How the Land Helps One Family Carry On a Special Tradition
By Kelly Morris
This time of year, we find ourselves talking a lot about traditions. Memories of traditions past are the reason why building snowmen until your fingers freeze, sitting in front of a twinkling tree with a good book and a blanket, and the aroma of homemade pie and fresh balsam trigger happiness for us.
For one Willowsford family, it’s not just the unique and delicious Chocolate Chip & Black Walnut Cookies they look forward to each year, it’s the process of harvesting the nuts—which has quickly become a family tradition.
Tammy and Gene Loughran moved into The Grange village in September of 2012. But fall of 2014 was their first year harvesting walnuts from the two big trees in their very own backyard. “We had all these big green tree fruits falling in our yard and I thought, ‘Oh yeah, these are black walnuts. I wonder if they taste good?’” said Gene.
Gene grew up in rural (woodlands) Missouri. “The place was full of natural edibles. I spent most of my childhood tromping around and playing in the woods and feasting on all of nature’s treats. We had wild pear, apple, plum, persimmon, mulberry, hazelnut, walnut and hickory along with blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and black raspberry bushes. Plus, honeysuckle and too many other things to mention here. I have always found a joy in discovering and enjoying nature’s bounty (try my pumpkin seeds sometime!). Summer was the time for fruits and berries, fall for gathering and preparing nuts to enjoy by a winter fire. I enjoy reliving those times a bit here in Willowsford.”
The trees in the Loughran’s backyard fruit on opposite years, “walnut trees only fully fruit every other year,” Gene tells me. He continues, “So, we have walnuts every year. There are hundreds of walnut trees in the Conservancy areas, so even if you don’t have one in your yard you can harvest plenty on a nature trail walk. I’d say 50 or 60 would make about a cupful of walnut meat.”
“[The walnuts] start dropping from the trees in October. You can pick them from the branches but they’re mostly out of reach” Tammy explains. She goes on to say that shucking, prepping and drying them is a massive (and messy!) process. But a process they seem fully dedicated to, “We store the whole nuts (pre-cracked) in our freezer and pop them out when we want to add some to our recipes.”
“I bake them in chocolate chip cookies. They are really good and provide almost an amaretto flavor” explains Tammy. I must admit; these cookies are delicious! Tammy was kind enough to share them with me after she baked them this year. No kidding about the amaretto flavor, either. It was surreal to know that such a powerful flavor came from the black walnuts alone. See Tammy’s recipe, adapted from a Martha Stewart holiday magazine recipe, below.
Do you think you might have a black walnut tree in your backyard? Gene encourages “part of what motivates people to come to Willowsford is to embrace the natural world around us. The opportunity to learn about the plants and animals around us and the ways in which we can enjoy them first-hand is part of the great experience of life in Willowsford!”
Follow the Loughran’s steps and tips on harvesting, shucking, prepping, drying and enjoying black walnuts and start your own tradition that your family can enjoy and share for years to come:
“[Ripe walnuts] start falling in October. I go out and gather the fallen nuts on the weekend. When I’ve got a wheelbarrow or two full, I’ll remove the husks.
TIP: If you let them sit a week or so, the husk will be soft enough so that it can be twisted off…otherwise it can be cut off. Throw the husks wherever you want weed control—or in the garbage—the husk contains juglone which inhibits plant growth.
I generally plop the husked nut in a bucket of water and then scrub them a bit to get as much of the husk off as possible. The walnuts that float are bad; throw them away. Set the rest out to dry.
TIP: The juice from the husks can stain (in colonial times it was used as ink), so wear gloves and do it in a place where you won’t mind stains.
They need to “cure” or air dry for about two to four weeks. I use panty hose to “cure” my walnuts. Fill them loosely full of nuts and then hang them in the garage. The walnut is difficult to crack, but just take your time. The pieces come out in quarters or eighths. I have a special vise and cracker called ‘Grandpa’s Goody Getter’…makes my wife laugh every time I say it.
TIP: Soak them in hot water for a few hours before you plan on cracking them–it softens the shell so that they don’t explode everywhere when you crack them.
Finally, they are ready to be eaten (you can freeze and store them for at least a year).
The Best Chocolate Chip & Black Walnut Cookies
Yield: Makes about 3 dozen, or 2 dozen if heaping spoonful used to make a larger cookie size
*Photos courtesy of Tammy and Gene Loughran
Willowsford Ramblings is a blog by Willowsford, a community of new single-family homes in Loudoun County, Northern Virginia.55 and older communities, active adult communities, adult communities, agri-hood, agrihood, ashburn va new homes, Chantilly va new homes, Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, eat local, Farm to table, harvesting walnuts, home communities, homes aldie va, homes for seniors, Loudoun County, main-level living, new build homes for sale, new home builders, new home communities, new home developments, northern virginia, over 55 communities, retirement communities, retirement living, senior independent living, senior living, walnut cookies, Willowsford, willowsford blog, willowsford conservancy, Willowsford Farm, Willowsford Ramblings, willowsford va, Willowsford Virginia