Ancient Romans partaking in the festivities of Saturnalia—a raucous mid-December holiday that honored seed-sowing god Saturn— wagered nuts, not gold coins, as they rolled dice fashioned from sheep and goat knucklebones. A good haul of fall nuts, after all, was a good omen for the spring harvest to come.
Later in western civilization’s story line, when the solstice holidays were folded into Christmastime festivities, having nuts in the mix both held religious symbolism and facilitated secular rituals. The three parts of a nut—shell, skin, and kernel— came to symbolize either the Holy Trinity or the bones, skin, and soul of Christ. Throughout Europe, St. Nicholas and his helpers have for centuries scattered nuts for children to find in their shoes, stockings, and hidden about the house.
Today, big bowls of whole nuts and intricately carved nutcrackers sit out in the open on modern American tables, inviting us to crack them open while conversing with family and friends during the holiday season. Less common, though, is using nuts as the base of another American holiday tradition: pie. Yes, of course, there is the revered pecan pie as well as its more demure counterpart, the Pecan Tassie.
Tip for Storing Nuts
Shelled and unshelled nuts can be held at room temperature for about four weeks. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for one year, and in the freezer for two. Nuts can be thawed and refrozen repeatedly without a losing their flavor or texture.
But what about putting nuts in the pie dough itself?
There are two ways to make this nutty idea work. Working with the idea of a crumb-based crust, combine 1 1⁄2 cups of ground nuts (walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts all work well) with 3 tablespoons softened butter and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Pat the mixture into a 9-inch pie dish and bake in a 325°F oven until the top edges of the crust start to brown, about 10 minutes. Cool the crust before adding chocolate pudding or banana cream pie fillings. This is also a good option for a cheesecake crust.
The second way to work nuts into your pie dough is by adding 3 tablespoons of very finely chopped nuts to your favorite single pie dough recipe (1⁄3 of a cup of nuts if you’re making a double crust). Roll it out to carry sweet apple caramel and sweet potato pies or savory vegetable quiches and cheesy tarts.
Take a gamble by putting nuts in your pie crusts and eaters will scramble to find out how delicious they can be.