Butternuts: This important native food source is endangered, so savor them when you can find them (maybe in your own back yard)!
The first appearance of the sticky, lemon-shaped green husks marked the end of summer when I was growing up, so the annual harvest of butternuts was oh so bittersweet. Mom would send us out with paper bags, and we’d gather in abundance, at least whatever the squirrels did not find first. We knew there would be tasty rewards for our efforts.
The only real work of the ritual was releasing these tough nuts from their shells. Mom devised a clever way to open them with my father’s bench vise, but I’ve also heard stories of people driving their cars over the stubborn nuts! I wondered how the squirrels did this so easily as witnessed by the perfect half shells we’d find all year on the forest floor.
Butternuts are one of the most delicious wild foods in the forest, but sadly they are seriously endangered from yet another imported disease, a fungus that causes a canker, slowly robbing the tree of vitality. (Read more here).
The nuts are rich and buttery as their name suggests, and we enjoyed them raw and roasted, and in my mother’s traditional holiday nut bread.
While they were a lovely part of my childhood memories, I must confess that I forgot about them for a long time. When I moved to my current home, I set about the task of creating a new garden, one that proved to have a trouble spot; I could get nothing to grow vigorously in one corner despite soils tests and ample amendments.
A treasure right under my nose
Then, as the summer wore on, I discovered a lovely crop of those familiar sticky pods on the ground, and I looked up! I remembered that many nut trees contain a natural herbicide, so that mystery was solved. In fact, one should not put butternut or walnut leaves and debris in the compost heap for that reason.
With a little luck, you might see the nuts at farmers’ markets or farm stands. Treasure them if you do, they are a rare find. If you don’t have a tree in your own backyard, ask around. You might have a friend or neighbor with one who could be enticed to trade nuts for your labor and a loaf of bread.
Sylvia’s Spiced Butternut Bread
I’ve included my mother’s recipe, a family favorite, with a few twists! If you can’t find butternuts, you can substitute walnuts, especially the native black walnut varieties to keep your feast as local as possible.
Mom always spiced this bread with cinnamon, but I’ve added a little ginger to give it my own twist. I’ve swapped the white flour with King Arthur white whole-wheat flour for a little extra fiber and nutrition, and you can make this gluten-free as well, so don’t be afraid to experiment with our own flours, and create your own memories. You can substitute soy, rice, or almond milk too.
2 cups King Arthur white, whole-wheat flour
½ tsp. baking soda
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
Large pinch of salt
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1 ½ cups butternuts, coarsely chopped
1 cup buttermilk or soured milk
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp. walnut or canola oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a loaf pan.
In a dry skillet, over medium-high heat, toast the nuts, shaking the pan continually, and keeping an eye on it. When you start to smell the fragrance of the nuts, and they start to brown, remove from heat immediately and place in a small bowl so they don’t go too far.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, sugars, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cooled nuts. Set aside.
In a two-cup liquid measuring cup, combine the milk, eggs, and oil and whisk well.
Add the liquid all at once to the dry and mix gently. Do not over mix.
Place in the prepared pan and level out, then bake for 55 to 65 minutes, testing at the early end. Let cool completely on a wire rack before cutting; it will be difficult to control yourself, but you won’t want to ruin the texture of the bread. Store in the refrigerator.
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