I recently went for a stroll through the local farmer’s market with my friend Joy, who, in addition to being a cook at one of New York’s hottest restaurants-a place called Cortone- is as excited as I am about finding interesting wild foraged foods. We came across a vendor who was selling all kinds of foraged foods like milk thistle and wild mushrooms, and I spied an egg carton whose cups were filled with dusty, dark brown orbs. He told us they were black walnuts and that they cost five dollars for a dozen. We bought one dozen each.
Joy knew about black walnuts from her grandmother’s much-loved recipe for black walnut cake. Being an “armchair forager” myself, I had never actually tasted black walnuts, but I’d learned about them from a 2008 article in The New York Times that quoted botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger as saying that black walnut trees might be able to prevent cancer, just by people breathing in the natural chemicals given off by the tree. Black walnuts, it turns out, contain the compound limonene, which has been shown to have anti-cancer properties. At one time, black walnuts played a much bigger role in the American diet. We were intrigued and inspired.
Still, what to do with our little treasures? I love rich, nutty ice creams like butter pecan, and I knew Joy loved making her own flavors at home with her Cuisinart ice cream maker. So, we decided to make black walnut ice cream, and Joy suggested we swirl in fig jam as well. To start off, we chose a heavy cast iron pan to smash the walnut shells. (They are extremely dense and hard to crack; in fact, the most common method for breaking them open is to crush them with car wheels!) Smashing each walnut one by one took an unbelievable amount of force. It took one smash with the bottom of the pan to break through the shell, then another one or two to break through the husk surrounding the “meat.”
After smashing, sweating up a storm, and then painstakingly extracting the meat from the shells with tweezers, one dozen black walnuts had yielded just under ¼ cup of nuts. That’s not a lot, obviously, but their taste is so powerful that we had enough black walnuts to flavor an entire quart of ice cream. A tiny taste of the precious nuts revealed a flavor that was spicy, rich, and aromatic, with an aftertaste of cardamom and cloves. They were earthy and dark, and like any fresh food that comes directly from nature-without processing, packaging, or other modern interference- they tasted shockingly real. Could this be how all walnuts are meant to taste?
We spent the rest of the afternoon making the ice cream. (See below for the full recipe; and don’t worry-you don’t need foraged nuts!) When it was finally ready to eat, we found that the sugary figs perfectly complemented the subtle bite of the nuts. There was nothing especially remarkable about the basic combination-just fruit and nuts in a classic vanilla ice cream base-but it tasted distinctly of the fall season. At the end of the day, as I proudly carried home my precious pint of homemade ice cream, I understood that by breaking open the fabled black walnuts and preparing our own ice cream with them, we had each achieved something more than just making food; we’d also cracked open a door into the past. Joy had connected with her grandparents’ traditions by recreating that same taste she had cherished in childhood. As for me, I moved just a little further out of my armchair.
Black Walnut and Fig Ice Cream
We followed Joy’s recipe, but I’ve simplified it here slightly. You can skip the fig jam and just use nuts, in which case I would recommend using 1 ½ cups nuts. The base of the ice cream is a classic pastry cream, essential for desserts like cream puffs, tarts, and cakes. If you don’t feel like making your own ice cream from scratch, simply buy a good quality vanilla ice cream and let it soften a little at room temperature, then stir in the nuts and jam and refreeze.
Yield: 1 quart ice cream
- 2 vanilla beans
- 8 egg yolks
- ¾ cup organic sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups half and half
- 1 cup fig jam
- ¼ cup toasted black walnuts (or 1 cup regular walnuts), crushed
Fill a large bowl halfway with ice water and set it aside.
Split the vanilla beans down the middle and scrape the insides into the top of a double boiler. Add the scraped bean pods, sugar, salt, and milk, and bring to a simmer, whisking to dissolve the sugar.
In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks until they are light and fluffy. Very slowly, drizzle a little of the hot milk into the yolks, whisking constantly to incorporate. Slowly whisk in more, until half the milk has been added to the yolks.
To make the pastry cream, pour the yolks back into the remaining hot milk in the double boiler. Heat the water to a simmer, and stir the yolks and milk constantly until they coat the back of a heatproof spatula or a wooden spoon. Pass the mixture through a strainer to remove any lumps. Add the vanilla bean pods back in, and stir in the half and half.
Pour the cream into a bowl and place it in the ice bath. Stir occasionally until it reaches room temperature, then cover it with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface to prevent a skin from forming on the top. Place the cream in the refrigerator and let it chill thoroughly.
Remove the vanilla bean pods, and freeze the cream in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. When done, fill 2 pint containers halfway with the ice cream. Stir a few tablespoons of the walnuts and several tablespoons of the fig jam into each container. Fill the containers almost to the top with the ice cream, then stir in the remaining jam and walnuts. Freeze and enjoy.
In November of 2009, Ten Speed Press/Random House will publish Louisa’s first cookbook, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, a collection of healthy, eco-conscious recipes, tips, and entertaining ideas.