Hickory Nut Cake

A few years ago, when my grandma was slowly sending me the contents of her house via USPS Priority flat-rate mail-box shipments, including pounds and pounds of pennies, she sent me this super old notebook filled to the brim with recipes—some of them handwritten and some clipped from newspapers. I looked through it, immediately interested in the short little recipe for how to make hickory nut cake.

On more than a few occasions, my grandma had told me the story of how her mother would task her with the work of retrieving the hickory nut meat from whole hickory nuts in order to make the cake. She told me how she sat outside with a hammer, smashing the shells, and then picking out the nuts. 

The problem was that I couldn’t find hickory nuts anywhere. And so I eventually gave up on the idea.

Until I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin, at their epic Saturday farmers market that surrounds the Capitol building. Tim—of Lottie and Doof fame—called it the best farmers market in the country and I’m not going to argue with him. After all, that's where I finally found my hickory nuts. And as I purchased a bag (with some borrowed funds from my brother) (I have a problem with keeping more than three dollars of cash in my wallet), I knew that once I was back home, I was going to make that cake.

I love the way the recipe is written, basically with the attitude of: Look, I’m not going to handhold you through this process. It ends with: “Bake in 2 small loaves and ice with thick white icing.” I guessed on two normal-sized loaf pans, 350°F, and just kept my eye on them while they baked. It ended up taking about 25 minutes.

As for the thick white icing, I decided to do a less-sweet version of this recipe. As you can see, it didn’t turn out very white, but I stand by it anyway.

The timing of my hickory-nut discovery was pretty perfect. It was almost exactly two years ago that I was 29 weeks pregnant with Teddy when Grandma came to stay with us for a week. And when I made this cake a few weeks ago, what do you know? I was 29 weeks pregnant with this second baby. I’m sure she would have loved a slice.
p.s. I was just about to post this when I got the exciting news that my book is a semifinalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards. If you don't mind, I would really, really appreciate your vote! It's super easy to do, especially if you are already a Goodreads member. AND Matt is apparently offering to cook lemon pasta "at some point in the future" for anyone who votes for me.
Hickory Nut Cake via a super old newspaper clipping
NOTE: Turns out hickory nuts look and taste a lot like walnuts, so don’t be afraid to substitute them here.

Cream together 1 ½ cups fine granulated or pulverized sugar and ½ cup of butter; add ¾ of a cup of sweet milk [whole milk], 2 ½ cups flour, sifted with 2 teaspoons baking powder and 1 cup of hickory nut meats dredged light with flour; lastly, add ½ teaspoon vanilla and fold in the whites of 4 eggs beaten to a stiff froth; bake in 2 small loves and ice with thick white icing.

Icing for Such a Hickory Nut Cake as the One Above adapted from Taste of Home
1/2 cup butter
scant 1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 cups confectioners' sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
more hickory nuts to top icing (optional)

Make icing by melting butter in a medium saucepan. Add brown sugar; boil 2 minutes. Add milk; bring to boil. Remove from heat; cool to lukewarm. Beat in sugar, flour*, cream cheese, and vanilla.

*The original recipe called for 2 cups of confectioners’ sugar but after adding 1 cup, I found it to be insanely sweet and thus, opted to use flour to thicken it without making it even sweeter. I personally think it worked great.


Matthew said...

I have so much pasta to make. Loved this cake. So good.

Caley said...

Voted! Looking forward to a pasta reward ... someday.

Ksenia @ At the Immigrant's Table said...

What a beautiful story. When we go into the kitchen, an old recipe flapping at hand, waiting to recreate an old family recipe with an ancestor's spirit (possibly) looking over our shoulder, those are my favourite moments... and that's when real magic happens! How fortuitous you are now pregnant, just as you were last time your grandmother was there. I have also never seen hickory nuts in the raw, but could see this being beautiful with walnuts as well (though obviously not as special).

Unknown said...

Voted! And now I want to plan a trip to Madison to check out that market!

PJ said...

I wish I could get a voting sticker like an election... but voted anyhow!

HAILEY said...

I voted! bring on the pasta!

Also, what a cool book and treasure to have from your grandma. Over the many years of following your blog, the posts with your grandma were always my favorite. (And the ones with Teddy, and Mavis, and your mom...what can I say I love them all!) Anyway, I just wanted to say, isn't it amazing how time and time again food brings us together and life comes full circle even far beyond this physical life? I loved the back story of this recipe and now really want to try a chicory nut!

What else is in that book?

Kara said...

When I went to vote, the computer displayed Ruth Reichl, then you. NO BIGGIE. It was like that time your book was in B&N right next to a Jackie O bio. Also, I love that lemon pasta recipe but Matt can just make a movies stack if he wants, instead.

Unknown said...

Yay for the Madison farmers market! It is truly an experience and I'm so glad you enjoyed your visit to my lovely state of Wisconsin. If you ever come back and are interested in exploring Milwaukee, I would love to be your tour guide.

Sincerely from a long time reader and lurker,


P.S. Your book was pretty amazing.

sarah said...

I loved this post and I love grandmas. I have my grandma's old "textbook" from when she was a "home ec" major at Duq Univ. Did you know you could major in home economics from Duquesne? Her textbook is filled with all kinds of gems and it looks similar to your hickory nut cake book. Enjoy!

Amelia Morris said...

@Caley thank you!! Pasta dinner TBD.

@Ksenia I'd love to think that grandma was looking over my shoulder.

@Caryn Thank you! And yeah, it was such a good market / well-spent morning.

@PJ Thank you!! And yes, I love wearing my "just voted" sticker all day long, even through possible outfit changes.

@Hailey Hi! Thank you so much for voting and following along here. The book is kind of overwhelming in the sheer amount of recipes in there. There's just about every kind of pudding you could ask for: date, apple, peach rice, tapioca cream, prune... There are pineapple rolls, beef rolls, and LOTS of articles about how to deter or get rid of moths. :)

@Kara Ruth Reichl is sending out personal emails right now to all of her friends and family asking them for their vote. She KNOWS what she's up against!! ;) xoxx

@Angela Thank YOU so much for the kind words and for reading. And I really do hope to get back to Wisconsin. I had such a great experience.

@Sarah thanks for reading! And a home ec major!! wow. I know friends who think it was crazy that I took home ec in 7th grade as their progressive schools had already done away with it by then. But if I hadn't taken it, I would never have made that epic locker caddy. :)

jessica said...

Loved the book and I love seeing this recipe here. It's timely since I am currently in the process of bribing my cousins' kids in Iowa to gather hickory nuts and send me (now living in northern Cali) some for the holidays. I grew up with hickory nuts and they're the MOST AMAZING NUT! I hoard a stash of them in my freezer and have when I run out. My grandfather still waxes rhapsodic about a hickory nut pie that my grandmother made him one year, "Like pecan, only heavenly."

Unknown said...

I am ready for the lemon past cooked by Matt.

I'd also like to extend a compliment to the photographer.

maybe that will help intent his showing up at my house for lemon pasta.

just sayin....


CuriousProvence said...

Hello! I am so jealous that you have a book like that from your grandmother. I am really interested in recipes from our past and have been scanning the flea markets where I live in France for vintage cookbooks. Sadly- I think everyone else has got to them before me!