As I set out for a jog last Monday morning, I really can’t say I had any intention of ending up flat on the ground somewhere in the middle of the Vassar Farm wilderness. But alas, as I felt my feet wipe out from beneath me and my headphones go flying into the weeds, I had a sort of revelation. Pie.
To be fair, the thought of pie was also accompanied by a silent shriek and flailing arms, but nothing had ever seemed so clear to me. I had slipped on none other than an Eastern black walnut the size of a golf ball, the kind my great-grandmother would collect from her backyard to make her famous fall dessert.
As I lay sprawled on the ground, I recalled the comforting scent that would waft from her Pennsylvania kitchen in the autumn months. She was a master of foraging for raw fruits and nuts, and each season brought a new ingredient to the table—from dandelion salad in the spring to wild blackberry preserves at the end of summer.
She taught me that food doesn’t just magically appear in the grocery store. I learned about the actual growth and patience that goes into growing and finding your own produce. You can imagine the utter excitement I would feel as a kid when the wild blackberries in her backyard were finally ripe enough to pick after months of waiting. The fat berries became all the more precious and the reward even sweeter when I had to crawl under thorny branches to collect them. A few states and years removed from those fond memories, as I looked around at the walnuts scattered around me, I felt the same thrill.
After picking myself up and glancing around to see if anyone had possibly seen the wild spectacle that had just occurred, I headed back to the dorms with a new purpose—I would figure out how to make my great-grandma’s black walnut pie.
With some research, I found a recipe similar enough to my childhood favorite. So, if you love the outdoors and baking and find that you’re a relatively patient person, I have a great suggestion for a new fall activity for you.
Black walnuts are relatively easy to find in this area, especially on the Vassar Farm. As I learned, they sometimes like to hide under fallen leaves and other debris, so be sure to take it slow when you’re foraging. They can be various sizes and colors, but the best time to forage is when they’re green, and you can leave a slight indent by pressing the fruit with your thumb.
Once you’ve collected enough green walnuts, remove the outer hull. You can use one of multiple methods—running them over with a car, stomping them with your feet or cutting all the way around the hull with a sharp knife and twisting off the outer layer. While you’re doing this, make sure to wear gloves of some sort, as the hulls can easily stain clothing and skin.
After you’ve removed the outer hull, wash the nuts clean and set them to dry. The nuts can either dry by roasting in the oven for 12 hours at 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or by sitting in the sun for the same period of time. Once the walnuts are dry, lay them out evenly or hang them in a mesh bag for two to six weeks (the longer the better).
To actually harvest the meat from the nutshell, place the cured walnut on hard surface and strike it with a hammer with force. Pry the meat from the shell with pliers or another sharp tool.
Finally, after weeks of waiting, it’s time to make the pie! Collect your ingredients and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Tuck the piecrust into a pan, molding the edges two to four inches above the rim to prevent the walnut mixture from bubbling over.
Combine the ingredients in the order listed, but avoid over-beating. Pour the mixture into the unbaked crust, bake for around an hour until the center is no longer loose and go out for a jog. When you come back, enjoy your foraged black walnut pie!
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1.5 to 2 cups black walnuts
2 tablespoons butter, melted
9-inch pie crust