One of the first questions I had as I began researching acorns was what do other groups do with them? The literature is dominated by roughly hewn recipes from either various Indian groups or hippies. Neither, quite frankly, are recipes I am overly jazzed about.
That said, American Indians do know their stuff when it come to methods on dealing with raw acorns: How to turn what is essentially a bitter nut into all sorts of tasty foods. Meal, flour, whole nuts, grits, etc. They even boiled off acorn oil in certain varieties, which is reputedly similar in flavor and composition to olive oil. Who knew?
But oaks live all over the world, from Asia to North Africa to Europe to North America. And where there are acorns, people have eaten them. They have their own methods, too.
Let me digress for a second. For those of you who read my Twitter feeds, you will already know that last week was not my best: I ruptured my achilles tendon (carrying a Christmas tree, of all things!), walked around on it for a week (even went duck hunting once, stupid me) and finally had surgery to repair it Wednesday afternoon.
I am now in a cast and will remain so for months. Achilles surgery is no joke. My duck hunting season is over. So is the best part of the mushroom season, not to mention sturgeon, Dungeness crabs and the early gardening season. Best guess on when I will be mobile will be about April 1. Physical therapy will extend even beyond that. Ugh.
So the upshot will be a lot more cooking in house, fewer outdoor adventures — and a chance to buckle down on writing my book. I am not supposed to leave the house until my stitches are removed in a few weeks. Maybe I can write a new book: How To Cook Sitting Down. Sigh.
Back to acorns.
Turns out the acorn-eatingest people in the world right now are the Koreans. If you go to a good Asian market, there is a good chance you will find acorn flour and acorn noodles, which look just like soba noodles. I was about to go buy some and play with it when I got injured. From what I can tell the noodles are eaten in the same way soba noodles are; and yes, they also appear to a lesser extent in Japanese cuisine.
Any Korean food experts out there? My question is whether acorn flour and noodles are considered low-class or poor people’s food. Because that is their stigma everywhere else in the world, best I can tell.
This is interesting. A certain set of scholars think that sometime around 10,000 years ago, humans — who ate acorns with aplomb at the time — grew in population to the point where they were overeating them and threatening the oaks. Great big oaks that gave sweet acorns would be in demand and might even be fought over, as the Indians did in parts of California.
So with too few acorns and a burgeoning population, the scholars theorize that the people looked to wild grains as a secondary source of vital carbohydrates. And carbs are key to a hunter-gathering society; remember the Forager’s Dilemma I referred to last week?
Turned out these wild grains — emmer wheat, spelt, barley and rye — domesticate easily, are annuals so can be planted anywhere if your tribal group moves around, and give easily collectible seed that is lighter than a big ole’ bag of acorns, which have a pretty long lag time from acorn to acorn-bearing oak. And good luck moving a giant oak when invaders arrive, but you can flee with some barley seed and plant again next spring.
Acorns, which are, for the most part, bitter and need to be water-leached at least once or twice to be palatable, fell by the wayside. Acorns also lack gluten, which is vital in making bread items stick together. Wheat, barley and rye all have at least a little gluten. Not so with acorn.
So acorns, and in Europe chestnuts, which have a similar consistency, fell to the status of emergency or famine foods. A fixation with whitened wheat flour furthered this. Black bread was for peasants, and acorn cooks up dark. It’s the sugars in them.
Consequently, you need to seach far and wide for acorn recipes in European circles. North African Berbers do use them, however. I corresponded with Paula Wolfert, who wrote the great Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, which is the sine qua non of Moroccan cookbooks. Wolfert told me that Berbers will sometimes make couscous from acorn flour. Fascinating. I have heard that Italians will make acorn flour pasta, too. I developed my own recipe for acorn flour pasta here.
Another source on Moroccan food tells me they also roast and salt acorns and serve them like roasted chestnuts. Linda Berzok, who wrote American Indian Food, says that the Indians around Tuscon, Arizona, sell roasted acorns from the Emory Oak, which are so sweet they don’t need leaching. An expert on Mexican food says in Chihuahua they do the same thing; makes sense, as the Emory Oak lives there, too.
Back in Europe, acorns from the Cork oak are pretty sweet, and those that the famed jamon iberico pigs eat, the bellotas, reputedly need no leaching. I mentioned the German acorn coffee last week, and apparently both the Germans and Swiss resorted to them during World War II.
Janet from The Old Foodie sent me a recipe for acorn bread from an English book written in 1802 that is a little like the acorn flatbreads I made last week, although with no wheat flour. These English acorn cakes are more like acorn meal hamburger patties cooked in embers.
In Europe, the thread running through most acorn and chestnut cookery is that they are fillers when wheat flour is scarce. Considering the reverence many groups have for wheat it’s pretty easy to see why anything they need to fill out a bread recipe would be seen as an adulteration, not an enhancement.
I am not a European. I am an American, and really couldn’t care less about reverence for wheat or whatever. I wanted to mess around with acorns because I knew they were edible, I knew lots of cultures have worked with them, they are free, and, well, I wanted to impress Chef Chris Cosentino.
OK, I know. It’s juvenile. Chris is a great chef in San Francisco and I am an amateur living in a suburb of Sacramento. But we sorta know each other and we both view food — especially meat and offal — as a chance to perform a series of mad experiments in the hopes of making what most people throw out unforgettably delicious.
The acorn thing started a few years ago when he served me an acorn soup. It was delicious and smooth, like a chestnut soup but better. His had a little seared duck liver on top that I thought wasn’t overly needed. But the soup itself was superb. I determined to make it.
I still haven’t, damn this achilles injury. But I know now what I want to do with it. More on that later. I have, however, gotten a solid understanding of what acorns can do.
After the bread and coffee, I made an acorn cake. The Italians make a chestnut flour cake called castagnaccio, but it contains no leaveners. I imagine it’s like a hockey puck. So I Frenchified it and added beaten egg whites, baking powder and baking soda. I baked it in little ramekins and topped it with powdered sugar.
Now I am not a cake maker. The cake itself was really crumbly — too crumbly for my taste. But the taste of the cake was amazing! It was a dead ringer for a gingerbread cake, only there was no gingerbread spices in it at all! I was shocked. All that’s in it is acorn flour, eggs, honey, olive oil, sugar and a pinch of salt. How did it get to be like gingerbread? Must be the acorns.
The last acorn experiment I got to before the injury was really not so much an acorn recipe as a recipe with acorns. It is a grouse soup. Yes, a soup. With ruffed grouse. I normally would not do that to a game bird as rare as a ruffie, but we had two that needed to be skinned — so they could not be roasted properly. I also had some real wild rice, not the cultivated kind, that I wanted to use as well.
Basically the acorns serve the same basic purpose as a potato in this soup: A firm starchy thing to chew on. Had I had this soup to do over again, I would use leached acorns that had not been roasted; the roasted acorns were too tough and needed a long, long time to soften.
The soup itself is a good, hearty soup that tastes like how someone living in the Minnesota Northwoods would make chicken soup. Wild rice, grouse meat, grouse broth, porcini mushrooms, carrots, acorn pieces. I tossed in some grated pecorino cheese for the hell of it, too. Was a nice touch.
ACORN or CHESTNUT FLOUR CAKE
The Italians make a sweet chestnut cake called castagnaccio, so I decided to replicate that with acorn flour – the two nuts are remarkably similar. But then I read up on castagnaccio, and saw it was heavy, almost hockey puck-like. So I decided to go French instead, adding leaveners and beaten egg whites to lighten the cake. I found a version of a chestnut cake like this in an old Gourmet magazine, and this acorn cake recipe is a riff off that.
These are lovely done in a 9-inch springform pan, but are equally good in buttered ramekins. Be sure to use a small circle of parchment paper on the bottom of the ramekin, and butter both sides. This will help you get the little cakes out easier. Oh, and don’t forget they rise, so don’t fill them too high.
Dust them with confectioner’s sugar at the end, and if you want to get really fancy, cut out the shape of an oak tree in parchment paper and use it as a stencil.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup acorn or chestnut flour
- 1/2 cup cake flour or all-purpose wheat flour
- ¼ cup toasted and chopped pine nuts (optional)
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 separated eggs
- ½ cup honey
- ¼ cup sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
- Butter for greasing pans
- Grease the springform pan or ramekins. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Mix the acorn flour, wheat flour, baking soda and powder and salt in a bowl.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in another large bowl, beat the egg yolks, oil, honey and 2 tablespoons of sugar together until it looks like caramel. Mix in the dry ingredients.
- In another bowl, add the egg whites and just a pinch of salt and beat into soft peaks. Add the remaining sugar and beat a bit more, so the whites are reaching the firm peak stage.
- Fold this into the dough a little at a time gently.
- Pour, or really gently place, the dough into the ramekins (remember they will rise!) or the springform pan. Using a rubber spatula flatten out the top and place in the oven as fast as you can.
- Bake for about 30 minutes. After 20 minutes, watch for burning, as acorn flour browns faster than chestnut flour. Remove from the oven, let rest 5 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool.
- When they have cooled for a good 15-20 minutes or so, dust with the confectioner’s sugar.