . I’m going to make nut cake for my dear hubby!

  18. 2-18
    3:13
    pm

    I can’t wait to make this. I always have those basic ingredients around. Just last night my husband was asking me if I could whip up a desert and I couldn’t think of anything to make. Now with this recipe I will always be prepared for that.

  19. 2-18
    8:07
    pm

    I have always loved date nut pudding (cake)…but my dear hubby doesn’t like dates (or walnuts, which I love paired with dates). How nice to see this recipe and additions. Always something new (or AGAIN) with you.

  20. 2-18
    10:22
    pm

    Cake looks yummy! You have never mentioned that you owned antique dishes in the Virginia Rose pattern. Saw your plate with a piece of nut cake on it in your pic. My great-grandmother passed some of her dishes in that pattern down to me. Love them! Baking carrot cake and zucchini bread tonight. Kids coming home to help split the last of our firewood tomorrow-will have 5 adult kids and their spouses and 11 grandkids here–need lots of food and two huge pans pans of lasagna plus other goodies. Big day!

  21. 2-18
    10:59
    pm

    My Mom made a black walnut cake that was delicious. We had some friends who had lots of trees and brought her a half bushel shelled.
    Maple syrup time at their farm was a great treat for us kids.

  22. 2-19
    7:24
    pm

    My mother’s friend Mary Anne lived in New England. Perhaps that’s why the nut cake she used to make was wet with maple syrup. The nutcake she made was very dense and made in a bundt pan. I suspect that she poured the maple syrup into the bundt pan to soak into the baked cake.

  23. 2-19
    10:31
    pm

    I have an old eastern Kentucky family recipe for a hickory nut cake. It is said to have been a huge favorite of my paternal grandfather back in the earliest years of the last century.

    This recipe has been passed down for over a hundred years, with revisions to allow for new ovens and such. (I have no idea what they used for the extracts way back when. Surely they didn’t have those!) I remember my grandmother making it years ago when I was a child. I got hold of some hickory nuts back in the 80s and made one – awesome. It is amazing – so different from other nut flavors. It’s a lot like a pound cake in texture but the hickory nuts are an astounding flavor addition.

    Of course, the trick is the hickory nuts. They are not really available in stores. You probably have them growing on your place, Suzanne. But if you gather them up the trouble is only beginning. My husband says the way to crack hickory nuts is to put them in the driveway and hit them with a hammer. Then go next door and gather them up, bring them back to the driveway and repeat. (That only works if your driveway is paved. Mine isn’t and I know yours isn’t, either. They are ridiculously hard to crack. But if you do, this cake is outstanding.

    King Family Hickory Nut Cake
    1 cup shortening
    2 cups sugar
    3 eggs
    3 cups flour
    1 cup milk
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    1 cup finely chopped hickory nuts
    1/2 teaspoon each almond, lemon and vanilla flavoring

    Cream shortening and sugar. Add slightly beaten eggs, mixing well. Sift dry ingredients together and add alternately with milk and extracts. Fold in nut meats. Bake in a 350 degree oven in a greased and floured tube pan. (Sorry, no time is given and I don’t remember because I haven’t had hickory nuts in so long – so keep an eye on it. You could check out a similar pound cake recipe and use that as a starting point.)

  24. 2-21
    9:46
    am

    Your photos are right on today! It’s sleeting rain in Wisconsin and I’m gonna bake a nut cake! Do you know anything about harvesting the black walnuts? We have a tree that rains the huge green balls all autumn and I do know they stain anything! Would love the BBB as my daughter just started canning last year and I want to make sure she does it right…Thanks for all the smiles!

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