Eating pine nuts dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times, when they were preserved in honey.
Pine nuts were also a common Native American food, ground the old fashioned way using a large stone. In winter, pine nuts sustained tribes.
Enjoyed by many cultures around the world they have many names: Indian nuts, pinon, pignon, pignolia, pignol-I, pinolos, pinhao, and pignole.
Pine nuts are packed with protein, dense with nutrients, and a very high concentration of amino acids needed for proper growth. They are rich in Vitamins A and lutein, both of which support sharper vision.
They contain heart-friendly monounsaturated fat. Their Vitamin D contributes to stronger bones and being rich in Vitamin C, they help boost immunity. Their pino-le-ic acid might make you feel fuller faster. A good source of iron, which is great news for the circulatory and nervous systems. This little nut fights free radicals, while the protein and magnesium are an excellent source of energy. These are a major, storable, multi faceted food.
Yes, it’s true that pine nuts come from the pine cones of a variety of pine trees around the world. This means not all pine nuts taste the same. They will also be different shapes. Most well known, and considered best are the pine nuts, or pinole, imported from Italy. They tend to be expensive, but there is a way to save on cost and still enjoy.
If you live in an area with pine trees, they are free for the taking. A number of web sites offer harvesting instructions. Harvest begins late summer into fall and you want to collect the cones while they are still closed, otherwise squirrels get the nuts before you. Kept in a dry space, over time they open so you can get the nuts.
Pluck from the trees or simply pick up fallen cones. The kids can help with these. First you must get all the nuts out of the cones. Do this by banging cones around in an old sack until the nuts fall out. You could pick them out by hand, but the resinous pitch won’t come off your hands easily. Evidently, it’s important to have a good hammer. The darker the nut outside, the better the nut inside. Discard nuts with holes in them as this means some insect got there ahead of you.
Remove the thin skins. Some suggest soaking the nuts in water for 12-24 hours so they plump up and are easier to peel. Cracked pine nuts are yellowish-orange, translucent and soft. They can be eaten at this point and are delicious.
It’s important to store your harvested nuts properly because the nut oils can become rancid pretty quickly. For immediate use, store some in a glass jar in a cool dark cabinet. Take out what you need and close the lid tightly. Place the rest in a zip lock bag and store them in the freezer. They will be delicious for months. Again, taking out what you need each time, leaving the rest in the freezer. You may notice a slight softness when the nuts thaw.
Lightly toasting after thawing helps bring back some of the crunch. This is irrelevant in cooking.
With pine nuts we immediately think pesto, pasta or cookies, but you have so many other options. Make a Torta Della Nonna, or Grandmother’s Cake.
Top a green or fruit salad, or a baked brie, garnish a crepe Suzette or instead of peanut brittle make pine nut brittle.
There is a drink in Siberia called ke-drov-ka. You need a bottle of vodka filled to 2/3 capacity. The rest is filled with pine nuts in the shell — about half a cup. They fall to the bottom. Close the cap and put in a dark place for at least three weeks. The liquid turns dark like brandy. The longer it sits, the darker it gets. The essential oils in the shell make it very smooth, soft and easy to drink. No need to filter, just drink in small shots. Again, I’m told, the best chaser is a dill pickle or marinated mushrooms. Before you drink, it should be chilled or popped into the freezer for an hour where it thickens, with a concentrated nutty aroma and taste.
Some people eat the nuts after the vodka is consumed, and rumor has it that one can get drunk just from doing that. If anybody tries it, please let me know.
Just another way to gather from nature, and mangia bene.
Torta Della Nonna
3 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. Baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
Zest from 1 lemon
7 oz. unsalted butter, softened
4 large egg yolks
2 whole eggs
Powdered sugar for garnish, optional
Combine dry ingredients and zest. Add softened butter. Mix well. Texture will be rather coarse. Add whole eggs and egg yolks.
Place dough on floured dry surface and knead until mixture comes together. Don’t over handle. Divide dough into 2 equal pieces. Press each piece into flat disk, wrap in saran and refrigerate 30 minutes. Place chilled dough on floured dry surface and roll out to approx. 1/8 inch thick round.
Place one round of pastry into tart pan or pie dish that has been buttered and floured (or spray treated) and press dough into the corners. Allow some excess over edge of your pan.
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean- scraped (or equivalent liquid extract)
2 strips lemon peel
5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup flour
Toasted pine nuts
Heat milk, 1/4 cup sugar, vanilla and lemon peel until mixture is hot. Do not boil.
In separate bowl, whip egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until blended. Slowly stir in flour. Blend well. Slowly whisk in hot liquid.
Pour filling back into pot and cook over medium heat until filling has thickened and is bubbling. Whisk often to keep milk from burning.
Immediately pour filling through fine mesh strainer into a large bowl. Press filling through mesh using a wooden spoon or spatula, being sure there are no lumps.
Cover filling with plastic wrap so that no skin forms. Chill minimum 1 hour. Chilling 2 hours is even better.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Spread filling into the crust evenly. Cover filling with remaining dough round. Press edges together to seal the torta. Trim excess dough.
Bake 40 minutes or until crust is golden.
Toasting Pine Nuts
Place rack in top third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment and spread pine nuts evenly in single layer. Toast nuts 5 to 10 minutes, stirring with wooden spoon every 2 or 3 minutes for even toasting. Remove nuts from oven when golden brown and releasing rich aromas.
Allow torta to cool thoroughly in pan. Invert onto serving dish and sprinkle generously with pine nuts. Sprinkling with powdered sugar is optional.