Bay Nut Brownies

I must apologize for my long silence. I was extraordinarily busy last year finishing two books, The Curious Kitchen Garden, to be published by Timber Press next spring, and First Fruits: The Lewellings and the Birth of the Pacific Coast Fruit Industry, to be published by Oregon State University Press at about the same time. I’m back at work now on one of my older book projects, but I wanted to take a break to share with you all my latest experiment with foraged food.

I stumped the book club this week with my mystery brownies. One member guessed they contained beets, another peanuts. Others were sure I’d added coffee. And indeed the brownies smelled like coffee—strong, dark-roasted coffee—but they also bore an intriguing herbal note. They were my first batch of brownies made with bay nuts.

Bay nuts come from one of my favorite evergreen trees, the California bay laurel. Although it is most often associated with northern California and the southern Oregon coast, it grows almost everywhere in California except the Delta and the high Sierra Nevada, and it is also endemic here in the Willamette Valley (in Linn County I know bay trees that must be more than a century old). In California the tree is often shrub-like, but here it can grow as tall as one hundred feet. The leaves are so intensely aromatic that Californians will use a scrap of one in place of a whole Mediterranean bay leaf. Oregonians tend to ignore the leaves but treasure the wood, which they call myrtle. From it they make such things as salad bowls and musical instruments. But few people anywhere eat the nuts, though native tribes once enjoyed them.

I’d never paid any attention to bay nuts until my daughter asked me why I didn’t use them (why she ponders such questions from her home in Sweden I do not understand, but that’s Rebecca). Soon after, I found myself crunching the nuts underfoot as I strolled through town. Last year was a good one for collecting bay nuts; they were scattered over the sidewalk in several places in my neighborhood. And so I gathered a couple of handfuls.

bay nuts, in and out of shellBay nuts fall in November. It’s probably wise to gather them right away, though the ones I collected had survived many rainy days without getting moldy. The nuts have a thin green skin that comes off easily. Nuts that have fallen to the ground will often have lost their skins already. I peeled away the skins remaining on my nuts before leaving them to dry for a few weeks indoors. Once dry, the nuts are supposed to keep well for years.

Most people who use bay nuts roast them in their shells. Not knowing this, I shelled my nuts before roasting them. The thin, round, buff-colored shells come off with a light whack of a meat mallet or hammer. The freed nutmeats fall into halves.

roasted bay nutsI roasted my nuts at 350 degrees F, turning them two or three times, until they were a uniform dark brown. This took about 45 minutes. The roasted nuts smelled very strongly of coffee, first, and chocolate, second, along with that herbal je ne sais quoi.

 Because the nuts taste so strong on their own, I thought they would be most useful as a powder. They must be ground with care, though, since they are about 50-percent fat—about as rich as almonds and cashews. They gummed up both our manual and electric coffee grinders before I fetched a stone mortar. I ground the nuts quickly and easily in the mortar, to a brown, clumping powder. At least it seemed like a powder until I tried to remove it from the mortar. I had to scrape off the paste at the bottom with a steel spoon.

ground bay nuts in mortarground bay nuts in bowlBecause my powder wasn’t entirely smooth, I later reground it in the Vitamix. For some reason, this worked: The powder smoothed out and didn’t form a paste.

Robert used a tablespoon of the powder to make a cup of drip “coffee”—actually, a clear, golden brown liquid more like tea than coffee. The flavor was pleasant enough, but I think the powder might be better used like chocolate or cocoa, blended with hot water or milk.

Bay nuts are supposed to contain a stimulant, not caffeine but something similar, which is said to make people feel energetic and focused. Robert didn’t notice any such effect. I concluded that the powder was safe to try on the book club.

For the club, I used my favorite brownie recipe, which calls for both chocolate and cocoa. Because Hershey’s cocoa, which I usually use, is only 10-percent fat, my bay nut brownies turned out extra dense and rich but very good, and extremely aromatic. In fact, even though the book club seemed to love the brownies, I suspect that some people would find them too aromatic. So, the first time you try this recipe, you might replace just half or even a quarter of the cocoa with bay nut powder.

Bay Nut Brownies

bay nut brownies½ cup butter
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup flour
7 tablespoons bay nut powder (or bay nut powder and cocoa combined)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease and flour a 9-inch-square baking pan, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Beat in the sugar and eggs. Stir in the flour and bay nut powder, and then the vanilla extract. Spoon the mixture into the pan, and smooth the top. Bake the cake 25 to 30 minutes, until it is just firm in the center.

Let the cake cool before cutting it into squares.