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Hickory Love

December 5, 2011

If you’ve never lived south of the Minnesota/Iowa border, or if you’re the kind of person that isn’t willing to eat something that you found on the ground, then you’ve probably never tasted a hickory nut.  Sad for you.


Hickory trees are everywhere in Missouri, and nearly every year (with the exception of odd-weathered bad crop seasons) they litter the yard of my childhood home with fat green and brown nuts, giving the particularly hickory-dense areas the appearance of a putting range.  If golf balls were green and brown.


Hickory nuts have smooth, segmented husks that turn brown and fall off when the nut is ripe.  Inside is a small, white-shelled nut that is an absolute bitch to crack.  I seriously don’t know how squirrels do it.  I have on two separate occasions watched friends break hand-held tools attempting to pry open one of these nuts.  Amateurs.  They just didn’t know the way of the hickory.  You have to crack it vertically along its seam, and if you do it right, and the nut is at the right stage of ripeness and properly dried, you can split it cleanly in two, revealing a beautiful heart-shaped nut inside.


Of course, this rarely happens, and at least 10% of the time the little bugger actually ends up exploding all over the place.  But that is also the way of the hickory.


The meat of the hickory nut is sweet and rich, and more delicate than the harsher flavors of the black walnut (another local tree).  They are delicious.  And also fairly impossible to shell by machine.  In addition to their adamantium-like shells, the nut kernel has a convoluted shape that one must pick out of the shell with a nut pick.  And of course, if you aren’t careful, hazardous little pieces of shell can get in with the meat, and OH BOY do those hurt the molars.  For these reasons, though delicious, hickory nuts have never been commercially produced (to my knowledge).  They are instead the rare delicacy of the intrepid Fall forager.


Hickory nuts are not about practicality.  They are not about efficiency.  They are not about mass quantity.  They are the complete and utter opposite of Fast Food.  They are about foraging around your yard on your hands and knees, and periodically throwing the nuts like tiny tennis balls for your dog.  They are about sitting around a bowl for hours with family and friends, talking and laughing and swearing as you make your slow progress through a bucket, only to realize by the end that you’ve eaten most of your hard-earned harvest.  They are about home.  There is no rushing the hickory nut; there is no way of conforming it to our fast-paced world of convenience and global trade and neatly pre-packed nourishment.  It is what it is.  And it is perfect.


For this “Depths of Fall” pie, inspired by this recipe from Une Gamine dans la Cuisine, I substituted hickory nuts – harvested from my parents’ yard in St. Paul, MO and shelled with the help of some awesome friends in St. Paul, MN – for walnuts, and local apples for pears, and a few other tweaks.  The butternut squash may sound strange, but it actually worked really well.  The whole thing tasted like a richer, spicier, nuttier version of an apple pie.  It tasted like Fall.  I dug it.  Be brave and give it a try sometime :).

Happy eating,



Depths-of-Fall Pie


What I’m pretty sure I put in it:

– About 2 cups butternut squash cut into 1-inch cubes (I halved the squashed, basted it with olive oil, and pre-cooked it in the oven to soften it a bit first).

– 2 peeled and thinly-sliced Connell Red apples

– ½ cup chopped dried fruit (I used currents, and maybe some craisens)

– ¼ teaspoon (t) pure almond extract

– ½ cup packed brown sugar

– 1 t cinnamon

– ½ t nutmeg

– ¼ or ½ t freshly-ground allspice

– 2 tablespoons orange juice

– 1/3 – 1/2 cup MO hickory nut pieces, lightly toasted in pure MN maple syrup on the stove (you can sub chopped walnuts) [Side note: I just found this site with another method of cracking hickory nuts.  Haven’t try it, but may be worth a shot.]

– 2 tablespoons plain breadcrumbs (I used Panko flakes and a dash of flour for thickener)


That palm tree-shaped thing in the center was my attempt at a maple leaf. FAIL. Still delicious though.

Pat the cooked, cubed squash dry with a towel or paper towel if it is too wet, and toss it (still warm, to melt the sugar) in a large mixing bowl.  Combine the other ingredients and mix around evenly.  Pour into pie pan lined with your favorite crust recipe, and add a pretty top crust (make sure to slit it if it’s not a lattice).  Bake at 400 F for 55-60 minutes (on 2nd to bottom rack position of oven, says the original recipe) until golden brown and bubbly.  Enjoy :).

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