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Posts Tagged ‘white pine’

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Project: Crack Open Black Walnuts. Me: Luke Skywalker trying to infiltrate the Death Star. A lot—a LOT—of little Death Stars.

I’m writing this on the night before the U.S. inauguration, trying to keep my mind occupied with something more positive than the impending event. Bear with me.

Last October I dragged a Hefty bag containing some three gallons of local black walnuts upstairs to my apartment. Then I began what was a month-long, three-part combo platter: 1) Husk the green hulls and contend with the damp, inky-brown insides. 2) Dry (and turn daily). 3) Crack and pick.

Item 1 took me about an hour and a half, sitting on the floor of my kitchen while wearing rubber gloves which soon ripped at the tips. That was just to remove the top hulls.

Item 2 required turning over the damp nuts every day to allow even drying. I sliced open the Hefty bag and used it as a tarp, setting it by a radiator.

Item 3 took the better part of two days, and truthfully? I still have a half gallon to go. Once I had about a half-pound of nuts shelled for a pastry chef who has visions of (holy cow, get ready) tarts filled with chocolate, caramel, and black walnuts, and topped with whipped cream infused with white pine needles (they taste like wintergreen; still have to get that for him) and candied kumquats, I stopped. I mean, I toasted the little guys, popped them into a sandwich-sized Ziploc, and stashed them in the fridge.

That’s the really abridged version of Item 3, by the way. You might be thinking you crack black walnuts with a basic nutcracker and fish out the nuts easily, as you would on Thanksgiving, stuffed and semi-catatonic. Oh, how wrong you would be.

Loyal reader Angie, retired Kentucky farm girl, tells me that in the ’50s and ’60s her family used to back the family truck over the nuts just to get the green outer husk off. This just goes to show you how tough the bad boys are underneath. Angie’s mom, come Item 3, would use a hammer and nail to open the nuts. I used a cutting board, a dishtowel, and a brick.

Wrap the nut in the dishtowel, set it on the cutting board, and clobber it once, with good spring back, to split it. Think Thor and his hammer. Many’s the time it doesn’t crack the first time, or the second, or the third. The goal is to hit it hard enough to open it, but not so hard that you crush everything inside. It took me about five minutes per nut to open it and pick the meat out. (I used a vintage fondue spear.) This is why black walnuts are $14/pound.

I told friends that my neighbors, hearing the erratic pounding over several hours, were probably wondering if I’m perhaps nailing together an armoire very, very slowly. That was the sound.

Raw, the nuts have a strange flavor. I wrote to Angie and said, ‘Are they supposed to taste like a garage?’ She about laughed her posterior off. I mailed her some to taste. She told me they were perfect, that she had not had them in decades, and loved them. I toasted them and was surprised to find not only that it immeasurably changed the flavor, but that they had sorta grown on me.

Matt (the pastry chef) is getting the lion’s share; I’m giving Angie some more (I know you have to go easy on them, A); and the rest are for me. I’ll work on them again sometime next week, leaving my neighbors to wonder how big that fekakte armoire could possibly be.

This project also helped keep in sharp focus that I am an American, delivered to this sacred ground by ancestors who left their homelands for my benefit, so I could be in a place where I could steer my own life. We don’t yield. It’s our birthright. It’s the whole point of this place. My back is sore, my cutting board is permanently pocked, my dishtowel is stained and nearly shredded. But I got what I was after.

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An American black walnut.

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

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I spent this week outsmarting insects called no-see-ums, dismantling and cleaning my apartment, and restoring it after a fumigation, just as everyone enjoys doing a week before Christmas. Me in black leggings tucked into new and surprisingly tight black* Hanes socks, with a long-sleeved shirt tucked into my waistband, to deter the biters. Dressed like this while dragging out paper snowflakes, ceramic light-up houses, and a suped-up tree stand. I looked like a Goth elf. But I beat the invisible little suckers.**

This is good news. And because I’m tenacious and in decent shape, the house is clean, aired, and bug-less. But I’m not ashamed to say this ordeal wore me out. Extra treats have been essential to get me from point A to point B, and I have been enjoying them without the faintest trace of guilt. Christmastime offers up some awesome once-a-year treats. Maybe you could use a couple yourself. Here we go.

Things that Cheer Me Right Back Up

-Driving past the house nearby that has a porch decorated with lit trees and a life-sized Santa.

-Making gingerbread men (to be continued; the dough’s in the fridge to firm up). Finding a cookie cutter for them has proved preposterously futile, so I’m cutting them out freehand. Edibility is the only requisite here, which is good.

-Dim sum and crepes, plus homemade stuff: mozzarella in carrozza, burgers made in the manner of English spiced beef, proper stuffing (which I sadly missed at Thanksgiving), and sour cream coffee cake. The recipe is here.

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The Cake. It won a ribbon at the county fair and is a Christmas morning tradition. One year I even put it under the tree as a present to me. Maybe I’ll do it again.

-Following the local volunteer fire truck as the guys dress up and deliver early gifts to our kids. The kids jump up and down in picture windows and I can see them mouthing SANTA!

-Decorating my tree, which I keep in my room, and which was cut down by a gold miner (truth). Yukon Cornelius made a rare appearance in Colts Neck, NJ. He looked great for his age.

-Filling the bedroom with white pine to keep the tree company.

-Visiting the antiques store to see bits and pieces of Christmases past.

-Buying myself a rhinestone necklace and wearing it home from the mall, even though I had on work boots. Logic, schmogic.

-Observing the sky at dusk on New Year’s Day to predict what kind of a year 2016 will be. It’s an old custom. You want to look for a cloud shaped, however vaguely, like a bull. Totally not kidding! Look it up.

-Reading my old book of Christmas ghost stories, which are less scary than they are quaint.

-Sending Christmas cards. I might be one of the only people who likes this activity. That and eating fruitcake (caveat: homemade).

-Opening my vintage Advent calendars, which are German, at least 50 years old, and were owned by my neighbors growing up.

Sweet.

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Girl after my own heart.

*I wear black clothes a lot. It matches everything, plus it’s all that’s allowed backstage.

**These guys can get in through window screens. Explains why I never saw them.

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