Time to make truffles!
Story, recipe, and photo by Alexandra Hudson
In the height of midsummer’s plump heat, little green orbs begin their biennial-ish sprout from the branches of the California bay laurel. Over the following months, these baby nuts mature into their avocado-green-and-maroon–fleshed fullness. Come fall, they drop in prolific bounty throughout the coastal redwood and oak forestlands all up and down the West Coast. This year marks a windfall season for the bay nut, and for those familiar with this local blessing, the time for nut collection is upon us.
Bay nuts are a traditional food of our region’s Indigenous peoples, who have enjoyed them through the centuries in dishes spanning savory to sweet. The nuts’ bittersweet mocha flavor provides a dark, dusky undertone similar to cacao and coffee, and their buzzy caffeine-like effects give the nuts coveted status as a stimulant. Exercise caution as you try the nuts, since the energizing effect is a welcome relief for some but overstimulating for others.
Bay nuts are collected mostly as ground scores over the course of autumn into winter. The fleshy fruit that encases the nut is edible but acrid and is often discarded in the quest for the nut. When harvesting, prioritize nuts with flesh that is free of rot in order to reduce the chance of mold during the drying process. Prized nuts are plump enough to peel easily, which you are advised to do as swiftly as possible since the skin is more difficult to peel away once it has dried on the nut. Give the nuts a solid rinse to remove any remaining skin, and dry fully in a spot with good air circulation. It can be helpful to lightly dry the nuts on baking sheets in a low-temperature oven to minimize potential for mold.
The antimicrobial activity of the nuts’ volatile oil content ensures that once they are dried, they can be stored in a cool, dark place for several years. These oils are irritating to the mucosal lining of the throat, and for this reason, bay nuts are not typically eaten raw. Roasting destroys the oils and also gives the nuts their characteristic toasty notes, but fully roasted bay nuts no longer have the oils that promote shelf life, so they are best processed into a paste shortly after roasting. Once you crack and remove the hard shells, you can enjoy the nuts in your favorite recipes.
Bay Nut Truffles
Modeled after Robert Linxe’s famous chocolate truffles, this recipe has a special California flair. The substitution of bay nuts for cacao paste in a 1:1 weight ratio works because the two have a similar waxy fat makeup.
Makes 50 1-inch truffles
500 grams raw bay nuts (350 grams roasted and shelled)
200 grams coconut sugar or raw cane sugar
300 grams heavy whipping cream or coconut cream
100 grams cacao powder
Pinch of salt
To roast and shell the bay nuts: Preheat oven to 425°. Roast dry bay nuts on an unlined baking sheet, checking at 20 minutes for flavor and color. Some people prefer roasting the nuts to the color of dark caramel even though the volatile oils may not be fully destroyed at this point. Others—myself included—prefer the nuts to be roasted up to 30 minutes. Remove nuts from the oven and let sit until cool to the touch.
Using either a hammer or a mortar and pestle, lightly pound the nuts until they crack. Separate cracked shells from the nut pieces and you should end up with about 350 grams of bay nut meat.
To make the ganache: Liquefy the bay nut meat in a high-speed blender, running first on low for 20 seconds, then increasing to high for 60–90 seconds until the butter is as smooth as silk, scraping down the sides as you go. Pour 100 grams of this creamy nut butter into a small bowl and set aside for #2 in the assembly process below.
Pour remaining paste into a mixing bowl and stir the sugar into the paste until it’s well-incorporated. Sugar will still be crystallized at this point. Set aside.
Bring the heavy cream to a boil and pour the piping hot cream into the bay nut–sugar paste. Slowly stir (do not beat) with a whisk until you have a smooth ganache. Place this in the fridge to chill until it it is firm but not hard.
Scoop the paste into little balls and either roll into spheres or keep in funky shapes. Drop these truffle centers onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until firm.
To assemble the truffles: Prepare 5 containers and place in a row in the following order:
#1 holds your frozen truffle centers
#2 holds your reserved bay nut butter to coat truffle centers; warm the container to melt the butter if it has firmed
#3 holds cacao powder for the outer coating
#4 holds a fine sieve for dusting off excess cacoa powder
#5 is an airtight container for storing your completed truffles in the fridge.
From container #1, take a frozen truffle and smear it with a light layer of #2 (the warm bay nut butter). Drench immediately in #3 (the cacao powder), and place truffle in the #4 sieve to shake off excess powder. Drop completed truffle into #5 (storage container) and repeat with each truffle until they are all in #5 and ready to pop into the fridge, where they can be stored for several weeks.
Alexandra Hudson, a certified clinical herbalist and holistic educator, lives on an urban farm in Oakland’s Montclair Valley, where she tends the land and her beloved community, and offers sessions to clients. She teaches classes through her business, Alchemistress, and with the Berkeley Herbal Center. For more information visit alchemistress.world.