Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not Quite Forgotten Knowledge

(Photo by Bella)

Last fall I had the great good fortune to be at Boyers Orchard shortly after they had finished their annual Butternut harvest. The Butternut has never been easy to find commercially, but could usually be purchased unshelled in specialty stores in regions where the trees grow. These days, due to a fungus that is rapidly spreading through its habitats and killing the butternut trees, Butternuts (the fruit of this tree) are becoming increasingly difficult to find. The Boyers Orchard trees remain healthy and, so far, untouched by the fungus.

Butternuts are, in short, delicious. They are rich and “buttery” with a distinctive, but not unpleasant flavor. The skill of cracking them is well on it's way to forgotten knowledge. My father-in-law, Orion, is the only person I have ever known to crack butternuts making him the logical person to ask for a tutorial. Orion, now in his 80's, leads a very active life, and claims on his time must be made well in advance. It was essential that my tutorial take place before Easter, as I wanted to make a Vermont Maple Butternut Cake for the dessert spread. The maple cake recipe had been in development for a while, and the addition of butternuts would be quite nice indeed.

There were no worries about the butternuts having been stored in their shells since October. When stored in an air-tight container in a cool, dry place, the unshelled nuts keep very well. Due to their high fat content, once shelled the butternuts can go rancid quickly if not properly stored. Shelled butternuts can be kept in the refrigerator in an airtight container or double-bagged and stored in the freezer.

Orion and I chatted as we worked on the nuts. He used the hammer and I used the picks. He whacked away at the nuts telling me stories about how he and his sisters would hunt butternuts in the woods near their dairy farm every fall. As there was no money for them to be purchased, nuts of any kind were a luxury item. Orion's mother did not count on the butternuts Orion and his sisters harvested for her larder. In a good year they could harvest enough for his mother to use in baked goods through the long winter months. If it was a bad year, they went without.

To crack the nuts, Orion and his sisters would form an assembly line in the loft of the barn. Orion would crack the nuts and his sisters would extract the meat. Nuts requiring another whack would be tossed back to him, and, so it went until all the nuts had been cracked. Throughout the year, they saved the 100 pound grain bags for the fall nut harvest. One year, after a particularly good harvest there were so many bags of nuts Orion and his sisters couldn't carry them all. They went back to the house to get the cart leaving the bagged nuts in the butternut grove. When they returned with the cart, all the bags had been stolen. Orion and his sisters were crest-fallen, there would be no nuts that winter.

Orion was intrigued by my intention to use butternuts in a cake; his mother used them only in cookies and ice cream. On a dairy farm, there is no shortage of milk or cream, and his mother made ice cream often. The ice was harvested nearby and stored in their ice house.

The Butternut when fresh has a thick green husk. When dry, the husk becomes dark brown and papery. The shell is extremely hard with a sharp-ridged surface. The internal chambers make it virtually impossible to extract the meat whole. Be sure to sort through the nutmeat carefully and remove any of the hard, sharp bits of the shell and chamber pieces. If you should have the good fortune to find butternuts, be aware that the yield per nut is quite small. One pound of butternuts in the shell will yield between 1/2 and 1 cup of nut meat.

To crack the nuts you will need a hard flat surface, a pair of heavy leather gloves, a hammer, and some nut picks. (As you will see from the pictures, my father-in-law uses a stump.)
Hold the nut pointy side up with your gloved hands. Give it a good controlled whack with the hammer being careful not to hit your fingers. We found it easier to extract the nutmeat when the nut is cracked at the pointy end. Although the nut cracks more easily when hit on the side, the meat is more difficult to extract. Use nut picks to extract the nutmeat. Cracking butternuts really is a skill and takes some practice, but the end result is worth the time and effort.

Please note: Maple sugar and pure maple flavor are called for in this recipe. They are distinctive in flavor and give the cake another layer of dimension. These ingredients can be difficult to find, but not impossible. Maple sugar can be purchased at the Morse Farm and maple flavor through King Arthur Flour. Butternuts are more difficult. If trees grow in your area, in the fall check farmer's markets, farm stands, and local orchards. In northern Vermont, butternuts can be purchased in the fall at Boyers Orchard.

Vermont Maple Butternut Cake
2-1/4 c. sifted cake flour
¾ c. maple sugar (or granulated sugar)
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 c. grade B maple syrup
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. pure maple flavoring (or 1-1/2 tsp. vanilla)
½ c. unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs
½ c. butternuts (or walnuts), toasted & chopped*

Grease and flour 2 round 9” baking pans. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350.

Combine flour, maple sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl of a mixer. In a bowl combine ¼ c. of the buttermilk, the eggs and flavoring. Mix with a fork to combine and set aside. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 c. buttermilk and the maple syrup. Set aside.

Beat the flour mixture for about 30 seconds on low. Add the butter and buttermilk and maple syrup mixture. Mix on medium speed until the butter is blended in, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg, maple flavoring, and buttermilk mixture 1/3 at a time beating for 20 seconds between each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat for about 15 seconds. Stir in the butternuts.  Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes clean. Transfer to wire racks and cool for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans onto wire racks to cool completely.

To frost the cake: If the the layers have become domed during baking, level one layer with a leveler or toothpicks and a sharp knife. Place the leveled layer on a plate, spread with Aunt Carolyn's Maple Mountain frosting and place the second layer on top. Frost the sides and top of the cake with the remaining frosting. Decorate with pieces of toasted butternuts.

*To toast butternuts: Preheat oven to 350. Place the nuts on a baking sheet with sides. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes until slightly golden and fragrant. Cool and chop.

This recipe was given to me by DH's Aunt Carolyn. It is quick to make, light, delicious, and not too sweet, and a perfect companion to the Vermont Maple Butternut Cake. Plan to use this frosting immediately. As this frosting does not "hold" well, frost the cake only a few hours before serving. There are no worries about raw egg whites as the boiled syrup heats the egg whites to the temperature necessary to kill bacteria.

Aunt Carolyn’s Maple Mountain Frosting
2 egg whites, room temperature
1 c. grade B maple syrup
In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Set aside.
Have a two cup heat-proof glass measuring cup at the ready. In a heavy saucepan bring the maple syrup to a slow boil over medium heat. When the surface of the syrup is covered with small bubbles, pour into the heat-proof measuring cup.

Beat the egg whites briefly. With the mixer on high pour the maple syrup into the egg whites in a slow thin stream. Do not allow the syrup to fall on the beaters. When the syrup is fully incorporated, beat until the frosting is cool and stiff peaks form. Use immediately.