Black walnuts: Either you love ’em or hate ’em, right? There may be a good reason for that division, as you’ll read later on. In this recipe, toasting the nuts mellows the flavor. Brown sugar and cinnamon go especially well with them, to make this black walnut ice cream recipe stand out from all the others. But feel free to experiment with other spices, and maybe even citrus zests. Black walnuts are not usually available at the local grocery store, so to get them, you can forage for them or buy them online.
Are black walnuts supposed to be bitter?
That depends on who you ask. I don’t think I know of any other food that divides people as much as the black walnut. Opinions range from incredibly delicious to bitterly vile, and many people seem to fall into one extreme or the other. And it’s not just that some people hate all nuts. Our family always has several different kinds of nuts on hand, unsalted and unsweetened, and we all like them and eat them regularly. But we’re divided, extremely so, over black walnuts. This baffled me for some time, because I taste the bitterness and could not imagine anyone not noticing it.
Recently I explained this mystery to my daughter Alison, who was immediately reminded of an interesting exercise in her AP biology class. She says there is a gene that gives people the ability to taste certain bitter plant compounds. 75% of people have the dominant form of the gene, and the remaining 25% have the recessive form. It’s called the PTC gene, because you can test for it by tasting the chemical phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). If you have the dominant form of the gene, PTC and certain plant compounds taste bitter. If you have the recessive form, PTC and certain plant compounds are tasteless.
So Alison’s hypothesis is that black walnuts contain one of those compounds that tastes bitter only to people who have the dominant form of the PTC gene. Seems like a reasonable explanation for the two camps into which black walnuts divide us, right? At least based on my family’s data point. Alison was one of the few students in her biology class who could not taste PTC, and she also perceives no bitterness in black walnuts. In fact, she thinks they taste much better than English walnuts. My husband agrees with her. My son and I, on the other hand, taste extreme bitterness….But not if we take measures to reduce the bitterness. Read on.
You can reduce the bitter flavor of black walnuts by toasting them. It’s counter-intuitive, because toasting intensifies the flavor of other nuts. But in the case of black walnuts, the bitter flavor cooks out….Unless, of course, you cook them for too long and burn them. Burning increases the bitterness. So you have to cook them very carefully, and I find that it’s more easily done on the stove top than in the oven.
In this recipe, toasting mellows the nuts and glazing adds a pocket of sweetness.
Makes about a quart of ice cream
Toasting and glazing the black walnuts
- 2/3 cup chopped black walnuts
- 1 and 1/2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp brown sugar
- Dash of cinnamon
- Dash of salt, if butter is unsalted
- Toast the nuts in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until nut papers begin to shed and nut meats begin to slightly brown. Some of the nut papers might burn, but be careful not to burn the nut meats!
- Remove from heat and pour them onto a clean towel.
- Fold the towel over the nuts and rub the nut papers off. (You need to get rid of any burnt nut papers, which will be bitter.)
- Place the naked nuts into a clean small saucepan, and add the other ingredients.
- Heat and stir until butter is melted and all ingredients well blended.
- Spread onto a foil lined plate and place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.
- Transfer to a small container, breaking them up as necessary, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Black Walnut Ice Cream
- 3 large eggs
- 2/3 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- Pinch of salt
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup whole or low fat milk
- 2 tbsp corn syrup
- 1 batch of toasted, glazed black walnuts (above)
- In a medium bowl, whisk eggs until yolks and whites are well blended, and set aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together sugar, cinnamon, and salt until cinnamon is well distributed.
- In a 4 qt saucepan, heat cream, milk, and corn syrup over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until it begins to simmer.
- Add sugar/cinnamon mixture and stir until sugar is dissolved.
- Remove from heat, and temper the eggs by drizzling about 1 and 1/2 cups of the hot cream mixture into the eggs while you whisk the eggs vigorously.
- Carefully pour the egg mixture into the 4 qt saucepan with the remaining hot cream mixture.
- Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly (preferably with a heat proof rubber spatula, but a metal or wooden spoon will do), until mixture thickens and reaches a temperature of about 170-175 degrees F. Scrape the bottom of the pan as you stir. It usually takes 8-10 minutes to thicken, but this varies, depending on your heating element and your pan. Mixture should be noticeably thicker than the raw cream mixture.
- Remove from heat and immediately pour through a fine mesh strainer, into a clean bowl.
- Refrigerate immediately, or pre-cool in a cold water bath for about 30 minutes, and then refrigerate. Stir occasionally for the first half hour of cooling.
- Keep refrigerated until fully cooled, at least 4 hours. It will thicken while cooling until it reaches the consistency of a pourable pudding.
- Churn in ice cream maker according the manufacturer’s directions.
- Stir in glazed nuts, as you transfer to a storage container.
- Freeze until ready to eat or until desired firmness.