Lemon Juice

Sarah Polk’s Hickory Nut Cake

October 17, 2016
3 Ratings
Photo by Mitch Mandel
  • Serves 12 to 16
Author Notes

When hickory trees populated America, people would rush to gather the sweet, buttery nuts in the fall before the animals did. Carol Meeks of Indianapolis, said that in 1838 her great-great-grandparents purchased Indiana farmland with an abundance of shagbark hickory trees. Gathering the nuts became a generations-old tradition, and the nuts were laid under beds in the old farmhouse to dry, before cracking, shelling, and folding the nut meat into cakes and cookies for the holidays. Smooth, ivory-colored hickory nuts are one of the few indigenous American nuts, and Native Americans ate them raw. They are a lot like the pecan, only smaller, harder to obtain, and more labor intensive to shell. Hickory wood is known for its strength and durability, used for tool handles and fence posts in addition to firewood.

This pound cake with chopped hickory nuts folded into the batter was popular during the 1800s and is adapted from The First Ladies Cook Book by Margaret Brown Klapthor. It was a favorite recipe of Sarah Polk, wife of former U.S. president James K. Polk. —Anne Byrn

What You'll Need
  • Butter and flour for prepping the pan
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
  • 1 cup chopped hickory nuts or pecans
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350° F. Lightly butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan, and shake out the excess flour. Set the pan aside.
  2. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy, 1 minute. Add the sugar, a couple of tablespoons at a time, beating on medium until light and creamy, 2 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating until combined. Set aside.
  3. Place the flour, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl and sift to combine. Set aside. Place the egg whites in a large mixing bowl and, with clean beaters, beat on high speed until stiff peaks form, about 4 minutes. Set aside. Stir the lemon juice into the milk. Alternately add the flour mixture and milk to the butter mixture in 3 additions, beating on low speed just to combine. Beat in the hickory nuts and extracts, if desired, on low speed until combined. By hand, fold the beaten egg whites into the batter, just until combined. Turn the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and place the pan in the oven.
  4. Bake the cake until it is golden brown and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, 55 to 60 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven, and place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 20 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan, give the pan a gentle shake, then invert the cake onto the rack to cool, right side up, for 30 minutes. Slice and serve.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sarah Naparalla
    Sarah Naparalla
  • Shavri Stone
    Shavri Stone
  • Anne Byrn
    Anne Byrn
  • mtomp45
Anne Byrn is the author of American Cake (Rodale, 2016), the history of cake in America, with recipes. She lives and bakes Nashville, TN.

5 Reviews

mtomp45 April 28, 2021
This cake is delicious! I ended up ordering shelled hickory nuts from hickorynutsdirect.com they were very good and much easier than cracking all the nuts myself!
Sarah N. November 15, 2016
It is worth buying a Roloff nut cracker, made in Kaukauna, WI. Yes you can easily get out whole halves with this. The real trick is to re-hydrate the nut after they have been dried so the shell becomes a little flexible and cracks in the weak areas and the nut is moist enough to bend during the cracking process and stay together. Soak the nuts in cold water for 5-7 hrs then spread out to dry about an hour or 2 so the shell turns white again. Then crack with the Roloff or a hammer. Make sure you are inserting the right way in the cracker or hitting in the correct spot with the hammer (watch a video on youtube). Much of the time the shell will fall away from the nut and a pick is not needed. Instead of "picking" the nutmeat out "crack" the shell around it if needed. Insert you pick into the corner of where the outside shell meets the center dividing shell and use as a wedge to break one side or the other. You will find that you can pick out whole nuts quickly and it is very enjoyable! I've just completed picking out my 58th lb. of shelled nuts from last years 150 lbs of unshelled nuts picked up.
Shavri S. October 23, 2016
Unfortunately MadeleineC I have never found an "easy" way but there are a couple things that make life a little easier.
1) use a HARDshell nut cracker. Not the type that look like what you use for crab or lobster. Those are great for thin shelled nuts but pignut and shagbark hickory nuts will laugh at them.
2)make sure they have been dried (in the sun is recommended) for 2 weeks.
you WILL have to pick the meats, don't expect to get many whole pieces.
Sorry, that is about all the little things that will make it possible but not easy to shell them. it is a lot of work.
Anne B. October 23, 2016
I wish I could gather even that many from our half dozen trees in Tennessee. I had to order shelled hickory nuts for the recipe testing in American Cake. I will look up the contact information for those nuts MadeleineC. I ordered them from an individual in Wisconsin.
MadeleineC October 23, 2016
Does anyone have any insight into shelling hickory nuts? We have a number of trees on our 2 acres in upstate NY, but the one time we tried to shell them it took 2 hours to accumulate a third of a cup. Those nuts are about 80% iron-hard hull to 20% meat.