Hickory nuts taste of family, tradition for Lexington pie maker and me

A hickory nut pie made by Carlotta Abbott of Lexington. Abbott uses a basic Karo syrup pie recipe but with dark syrup and brown sugar for more flavor.
A hickory nut pie made by Carlotta Abbott of Lexington. Abbott uses a basic Karo syrup pie recipe but with dark syrup and brown sugar for more flavor.

Sometimes the best food ideas fall from the sky. Like hickory nuts.

Carlotta Abbott calls making her hickory nut pies for the holidays a “labor of love,” because almost every part of the process is so time-consuming. But the results are magical: a bridge between her childhood and her grandchildren that creates both a sense memory and a family tradition.

“It was tradition to gather hickory nuts from the cemetery on our family farm in Monticello, and the adults made hickory nut pie, and chocolates and cakes,” said Abbott, 65, who lives in Lexington now.

What does she love about it? “The whole process of gathering them on a crisp fall day, cracking them out, and sharing stories. It become a passion, a love of mine.”

She has kept that tradition alive with her three adult children, three grandchildren and now her great-granddaughter.

“With my grandchildren growing up here in the city, it’s so fun to take them to a farm in the country and expose them to something different. Even the two little ones who are picky eaters love eating the nuts as we crack them out,” she said. “We crack them as a family and make hickory nut pies.”

Hickory nuts have a distinctive flavor that is reminiscent of black walnuts, but milder.

In the fall, Abbott begins scouting her trees. She has friends who have hickory trees on a farm, but she also has found them in surprising semi-public locations, including the woods near the Hartland subdivision.

“A lot of people gather,” she said. “You just find a person who has a tree.”

She said big shagbark hickory nuts are easier to crack, but smaller nuts have a better flavor. The nuts typically fall just after the first hard frost, and Abbott says you have to be ready to gather them or the squirrels will beat you to them.

“You have to be diligent and frequent the tree daily to get them. They just don’t last long once they are down,” she said.

This was a pretty good year for hickory nuts, she said. In years when nuts are plentiful, sometimes she will make fudge, too.

“I remember one year not having hickory nut pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas because there weren’t any. I’ve learned to hold back enough for the next year’s pies,” she said.

Once the nuts are gathered, the real work begins.

“I have watched more sappy movies while cracking hickory nuts in my living room,” she said. Her tips: crack them on the pointed end, not the side, to get out half of the nut at time. She also suggested letting them air-dry a bit to loosen, and putting the pieces through various sizes of colanders to make it easier to pick out any stray hulls.

If the hickory flavor in the pie isn’t enough for you, Abbott said, you can also make hickory syrup that’s great on pancakes. “You can pull the bark off and boil it and make hickory syrup,” she said. She has done it. Once.

“The condensation made sticky drops on everything in my kitchen, so I haven’t done that again,” she said

Over Thanksgiving, Abbott inspired me to gather hickory nuts with my family in Arkansas, where we often pick up pecans that grow in a neighboring pasture. There were several hickory nut trees there, too.

Picking up nuts is a bit obsessive — once you get into hunting for them, it becomes almost impossible to walk past one lying on the ground and not pick it up.

And with hickory nuts, which aren’t readily available in most stores, you could make a little money selling them: on eBay, a pound of shelled hickory nuts was offered for as much as $29.99. Windy Corner Market in Lexington is selling 8 ounces for about $14, and it comes with Abbott’s Karo syrup pie recipe.

My hickory nuts became a family project. My mother, my husband, my son and an uncle helped me gather them. One of my uncles hammered them open for us, and almost everyone took turns picking them out over the holiday.

My uncles remembered that my late grandmother was particularly fond of them, which led my mother to pull out her box of recipes, an old gray card file stuffed with recipes clipped from magazines, newspapers and labels.

It also had index cards of favorites, in her handwriting, for never-fail peanut brittle, never-fail dumplings and hominy. The hominy requires 2 cups of wood ashes and a 2-gallon iron kettle, and the white corn has to be boiled three times. The odds of me making that are slim to none.

But buried within the file were her treasures, stained recipes for divinity, which she made with either hickory nuts or black walnuts, and fresh apple cookies made with chopped apples, raisins and chopped nuts. And pineapple oatmeal drops, marked “real good cookies” in the corner of the card, also made with chopped nuts.

I brought home a small bag of hickory nuts, maybe three cups, which I plan to parcel out into holiday treats at Christmas. Besides a pie, I was game to try the divinity, but my mother advised that without a stand mixer, I would be beating until my arm got sore. So pineapple oatmeal drops and apple cookies it is.

My new old Christmas tradition fell into my lap because Carlotta Abbott likes to gather hickory nuts.

And so did my grandmother.

Fresh Apple Cookies

From my grandmother’s recipe box

1/2 cup shortening

1 1/3 cups brown sugar, packed

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 unbeaten egg

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon soda

1 cup unpeeled, chopped apples

1 cup raisins

1 cup nut meats, chopped

1/4 cup applesauce or milk

Beat shortening, sugar, spices and egg until smooth. Sift flour with soda; add half of this mixture to batter and blend. Stir in fruit, nuts, milk or applesauce. Add rest of flour mixture and blend well. Drop by teaspoon on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 minutes.

Pineapple Oatmeal Drops

From my grandmother’s recipe box

1/2 cup oleo (margarine)

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 egg unbeaten

1 cup undrained pineapple

1 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon soda

1 1/2 cups quick oatmeal

1/2 cup chopped nuts

Cream oleo, sugar and spices until fluffy. Beat in egg and stir in pineapple. Sift flour, soda and salt together and add to mixture. Add oatmeal and nuts, mixing well. If the pineapple is too juicy, you can add more flour or oatmeal to get the right consistency.

Drop by spoonful onto greased baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Cool a minute and remove.

Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

Hickory Nut Pie

Carlotta Abbott’s recipe

3 eggs

2/3 cup sugar (brown sugar)

1 cup dark corn syrup

1/3 cup melted butter

Cup of hickory nuts

Dash of salt

9-inch unbaked pastry shell or go without for a gluten-free option

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat eggs, sugar, salt, syrup and butter together. Add nuts and pour into pie shell, if using. Bake for 50 minutes, until center is almost firm.