It is November 16, 2015. Today my mama is celebrating her sixth birthday in Heaven.
We always had Hickory Nut Cake for Mama’s birthday.
We still do.
Now we eat it in honor of her – and in memory.
Every year since she has been gone, we remember Mama and her love of Hickory Nut Cake.
My sisters and I are scattered from Virginia to Maryland to Nebraska to Canada.
There are six of us, and each year, at least four or five of us are able to find a meeting place where we can celebrate the woman she was. Someone brings the Hickory Nut Cake with that scrumptious frosting (and it isn’t me).
I didn’t realize until recently that our grandmother also made hickory nut cake. The love of that cake was passed on to her five daughters and her four sons.
My cousins verified that their parents always enjoyed Hickory Nut Cake, and this recipe (or a similar version) was made regularly in their homes. Each cousin’s family thought it was a tradition for their family. What a delight to find out this love of Hickory Nut Cake is both genetic and environmental!
Along with my cousins, my sisters and I have memories of helping crack those nuts and trying to get the entire piece of meat (nut) out without breaking it into pieces. You simply must have whole pieces to put on the top of the cake.
We remember sitting outside, using a rock or a hammer to break open the shell, and then picking the pieces out for future baking. Do you have any idea how many hickory nuts it takes to make one cup of chopped nuts?! Quite a few!
This year, my Canadian sister Iree was in the states and a Maryland sister, Rachel, drove to Pennsylvania to see her at her motel. She took along two pieces of that cake so they could enjoy it together. When the rest of us meet in a few weeks, Alice will get the remainder of the cake out of the freezer and bring it along to share at our gathering.
It’s a simple cake recipe and freezes well. The frosting? Now that’s a specialty!
For the cake, you’ll need the usual ingredients: shortening, sugar, milk, salt, flour, baking powder, eggs, and hickory nuts.
Mix up the batter and put it into pans for baking.
Allow the cake to cool after coming out of the oven.
The frosting is what makes the cake.
Put frosting between the two layers, and then continue down the sides (if you prefer) and on the top.
The frosting recipe is the best there is – if you take the time to do it right.
I was fortunate to have a cousin visit my house overnight this past week on her way back to western Maryland. She was delighted to help me make the frosting for our mamas’ cakes!
You start by mixing the ingredients for the frosting in a kettle.
Here’s my cousin Naomi getting us started. When I asked her if we should use heavy or light cream, she said, “That depends on whether you have a Guernsey or a Holstein.” Naomi grew up on a farm and she knows more about the fat content of milk than I do. We used 1/2 cup light cream and 1/2 cup heavy cream.
Once the ingredients are well mixed, cook on medium-high. Do not stir. Cook until a drop in a glass of water turns into a ball instead of remaining in a string.
Cool the mixture. You can set the pan in cold water. Let it cool until you can hold your hand on the bottom of the pan. Really! This is how the directions are written. Who needs a thermometer?!
Put more cold water in your sink and start stirring. Holding the kettle in the cold water will make it harden faster.
If you’ve ever tasted taffy, you’ll know what this tastes like. Once the frosting is stiff enough, you drop it on the cake and spread it. You don’t want it to run down the sides. You can frost the sides if you’d like, but you don’t want it to be so runny that it runs down the side.
This is what a hickory nut looks like. The one on the left is the nut in its thick, outer shell. The one on the right is, of course, the way it looks when you crack it open to get the nut. No wonder our mothers had their children crack those nuts!
My sisters have substituted another frosting recipe that is faster and easier to do. (It also has a lot more sugar.)
If you think the Caramel Frosting recipe directions are too difficult, you could try this one instead:
Frosting for Hickory Nut Cake
Ingredients: ½ cup heavy milk or cream, 1 cup butter, 2 cups brown sugar, ½ cup flour, 1 tsp. Vanilla
Directions: Mix flour and sugar in a saucepan. Add rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil.
Cool slightly, then add about 2 pounds powdered sugar.
Photo Credits: Alice Miller Orendorf and Rachel Miller
- ½ cup shortening
- 1½ cups sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2½ cups cake flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup chopped hickory nuts
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 cups brown sugar
- 1 cup whole milk or heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Cream shortening
- Add sugar gradually and beat until fluffy
- Add egg yolks and beat until blended
- Sift flour and add salt and baking powder to flour.
- Add flavoring to milk, then alternate dry and wet ingredients until they are mixed well.
- Beat egg whites until stiff, then add the chopped nuts with the egg whites.
- Pour into a greased loaf pan or two layer pans
- Bake at 350 for 30 minutes for a round cake, or for one hour for loaf cake.
- For the frosting, mix ingredients together in a saucepan.
- Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
- Cook - but do not stir - until the syrup forms a soft ball. (238 on your thermometer). You can test this by putting a drop of frosting into cold water. If it forms a soft ball (and not a thin trickle), then it's right.
- Allow it to cool until you can hold your hand on the bottom of the pan.
- Beat until creamy (works better if you do it by hand instead of with a mixer) and spread on cake.
- Cover top with whole hickory nuts or chopped nuts.