I had been trying to get my hands on some sorghum syrup, and found some at Scratch Bakery in Durham during a visit to North Carolina last month. Sorghum syrup is made by grinding the tall sorghum grass or cane, which is grown in the southern Appalachian mountains. It was brought to the southern United States in 1853 from Africa, and became an important locally-produced sweetener. A southern recipe from the 1800s that calls for molasses probably meant sorghum syrup, as it was readily available and affordable for farm and mountain families.
The sorghum I got at Scratch came from Spring Valley Sorghum Mill, an old order Mennonite farm in Scottsville, Kentucky. It is a smooth deep amber color with a flavor less biter and more delicate than molasses. It also tastes great on biscuits.
In continuation of my efforts to bake every pie in Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies, I found her recipe for black walnut pie which calls for sorghum. It makes sense that black walnuts are paired with sorghum here, as black walnut is a tree native to the United States, particularly in Appalachia and the Midwest. Because of the intensive labor of cracking black walnut shells, recipes containing black walnuts nearly went completely out of favor. Now shelled walnuts are readily available, though at my local co-op, a sign hangs above the bulk bin, "STOP! Black walnuts are a particular flavor. DO NOT get them if you do not want them!" It's true, black walnuts, especially raw, are an unusual taste, but baked and paired with sorghum and brown sugar, they make for a rich and hearty heirloom pie.
Black Walnut Pie
adapted from Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies
Nothing-in-the-House pie crust recipe, halved
3 eggs, beaten
1/2 c. to 3/4 c. packed brown sugar, light or dark
1 c. sorghum (can also use molasses)
1/2 c. (one stick) melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract (I used vanilla-bourbon extract)
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. (6 oz.) chopped black walnuts
1. Prepare 1/2 Nothing-in-the-House pie crust as per the directions. Chill for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Roll out pie crust and fit into greased and floured 9-inch pie pan. Flute crust decoratively. Line crust with parchment paper and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 10 minutes. Take crust from oven and remove parchment paper and pie weights. Turn oven temperature up to 400 degrees F.
2. With a whisk, mix eggs and sugar in a medium bowl until well combined. Add sorghum, butter, vanilla, and salt and stir until filling is thick and smooth. Add black walnuts and mix until well incorporated. Pour filing into the partially baked pie crust.
3. Place pie in the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 45-55 minutes more or until filling puffs slightly and the center wiggles only slightly when nudged.
4. Place pie on cooling rack and let cool to room temperature. Serve with whipped cream beaten with sugar and 1/2 tsp. orange zest.
I made this pie on a Saturday afternoon, packed it in my Amish pie carrying basket, and brought it to a music party out at a our friend Hannah's farmhouse outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. As folks started unpacking fiddles and banjos, I unpacked the pie which drew the attention of a woman who had been flatfooting on the other side of the room. As she introduced herself, I suddenly realized that I was shaking the hand of Rebby Sharp, one of my musical heroes.
I was introduced to Rebby's music by my friend Alex when she played her solo album, In One Mouth and Out The Other for me. It is weird and wonderful and combines traditional music with experimental leanings, which describes some of my favorite kind of music. With a little googling, I found that Rebby had also put out a 7'' with another musical hero, Michael Hurley, played in the Richmond band Orthotonics, and then moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains to learn old-time fiddle. A woman after my own heart.
I realized we had some mutual friends through old-time music, so I contacted Rebby via facebook back in December, asking if she would be interested in working with me on a project about her music. She responded and said she was game and to get back in touch in the new year. I was super excited to finally meet her in person, at a music party in a Virginia farmhouse. We talked about weird music, old-time music, Michael Hurley, and pie, and then played some tunes along with a whole slew of others in the "honky-tonk room". Rebby is smart, zany, hilarious and had more energy than all of us 20-somethings at the party combined. So that is how I came to be in a photo with black walnut pie and Rebby Sharp-- a funny experience to have one of your musical role models turn into a friend.