Everything I’ve ever read says that pinyon nuts (Pinus edulis) are ready for harvest in late summer and fall. So you can imagine my surprise a couple weeks ago, while passing through Utah’s Great Basin on our recent road trip, to find fallen pine nuts with the nutseeds intact, ripe and ready to eat.
Throughout the trip I’d been absentmindedly pinching fallen pinyon nuts whenever I saw them, but always getting air. Then one day during a bathroom stop I got out of the car and looked up to see the most cone-laden pinyon tree I’d ever seen. All of the cones were dangling open, so I looked down to see a litter of pine nuts in the duff underneath. I picked one up and pinched it only to find a firm, white-tan seed inside! Incredulous, I popped it in my mouth, and was further astounded by the flavor.
When Gregg got out of the bathroom I asked him to climb under the tree with me to collect pine nuts. (In case you’re wondering, these are the same pine nuts that can be purchased in the grocery store—except that usually the pine nuts you buy at the store are imported from overseas, despite the fact that pinyon trees grow wild in large swaths across the western United States and Mexico.)
We spent a half hour under the tree and came away with a small bag of pine nuts, though in retrospect I should have spent hours collecting them, as it was hard for me not to consume the entire bag that day. Inside the shells, each pine nut was a surprise—some bright white-tan and firm, others softer, in various shades of translucent browns, the color and flavor evincing some amount of fermentation during their stay on the forest floor. I spent the rest of our ride across Utah happily cracking pine nuts between my teeth (only do this with the soft-shelled varieties), taking in the reds and pinks and oranges of the Great Basin scenery as Gregg piloted our Vanagon, Myrtle, across. It was fun while it lasted, but before the day was over I decided to pack the remaining pine nuts away, out of reach of my eager mouth, so that I could save a few for a special recipe.
Dulce de Leche Adventure
I spent a lot of time in Mexico in my 20’s, and one of my favorite desserts, which I picked up at an open-air shop, were dulce de leche candies rolled in pine nuts. So that’s what I decided to make.
I followed an online recipe for dulce de leche candies that said to remove the label from a can of condensed milk and boil it for 8 hours, making sure to keep the top of the can a couple inches underwater so that it wouldn’t explode and injure me. Except that we live at 10,000 feet, so I ended up going 10 hours with it. What a project! Ten hours is a lot longer than I thought, especially when you’re adding a few inches of water every 30 minutes. And especially when afterward your friend tells you it’s possible to buy pre-boiled condensed milk in the supermarket.
Later, after the can cooled to room temperature and spent the night in the refrigerator to chill, I opened it at both ends and pushed the candy through, only to discover that I hadn’t boiled it long enough. Instead of a candy consistency, I got spreadable caramel—which was not going to work for my candy idea.
Sugar Cookies Topped with Pine Nuts
Fortunately, Gregg is a talented cookie-maker, so I asked him to whip me up a batch of sugar cookies. We made the thin kind, following a recipe for Christmas cookies from The Joy of Cooking. When they came out of the oven, I pasted the dulce de leche on top and decorated them with painstakingly shelled wild pine nuts. What can I say? They were divine.
Pine Nut Liqueur
I served the pine nut cookies with pine nut liqueur.
I had infused vodka with pine nut shells and broken nutseeds on a prior occasion, pouring vodka over the detritus from purchased and consumed pine nuts, and letting it sit in the closet for a month or two. (Those pine nuts were also hand-collected, but not by me, and sold in the shell at our local grocery store.) The idea for the pine nut infused vodka came from Pinyon Penny Frazier, a conservationist who also sells pine nuts as she works to raise awareness for the preservation of pinyon forests.
This is the first time, however, that I added simple syrup to the vodka to turn it into a liqueur. Oh man, am I hooked on pine nut liqueur! Served over ice, it was a very nice complement to the pine nut and dulce de leche-topped cookies.
We are eating very well in this house indeed.