The Christmas cookie tradition is strong in my husband’s family. His mother and the women of her generation make many different traditional German Christmas cookies, like pfeffernuse, zimtsterne, and vanillekipferln.
To add something different to the festivities, I decided to make black walnut cookies from the nuts we’d gathered beneath our big, old tree. Black walnuts are prized for their richness and depth of flavor. But harvesting them is a bitch. Even if you let a hurricane harvest them for you, as we did two falls ago, there’s still the husking, storing, soaking, and cracking the impossibly hard shells. And then the laborious extracting of the meat from deep cranies, using long toothpicks. It’s best looked at as meditative work, rewarded by the sight of walnut oil releasing as you impatiently pry the fresh, crumbling nutmeat from the shell.
If you want to skip all the work, you can buy shelled black walnuts online at www.hammonsproducts.com. This family-owned business hand-harvests wild black walnuts from 16 states. They also sell a heavy-duty, free-standing nut cracker. An internet black walnut expert forager recommends using a vise grip to crack the walnut shells. I used a hammer and dish towels. The ridges of the walnuts chewed up my butcher block a little.
As for a recipe, Marion Cunningham never lets me down. There’s a recipe for black walnut cookies in the Fannie Farmer Baking Book, 1984 edition. I made a few adjustments. I used all butter rather than the half Crisco/half butter in the recipe. I slightly decreased the brown sugar and sightly increased the salt. I made the cookies small, two inches, and made 50 of them. They were crisp and buttery, with the depth of black walnut flavor from the chopped and mashed-up nuts. A slight saltiness balanced the sweetness. I sent the black walnut cookies to family for Christmas. I included a little bag with three walnuts in their shells, and a long toothpick.