Sarah Polk’s Hickory Nut Cake

By • October 17, 2016 3 Comments

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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


Serves 12 to 16

  • 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.

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