When the weather gets cold, I love a glass of cognac after a satisfying meal, especially beside a warm fire. I also like to add a dash of cognac to a dish of caramelized apples with vanilla ice cream, or to other rich wintertime treats. The nutty flavor of this cognac lends itself to both sipping and cooking, so it makes a tasty gift for foodies as well as those who appreciate an after dinner drink or a creative cocktail.
Black walnuts have a distinct flavor reminiscent of cardamom, they make a wonderful addition to desserts, and are believed to have cancer-fighting properties due to a substance they contain called limonene. They are also hard, ornery little things that probably don’t want to be cooked with. After cracking two dozen black walnuts with my cast iron pan to infuse my cognac, I was left with a broken pan, a splinter, and a nicked-up cutting board. No matter, I had a half-cup of delicious black walnut pieces.
If I just psyched you out about making this gift, don’t worry. The recipe can be made using regular English walnuts. The result will yield a different flavor, but have the same warm, savory-sweet effect. I’m fascinated with black walnuts though because they are somewhat difficult to attain, have the aforementioned healing properties, and have a unique flavor that I would try endless experiments with if I weren’t at risk of destroying my kitchen. I wrote about making black walnut and fig ice cream, a divine treat, a couple of months ago on Rachaelray.com, see the post here: http://blog.rachaelray.com/index.php/2009/10/01/ice-cream-gone-wild/. My point is, if you’re brave enough to crack open some black walnuts, or if you’re lucky enough to receive some that have already been shelled, you’ll understand why people continue to put themselves in harm’s way just for the taste.
Finding black walnuts: At the New Amsterdam Market at New York’s South Street Seaport a couple of months ago, I met the owners of Wild Gourmet Food of Vermont, http://www.wildgourmetfood.com/index.html, a small wildcrafting operation that sells high-quality foraged foods, including black walnuts packaged in old egg cartons. They will be at the last market of the season on Sunday December 20 with black walnuts on hand. Aside from picking them yourself on the East Coast or in the Midwest, you can also find sellers online by googling “black walnuts.”
Use any type of cognac, at least a mid-range variety if it’s a gift. You can gift the cognac in its original bottle, or put it in an unlabeled bottle with a lid or a wine bottle stopper. Try tying colorful autumn leaves or a sprig of holly berries around the bottle.
Recipe: Black Walnut-Infused Cognac
At the end of the recipe, you’ll be left with delicious cognac-soaked nuts. Use the nuts to top ice cream, French toast, or pumpkin pie.
Yield: 1 liter cognac
1 liter cognac
1 tablespoon black walnuts or 1 cup regular walnuts
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Pour the cognac into a large glass container. If you’re using black walnuts, toast them for 3 minutes. If you’re using regular walnuts, toast them for 7-10 minutes until they are fragrant and lightly browned. Add the warm nuts to the cognac and cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap. Set the container aside for 5 days, shaking it gently every 12 hours. Strain the cognac through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth, and use a funnel to pour it into the gift bottle.