My husband is convinced that he is allergic to walnuts. He has never cooked with nuts and as he does not bake, he had never considered how often nuts can be used in cakes, cookies, pies. Hazelnuts and pecans, macadamias and almonds, cashews and, yes, walnuts. Whole, chopped or ground. In the batter or for decoration. Walnuts, that most American of baking nut… loved by his nutty American baking wife.
Walnuts have always found their innocent way into my confections. Fruited quick breads, chocolate chip cookies and brownies are always so much better with the crunch and bite, the earthy flavor of a good, coarsely chopped walnut. Roll chocolate truffles in chopped walnuts or press them into the frosting of a layer cake, round and round, and you’ve dressed it up for a party.
And what better partner for chocolate, orange, vanilla, cranberry than a walnut? What better to add crunch to a salad than a walnut? What pairs so much more beautifully with gorgonzola, pears, comté, goat cheese and apples than walnuts? But no, husband has decided that he is allergic. To walnuts.
He drives me nuts.
And so I have given up on, abandoned walnuts. Replaced with pecans. Which somehow work.
My husband is a hard nut to crack, indeed.
Dig through the slender box of Crackerjacks, licking the sticky caramel off of your fingers, or pour out a pile into the palm of your hand, popped corn sliding off, bouncing onto your lap, and pick out the peanuts, salty-sweet, slightly bitter, a rare treat. Snap the shell and toss on the ground, slide and rub the meat of the nut in between your fingers until loose and pop into your mouth; circus, bar, bbq joint, goodtime peanuts!
Peanut butter was a thing of my American childhood, peanut butter sandwich after peanut butter sandwich. Soft white slices glued together with peanut butter, sometimes smooth, sometimes crunchy, but always peanut butter. Peanut butter sandwich in a brown bag lunch or peanut butter sandwich in one hand, book in another, sitting wedged in the forked branches of the tree in our front yard. Or on toast, when another mood struck, a smear of peanut butter on the hot, fresh-from-the-toaster slice, melting and warm as soon as it touched the surface. I never really liked peanut butter and jelly. But during my adventurous years, I loved nothing more than blending peanut butter with sweet and salty and smoky. Anything goes! Peanut butter and banana slices, peanut butter and salty potato chips, peanut butter and salami or bologna or all of the above in one. I felt so cosmopolitan.
Give the dog a spoonful of peanut butter and watch her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth. A wildly good joke among us kids.
My mother teased my father incessantly. More often than not, it was good-hearted teasing, meant to pull this kind, gentle, quiet man out of his shell. Make him chuckle. Sometimes it was like pinching him, pressure just enough to nip without seriously hurting, just a tweak to rile him up, make him nuts, when he did something that just annoyed her. She would taunt him by calling him Morty instead of Mort, or by placing objects where he didn’t like them to be. There were times, according to her stories, when she had been reduced to throwing dishes on the floor, shattering them at his feet to get even the slightest reaction out of this man who did not like confrontation, who was the most peaceful human being we knew.
But her favorite jibe was a chant which never ever failed to make him smile, make him chuckle in its pure silliness. And love.
"Your father is a nut. Your father is a nut."
Sung to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell.
In my father’s last year when he was sinking further and further into dementia, that no man’s land of darkness and decay, my mother took care of him on her own. In order to keep him focused, in order to connect with him and make sure he knew who she was, she would chatter to him, sing to him, attempt to stir up memories, links to his past. I would often peep into their bedroom as she was waking him up in the morning or tucking him in at night and I would hear her chanting “Your father is a nut…your father is a nut!” and my father, his eyes locked on hers, would be grinning ear to ear.
Pine nuts. Pecans. Almonds.
Pine nuts. Pesto. Biscotti. Pan dei Morti. Pinolata. Torta della Nonna. Pignoli.
Pecans. Pecan Pie. Brownies. German Chocolate layer Cake. Praline. Turtles. Pecan Fish. Apple Pecan Dressing. Pecans.
Almonds. Macarons. Tuiles. Financiers. Truite aux Amandes. Nougat. Frangipane. Amandes.
I have long associated certain nuts with certain countries. Nuts a hearty staple of a cuisine, of the pastry, of a culinary heritage. Dining on my first Truite aux Amandes in that huge, bustling, gorgeous Art Nouveau brasserie in the center of Paris, a whole trout lying placidly on the plate, staring off into the distance, elegantly dressed in a cloak of slivered almonds. Coquette. A shower of finely ground almonds like damp sand on a beach, the color of wheat, folded into meringue. Paper-thin flakes of almonds, gently toasted around the edges, the crispiness, the nuttiness of a tuile, perched architecturally atop a crème or a boule de glace. So very French. Receive one’s slice of galette des rois, flakey crisp puff pastry artistically embellished and hope to be the one to find the tiny ceramic charm tucked inside the dense, moist frangipane, almond cream filling. Smoked almonds in a tiny little bowl, elegant apératif with a glass of white wine. Amandes.
The crunch of pine nuts in a spicy pan dei morti, Dead Man's Bread, so light against the deep deep reddish brown of the cookies like the bones they represent, eaten on Festa dei Morti e dei Santi, All Saint's and All Soul's Day. Thick, creamy pesto, handfuls of fragrant basil, fresh from the garden, a generous dusting of Parmesan, pine nuts. The nutty frangipane nip of a Torta della Nonna or a sweet Pinolata. Homey. Lightly toasted pine nuts scattered atop a plate of pasta or salad, the nubbly landscape of a cookie. Pignoli.
Pecans, smooth, hard, chocolate brown shell cracked and crunched open, picked apart to reveal a tender, gnarly meat. Not the prettiest, maybe, but certainly the tastiest. Their heady flavor perfectly matched for stronger flavors like caramel, chocolate, buttery, rummy, spicy coatings. Or standing on their own in delicate, vanilla-scented cookies, dusted with cinnamon sugar. The centerpiece, folksy, rustic, of the Thanksgiving meal; although dessert, who doesn’t wait for a wedge of pecan pie? All American. Pecans.
The perfect blend of sweet, savory, salty and earthy, this pear salad is wonderful in winter when a variety of pears are available and at their best. This elegant dish can be served as a starter or to finish a meal.
Ilva and Jamie’s Winter Pear Salad
Slice one pear lengthwise (top to bottom) and fry them gently in salted butter until golden and soft without being mushy or falling apart.
Divide the buttery slices between two plates, top with several leaves of rocket, cubes of gorgonzola and roughly chopped walnuts. Serve immediately while the pears are still warm.