The meek might never taste a black walnut. The outer husks of these tree nuts are a mighty fortress, resembling a petrified tennis ball. A standard nutcracker won’t make a dent.

Black walnuts must be pounded into submission, by mallets or more. Some people crack black walnuts by running over them with their cars. Back and forth, up and over, until either the shells or the driver give up. The work is tedious and the walnut shells stain everything they touch, including hands and driveways. Once open, not everyone appreciates the strong, pungent, rather bitter flavor of black walnuts. Those who do, however, do so passionately.

Continue reading after the recipe.

Black Walnut Pound Cake with Penuche Frosting

Makes one 10-inch cake

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon butternut flavoring or pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped black walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease and lightly flour a 10-inch, light-colored metal tube (angel food) pan, tapping out any excess flour. (A dark metal or heavy Bundt pan will make the crust too dark and thick and will interfere with the baking time.)

2. Beat the butter, shortening, brown sugar, and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer set to high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes.

3. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

4. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in another large bowl. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in thirds, alternating with half of the milk, beating only until the batter is smooth after each addition. Quickly beat in the butternut flavoring.

5. Fold in the nuts with a rubber spatula.

6. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Gently tap the pan on the counter to remove air bubbles. Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, 80 to 90 minutes.

7. Cool the cake in the pan set on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out the cake onto the rack and let cool to room temperature before frosting.

Penuche Frosting

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/4 cup half-and-half or whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, or as needed
  • 1/2 cup chopped black walnuts, for garnish (optional)

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the sugar and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring continuously, until the mixture is smooth and no longer gritty, 2 minutes. Stir in the milk and return to a boil, stirring continuously.

2. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool until the mixture is lukewarm, 15 minutes. Stir in the vanilla.

3. Gradually stir in enough confectioners’ sugar to make the frosting thick and spreadable.

4. Coat the top and sides of the cooled cake with frosting. Sprinkle the top with nuts, if you wish.

Tall, sturdy black walnut trees grow all over North Carolina, and are found in great numbers in the bottomland forests of the mountains and foothills where the soil is deep and rich. Trees can be huge, 150 feet tall with long, straight trunks up to six feet in diameter. Gorgeous black walnut lumber was integral to the North Carolina furniture industry during its heyday. At its peak, no other American hardwood was more prized.

Black walnuts start to ripen in October and are available into December, if the squirrels haven’t carried them all off by then. The nuts fall to the ground when ripe, amassing at the foot of the tree. The bright green outer hulls blacken and soften as they age, making them somewhat easier to remove, revealing the dark brown nutshell inside, which must also be removed. It might take only minutes to pick up a bushel of black walnuts, but it takes days to husk and shell them. In heartening contrast, it takes only moments to fill a shopping basket with bags of black walnut nutmeats that are ready to enjoy.

Back when almost all fresh nuts were hand-gathered in the woods and available only in the fall, holiday treats that featured black walnuts were an exceptional delight. Black walnut pound cake is a classic brown-sugar pound cake studded with the delicious nuts. The cake is crowned with a veneer of old-fashioned penuche frosting that tastes just like the fudge-like candy of the same name. Penuche frosting is similar to classic caramel frosting, but it’s friendlier to the cook. Tedious and perilous caramel frosting can move even great bakers to tears. In contrast, reliable penuche wants only to please baker and eaters alike.

This story and recipe originally appeared in “A Carolina Cake Tour” from the February 2014 issue with four other regional cakes. See them all below.

Blue Ridge Mountains

dried apple stackDried Apple Stack Cake
The hallmark of cooking in the Mountain South is resourcefulness, making utterly delicious dishes from modest ingredients. Consider the stack cake: many thin layers of sorghum-sweetened cake married together by thick, fragrant filling made from dried apples. There is no cake — perhaps no recipe — more rooted in Appalachian mountain culture.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Piedmont

cheerwine full illustrationCheerwine Pound Cake
There is no historical marker for the first time and place that some creative home cook poured soda pop into cake batter, but the idea took hold fast, especially as these products flourished after World War II. Almost all community cookbooks include a recipe or two for a cola cake.

Cheerwine pound cake has a delicate golden crust and a moist, dense crumb. It needs no frosting, only a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar, like fairy dust. It keeps well for days, if it lasts that long.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Central N.C., Sandhills, Coastal Plain, and Outer Banks

muscadine cakeMuscadine Cake
We North Carolinians love our native grapes. Compared to the imported, thin-skinned, seedless grapes found in the grocery stores, muscadines might seem like a lot of trouble, but they are worth it. The skins are thick and the pulp is shot full of stubborn seeds. Ah, but the flavor, the perfume, the musky sweetness. No other grape compares.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Outer Banks

fig illustration fullFig Preserves Cake with Buttermilk Glaze
As far as fruit is concerned, the Outer Banks is a punishing place: sandy, salty, stormy, and sizzling hot in summer.

For some reason, fig trees accept that challenge. A dozen or more different varieties of figs, many of them native, grow along the Outer Banks. Figs are so popular on Ocracoke Island that they practically star in the island’s annual Ocrafolk Festival.

Get the recipe and continue reading.

Sheri Castle is an award-winning food writer and cooking teacher. She hails from the Blue Ridge Mountains but lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, daughter, and beloved dog. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook. This is her first story for Our State.

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Since 1933, Our State has shared stories about North Carolina with readers both in state and around the world. We celebrate the people and places that make this state great. From the mountains to the coast, we feature North Carolina travel, history, food, and beautiful scenic photography.

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