The hazards of walnuts on a sunny day

I have a walnut tree in front of my house. The tree is often filled with crows cawing and flapping around and flinging walnuts at the street. I love it. Up until now, I’ve watched passers by gather the nuts. My favorite is the elderly couples who bring shopping bags. They’re all welcome to these walnuts. Walnuts are messy. I also have a hazelnut tree, in the backyard, and these nuts are scattered in the grass under the tree in delicately toffee striped shells. Gathering them is like finding easter eggs. Not walnuts. The ground beneath the walnut tree is a mess of slimy black hulls in various stages of clinging to or detaching from the shell, green hulls which are hard and harbour many small maggots, yellow leaves, and a scattering of walnuts which have miraculously freed themselves from the hulls. Now, I enjoy walnuts in the kitchen, and the hulls make a good brown or black dye but I don’t particularly like maggots so I had not planned on harvesting these. And then, after seemingly weeks of rain and drizzle, the sun rose bright and full Monday morning on Nelsontown, making everything a thousand times more beautiful. And the walnut tree called to me. How could I spend a day like this in the studio, when it might rain tomorrow? Why not do something studio related, outside? Because I work with large amounts of fabric, it takes a lot of dye stuff for one dyebath. Here were a lot of walnut hulls, mine…

I would like to begin with a small appreciation of gloves. They allow us to imagine that we’re not actually touching the things that they touch. For that I am very grateful. So, on this beautiful sunny day, I clambered around beside the road, collecting bits of black slime to fill my dye pot. I also brought a bag for walnuts, also slimy. I scraped off maggots with the stem of a leaf and ditched some of the more infested hulls. Maybe in drier autumns, walnuts are more manageable. At some point maybe two-thirds of the way around the tree, I got to wondering what this foul concoction would smell like when I cooked it up. Right, terrible. Not motivating. Around the same time, a neighbour passed by and mentioned that the nuts are a little bitter. If so, I will be leaving presents outside for the crows all winter.

I will be simmering walnut hulls today, making a nice dark brown dye, and baking chocolate peppermint cookies to mask the smell. The house also smells a bit like roasted almond and prune bread, which is very nice indeed. While it is not raining, nor is it spectacularly sunny, so I think I can comfortably spend the day in the studio, with the sewing machine and hot peppermint tea. I have a lot of tea towels to hem this week, as well as some more printing to do. The peppermint tea is a constant. I may have mentioned my love of coffee, but this tea is what fuels the greater part of my day.

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

Recipe adapted from La Patisserie Cookie Press & Decorating Set booklet

3/4 cup butter (room temp.)

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg (room temp.)

1 1/2 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 tsp peppermint extract

1/8 tsp salt

1/4 cup cocoa

1 1/2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar, beating until light. Add egg, vanilla, peppermint and salt and beat until light and fluffy. Add cocoa on low speed and mix in. Blend in flour. Press in cookie press if you have one (they really are fun and make pretty cookies). If not, form into small balls and flatten them or roll dough into a log and refrigerate it until it is firm, then cut into discs (1/3″-1/2″?). Cookies can be spaced 1″ apart. Bake at 375 for about ten minutes or until they are firm to the touch.

Roasted Hazelnut Prune Bread

Adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman’s wonderful book “Bread: A baker’s book of techniques and recipes”. This is my favorite bread book.

This recipe does call for a sourdough culture. If you live in the Kootenays, I would be very happy to share mine. If not, they are fairly straightforward to start or you can ask a local bakery.

Be prepared for this bread to take all day, or begin it the night before. You can do other things while the culture works.

Part One: Stiff Levain Build

6.4 oz (1 1/2 cups) bread flour

3.8 oz (1/2 cup) water

1.3 oz (2 tbsp + 1 tsp) mature culture

Mix and then cover, let sit for 12 hours at room temp. I cheated here and added another 1/2 cup water then let it sit for only about 6 hours, in a slightly warmer location.  A stiff dough ferments slowly.

Part Two: Final Dough

Roast the nuts ahead of time, while you’re waiting on the levain.

1 lb, 1.6 oz (4 cups) bread flour

8 oz (1 7/8 cups) whole wheat flour

1 lb, 1.3 oz (2 1/8 cups) water

1.6 oz (3 tbsp) butter, soft

.17 oz (1 1/2 tsp) instant dry yeast (this is different than active dry. Instant has about 3x as many active cells so much less can be used. )

10.2 oz (all less 2 tbsp + 1 tsp) levain ( I used all the levain as my sourdough had already been fed and is rye only. Save this only if you wish to keep a sourdough culture on hand. Put it in the fridge and use it within a few weeks. Let it sit at room temp before you use it. )

4 oz (7/8 cup) hazelnuts, roasted and skinned (I used 1 cup almonds and skinned them slightly but not thoroughly)

4 oz (5/8 cup) prunes, coarsely chopped

Add everything except the nuts and fruit to a bowl and mix. Be prepared to adjust the water so the dough is soft. I added more. The nuts and prunes will take up some of the moisture. Mix with a dough hook if you have one or knead for maybe 10 minutes. When you can gently stretch a corner of the dough and it mostly holds together and gets a little translucent in the middle, stop mixing. That is the windowpane test. Incorperate prunes and nuts and put in a lightly oiled, covered bowl. Let sit for 1 1/2 hours. At the 45 minute mark, turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and flatten, or degas it. Fold the bottom 2/3 of the way up, then one side 2/3 over, then the other side 2/3 over (these will all overlap) then the top 2/3 down, then put back in the bowl for another 45 minutes. Folding gives the dough a great deal more strength and structure. It is a small step that is very worthwhile.

When the bulk fermentation is done, turn the dough out onto a floured surface again and divide in two. Shape the loaves (flattening and rolling and pinching and tucking) and put them in their pans, or if free form, you can put a round loaf upside down inside a floured bowl, leaving room for it to expand. Cover and let sit for an hour.

Bake at 460 degrees for 15 minutes, with steam. A hot pan on the bottom rack of the oven works for this. Carefully pour cold water onto the pan when you put the bread in the oven. Lower temperature to 420 degrees after 15 minutes, carefully removing the pan of water (hopefully most will have evaporated. I usually dump some of what’s left onto the oven floor for one last burst of steam) and bake another 25 to 30 minutes, or until loaves sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.

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