I was nearly forty years old before I was introduced to the magic of the shagbark hickory nut. My new boyfriend (now husband) and I had gone to the Kane County farmer’s market in Madison, Wisconsin just before Halloween, and while perusing the endless tables of apples and gourds and pumpkins and brussels sprouts, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and threw his arms up as if someone somewhere had made a spectacular touchdown.
“HICKORY NUTS!” he exclaimed, beginning to stack small bags up his arm like a waiter managing an eight-top.
Easy never tasted so awesome.
I took a closer look. The nuts in the bags looked like miniature rounded pecans. I took one from the sample basket. The first flavor was definitely pecan-ish, but it was grounded with a back note of resin, like a great pine nut, the sweetness balanced with the tiniest bit of bitter forest floor, like a great Piedmontese red wine. As with any raw nut, the texture was a bit chewy, but not unpleasantly so, and I nodded at my man as his eyebrows asked me if maybe he should grab one more bag.
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He explained that he grew up on them in Kentucky, that his Dad was a master of the complicated fiddly process of shelling them, hammering them open and teasing out the nut halves with a pin. It is a particular skill to access hickory nuts in general, but a true gift to get them out in full halves instead of little pieces, hence the snack-sized bags we were buying at a not insignificant price.
A month later they co-starred in my guy’s family recipe for PeHic Pie, a take on a classic pecan pie, but with half pecans and half hickory nuts. I’ve never been a huge pecan pie fan, I find they tend to get a bit cloying, but this one was a revelation. The hickory nuts tempered the sweetness and made for a pie that wasn’t the usual one-note experience. I was hooked and started experimenting with them.
Turns out that hickory nuts are one of the best nuts I have ever cooked with. Toasted, all of the flavors I tasted in the raw nuts became heightened, and this makes them super versatile. They can obviously go wherever a pecan can go, but with their hit of resin, they can swap out for pine nuts in dishes like pesto, and the earthy flavor with that slight lean towards bitter makes them a good change from black walnuts. I pralinated them, put them in cookies and muffins, and made a buttered hickory nut ice cream that kicked buttered pecan right out of the rotation. They worked great in banana bread and oatmeal cookies. I spiced them with salt and red pepper flakes and thyme and used them on top of salads and autumn soups. I ground them into flour and made a torte-style cake with them that rocked my world.
While hickory nuts can often be foraged for free, if you have access to a tree or a local forest, be forewarned. They are a bear to prep. Between getting the out husk off, ensuring that the interior nut is neither moldy or pre-eaten by weevils, and then getting them out of the super-hard shell, this is not a nut for the faint of heart. So much so that they are not commercially available. Most online ordering options are for hand-foraged and picked nuts that are not cheap. Shelled, picked hickory nuts will likely run you anywhere from $22-36 a pound. Pricy? To be sure. Worth it? I think so. They are a special occasion, special recipe item. They are for holiday baking and birthdays and anniversaries. Hard to source and with a limited season, if you find them, stock up. They freeze beautifully both raw and toasted, so I keep bags of both in the freezer and pull them out when the occasion warrants.
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