Holes on the Menu

As we planned our menu for an upcoming backpacking trip, Souzz reminded me that she “basically grew up on doughnuts”—which was a shocking revelation coming from somebody so fit. Apparently her hometown of Buffalo has a long (or round?) doughnut heritage–with Freddie’s, Paula’s, Tim Horton’s, and Zen’s (her family favorite as a kid).  Doughnuts were (and are) such a part of the Buffalo scene that hometown hockey hero Jim Schoenfeld once famously screamed at one of the lesser fit NHL referees to “have another doughnut!”

The weekend’s destination was a quick overnight to Kepler Overlook, in the Blue Ridge near Van Buren Furnace. Our good friend KB joined us for the first day.

The hike started out along Cedar Creek before finishing on a long ridge, covering about five miles and 1000 feet of elevation. There were several great campsites up high, as well as a nice “improved” site on Cedar Creek with benches and a huge fire pit. We headed to one of the sites on the ridge, bringing a gallon and a half of water along with a bunch of good food (winter camping, even on a warmer weekend, should always be about food).

It was too bad KB couldn’t stick around for the evening, because dinner at our camp overlooking the Shenandoah Valley was fabulous. We started with an appetizer of local ham, smoked trout, and cheese, and then followed with beef tenderloin, gnocchi with tomatoes and garlic, red wine, and frybake chocolate chip cookies. We don’t lose weight on these trips.

The day’s mild temps eventually dipped into the high 30s, and then morning dawned warm and sunny….perfect doughnut weather, right? We learned soon enough that backcountry doughnuts really are pretty easy. We’d made the dough ahead of time using a Betty Crocker recipe, and we didn’t really need a lot of extra stuff on the trail–just an instant-read thermometer, a pair of tongs, vegetable oil, and cake doughnut toppings (chocolate, cinnamon, and powdered sugar).

While the oil was coming to temperature on our cook stove, we rolled out the dough and cut it into shape using the top of a Nalgene bottle and a cap from a Diet Coke. Then we dropped the dough into 375-degree oil for about two minutes a side. From there it was a quick dunk into the topping of choice and it was time for our Zens-like moment(s).

With several miles of walking ahead of us after breakfast, it was pretty easy to justify a doughnut. There was less of a case for the next four.

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Picking A Cake

My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?

“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.

My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”

“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.

“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”

“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”

When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.

Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”

My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.

We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.

As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.