Acorns, manna of the forest
I could begin almost every entry with "When I was a kid...".
When I was a kid my fondness for acorns was almost romantic, if that's the right word to describe a never waning curiousity and compulsion to gather and fill my pockets with the magic little capsules. I loved the artful look and contrasting texture of them (a smooth and shiny sphere topped by a course and fuzzy beret). But even more appealing than their outward appearance was the promise contained within. Inside each shell was the promise of not just a single giant tree, but the potential for a whole forest of giant trees. One kernal, if it fulfilled its individual potential could lead to countless more trees, more acorns, more forest. More deer and squirrels, and other animals and birds too.
Acorns also carry the promise of food, whether it be food for those deer and squirrels, who in turn provide food for we humans, or immediate food for us as we consume the nuts directly. In that regard acorns remind me of domestic corn, where a single cob offers the promise of a meal and many future meals.
Oak trees can produce truly astonishing amounts of acorns. Read any article on the subject and you'll likely get figures from between a couple hundred up to 700 or more pounds of nuts per tree, depending on various factors such as tree species and the quality of the mast in any given year. That's thousands of pounds per acre. In my opinion, no other wild nut embodies the concept of nature's abundance so succinctly as does the acorn.
I wrote about processing acorns into flour a couple years ago (Oct. 30, 2013). You can click here: Acorn Flour, to view that process. I used basically the same cold leach method this year as I always do, although I did also hot leach* a portion of the acorns and then dried them in the oven before fine grinding, just to compare the two methods again. Other than a slight difference in color in the finished products I noticed no significant difference in quality between the hot and cold leaching methods this year. The expected additional bitterness sometimes associated with the hot leach method did not manifest. I also performed the final grind in a commercial coffee grinder, set at both espresso and turkish grinds, which produced a wonderfully fine flour. However, as excellent as the flour quality was the oils in the nuts did result in some caking and extra post-grind cleaning of the machine.
Leaching is necessary to rid the acorns of the bitter tannins they contain. They're pretty well inedible without going through the leaching process. You use water to leach the bitter stuff out of the nut, just as you leach the good stuff from tea leaves with water. Cold leaching is the preferred method if flavor is a more important consideration than time. It generally takes at least a week of cold leaching, with daily water changes, to sufficiently remove the bitterness. Hot leaching is quicker. It can be accomplished in a single day, but has the disadvantage of occasionally resulting in a bit of residual bitterness even though most of the tannins may be removed. Heat can alter some of the internal compounds of the nutmeat and result in an off-taste, just as overheating garlic, for example, can result in a bitter taste. I took my time and regularly tasted the acorns during the hot leach, to make sure I didn't go too far with the process. My diligence paid off and the flavor was fine. Again, please refer to the blogpost I linked above for a more detailed review of the cold leaching process.
I ended up with 4 large jars of fine quality acorn flour, storing it in the freezer until ready to use. Acorns can become stale, like any nut, and freezing significantly slows that deterioration. We use the flour most often in bread, pancakes and pie crusts, but I've also used it in cookies and donuts, breakfast gruel, dumplings* and as a thickener in soups. The acorn "milk" that comes from the cold leach process, particularly after the first day or two of leaching, can also be used as a liquid ingredient in bread-making or anywhere else you might use water as an ingredient. It can also be drunk straight up or with a bit of sweetener such as honey and/or maple syrup. There are nutrients in that milk, why waste them? I'm also planning to be experiment with acorn milk this year in my homebrewing efforts. Acorn Beer sounds like a winner.
We love the bread that acorn flour produces. It's flavorful, filling and richly satisfying. I generally use a loose 1:2 ratio of acorn flour to bread flour when adding no additional dry ingredients (e.g., cattail pollen, flax or corn flour). If you want a bread that acts more like a bread then you do need to use wheat flour, as acorn flour doesn't have the gluten required for bread to rise. The resulting bread is denser and has a more compact crumb than regular wheat flour bread.
Basic Acorn Bread Recipe
1 heaping cup acorn flour
2 generous cups bread flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp dry yeast
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cup lukewarm water
1. Thoroughly mix dry ingredients in large glass bowl.
2. Add 1 1/2 cups water and mix thoroughly. Add more water if needed, to create a wet, somewhat shaggy mass of dough.
3. Cover bowl with cling wrap or a tea towel. Set in a warm place and let rise for 10-12 hours.
4. After the initial ride scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and quickly knead into a flattened ball or oval, depending on the shape of the final loaf you prefer. Wrap the ball, seem-side down, loosely with cling wrap, or place back in bowl and cover again. Let rise again for an hour or two (it won't rise too much the second time).
5. Heat oven to 450 degrees. If you want the normal store-bought loaf shape, oil a bread pan and place the oval-shaped dough in it. Or, if you prefer a rustic, round-shaped loaf you'll use the rounder dough ball. In that case, place a dutch oven with lid into the oven and allow to heat to oven temperature. When the dutch oven is hot, place the risen dough ball gently into it, cover and place back in the oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Remove dutch oven lid and bake for an additional 20 minutes. If using the regular bread pan, simply place in oven and bake for approximately 45 minutes. Check interior of bread with wooden skewer to assure that it's done. Let cool on a wire rack.
Acorn Flour Pancakes
1/2+ cup all-purpose or bread flour
1/2 cup acorn flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
glug of vegetable oil
1. Mix dry ingredients in bowl.
2. Whisk together milk, veg oil and egg in another bowl. Add liquid to dry ingredients and mix quickly and roughly with a fork.
3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Pour a small glug of oil in pan and spread it around.
4. Pour about 1/3 cup of batter for each pancake. Try to fit as many as you can into the skillet.
5. When the surface of the pancake gets a little bubbly, then gently flip and cook the other side for a couple minutes until browned and interior isn't doughy.
6. Top with a bit of butter, maple syrup, berries, whatever you like.
*Hot leaching: I filled a deep sauce pan about 1/3 to 1/2 full with shelled nuts. I then ran hot tap water into the pot, set it on a burner and brought it to a boil. Once the water came to a boil I stirred the nuts for about a minute, drained the water and repeated the process. It took 10 or so water changes before the nuts began to taste tannin-free and bland. I continued the process a few more times until they were bland and palatable. I drained the acorns and patted them dry with a towel on baking sheets. Then, I set the oven on low, placed the baking sheets into the oven, propped the door and allowed them to dry over several hours, giving the pans a shake every so often. After the nuts dried completely I chopped them up on a cutting board with a chef's knife, dried them in the oven again for a couple hours, and finally ran them through the grinder to turn them into flour.
* The recipe for acorn dumplings may be found here: Squirrel & Dumplings Soup.