Lily Vail’s Nut Roll

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Once, on New Year’s Eve, it snowed so much that we had 28 people for a sleepover at our house. My parents had invited my mother’s family to come celebrate — so long ago that I can’t remember what year — and no one could go home.

Okay, forget the Ben Franklin quote about how guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. And forget what my father might have been thinking about the various characters on my mother’s side. There was no way anyone could shovel out and get home, so they stayed.

That meant food.

Fortunately my mother was the kind of person who always had enough food stored away, just in case — you name the disaster, she was prepared for it, ingredients anyway, if not actual cooked food put up and frozen.

Those were days when — for us at least — freezers were a new thing and my parents ordered a “freezer plan” that included a quarter of a cow and dozens of boxes of frozen vegetables. 

I honestly don’t remember what my mom and her sisters cooked but I am quite certain they served nut roll, my mother’s most famous and beloved confection. She’d make 6 of those at a time and whenever someone came to the house she would take one out of the freezer for dessert.

I’ve made the nut roll a few times and never could get it quite as good as hers. Maybe that has something to do with memory. Maybe I never wanted mine to be as good as hers.

But no one else has that particular emotional pull so here’s the recipe. Delicious in any weather, spring or winter, snow or no, from the freezer, thawed and warmed up or straight from the oven:

Lily Vail’s Nut Roll

  • 7 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 pound butter, cut into chunks

  • 1 cup dairy sour cream

  • 4 large egg yolks

  • 1/4 cup milk

  • sugar (about 1-1/2 cups)

  • cinnamon

  • 1-1/2 pounds shelled, finely chopped walnuts

  • 2 egg whites, slightly beaten

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl (or electric mixer bowl). Blend the ingredients thoroughly. Add the butter and work it into the dry ingredients. In another bowl, combine the sour cream, egg yolks and milk and blend thoroughly. Add the liquids to the dry ingredients and beat the ingredients until a smooth, uniform dough has formed. Cut the dough into 6 pieces and wrap each piece separately. Refrigerate over night of for at least 8 hours. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll each piece, one at a time into a thin circle. Sprinkle each circle with some sugar (about 1/4 cup for each of the 6 circles). Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste. Sprinkle with equal amounts of the nuts. Roll the circles tightly, jellyroll style and place them seam side down on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Brush the outside of each roll with some of the beaten egg whites. Bake for about 40 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool and cut into slices. Makes 6 rolls