In a good year for hazelnuts we kids picked buckets of the greenish pods from the shrubs in our woods and left the nuts to dry on the workbench in the garage. It was a race with the red squirrels who also relished them. We used to find piles of empty hazelnut shells on old stumps and fallen trees where squirrels had eaten their fill.
Wild hazelnuts are smaller and have thicker shells than the hazelnuts sold in stores today, so we used Dad’s bench vise to crack the tough shells. We never collected a lot of the finished product, but it was enough for the fudge Mom made for Christmas.
By the mid 1950’s she had discovered the magic of marshmallow cream and the convenience of packaged walnuts, so Christmas fudge became “Never Fail Fudge” with English walnuts, and the hazelnut harvest ended in the Rang family. The fudge was easy to make and still tasted delicious, so no one complained.
However, around that same time I fell in love with black walnut fudge. We didn’t have any black walnut trees near us in Hayward, but we did have aunts and uncles who lived in Indiana and Nebraska where black walnuts were free for the picking.
One of those uncles brought us our first bag of black walnuts, black round nuts so hard that they bounced on the concrete floor. I remember that Dad showed me how to crack them with the vise and gave me the job of separating the nutmeats from the tough shells.
Until you have tackled that job you will not believe how well God protected black walnuts from people. You can drive a car over a black walnut without breaking the shell. In fact, an old gentleman in Charlottesville, Virginia taught me how to remove the husks from black walnuts by doing just that.
He also warned me about the dark pigment in the husks and explained how to dry and cure the nuts. The husks contain an indelible dye that leaves purple stains on skin, clothes, and porch railings.
Unlike people, squirrels have no trouble getting the meat out of black walnuts They loved to sit on our car when they ate the nuts. If the husks were not washed off within an hour or two the damage was done. I could still see the dark blotches when we sold the car years later.
Last year a member of our church contributed a jar of black walnuts he had shelled to the mission sale table. I used some of them to make a date pudding and stored the rest in the freezer for fudge this Christmas.
This is basically the same recipe that Mom used for her “Never Fail Fudge”. The major difference is that she always used semi-sweet chocolate chips while I used bittersweet chips with 60% cacao for a more intense chocolate flavor.
3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1 12 oz. package bittersweet chocolate chips
1 jar (about 7 oz.) marshmallow cream
1/2 cup chopped black walnuts
1 tsp. vanilla
Small amount of butter to grease the pan
Before cooking the candy, chop the nuts coarsely and butter a baking pan. Either a 7 x 11 inch glass baking dish or a 9 x 13 aluminum cake pan will work. Make sure that the vanilla and a measuring spoon are ready.
Combine the sugar, salt, butter and milk in a heavy two to three-quart saucepan. Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Continue boiling over medium heat until a candy thermometer reaches 234° F., stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Remove from the heat.
Stir in the chocolate chips until melted. Add the marshmallow cream, nuts and vanilla. Beat until well blended. Pour the candy into the buttered pan and spread with a spatula.
Cool at room temperature. Cut into squares and store in a closed container in a cool place or the refrigerator
NOTES: This recipe makes about three pounds. When the candy is nearing a boil, I like to cover the pan for a couple of minutes to make sure that all the sugar has dissolved in the steam. This seems to keep the fudge from developing sugar crystals as it cools.
English walnuts and hazelnuts work fine too, but black walnuts give a unique flavor that really complements the chocolate.