Salty Nocino Walnut Pie {Gluten-Free}

A grown-up twist on a classic, this gluten-free walnut pie recipe includes a tipple of nocino walnut liqueur in addition to muscobado sugar, maple syrup, a creamy custard, and a mess of toasted walnuts.

I used to think of walnuts as the poor man’s pecan. They were bitter, oddly shaped, and covered with an annoying papery skin. Why would anyone ever choose walnuts over pecans, I wondered? 

Then I tried Three Babe’s salty honey walnut pie, and in addition to eating flaky crust, caramelized nuts and gooey honey custard, I also ate my words. I am obsessed with that pie.

This is not that pie.

It turns out walnuts are happier to grow in California, and are therefore more local. In fact, ninety-nine percent of U.S. walnuts are grown in California.

As for their bitter edge, I no longer consider it a drawback. Their assertive tannins can add dimension to sweets, bringing pies and cookies into balance. I’m fairly certain that a salty honey pecan pie wouldn’t measure up quite as well (though I may have to eat a slice or three to find out…)

Another win for walnuts is nocino, a liqueur made from unripe nuts and spices steeped in spirits (usually grappa or brandy) for a year. The resulting liquid is almost black in color, with a deep, earthy flavor reminiscent of a fine port crossed with an amaro. Nocino is usually sipped after a meal to aid digestion, and lately I’ve seen it popping up all over town. In fact, wanting to procure another bottle with which to make a recipe for nocino-roasted pears given to me by my chiropractor as she cracked my neck (she was also kind enough to write it down afterwards), I stopped in Local Cellar which stocks spirits made in California. They were out of nocino, they told me, but had a big vat of it brewing atop their beer cooler! Someday I hope to get my hands on some green walnuts to I can try making this version from Simply Recipes.

For now we found a bottle of Nocino Della Cristina, made in the Napa Valley, at Vintage Wine & Spirits in Mill Valley. The gentleman working there gave it a rave review, suggesting we try it both on its own and in coffee. We did, and we fell in love.

So I splashed some into this pie. The earthy spice of the nocino adds complexity to a custard based on eggs, butter, maple syrup, unrefined muscobado sugar and vanilla. I added a bit of cream to bulk up the filling and smooth out the flavors, and I added a bit of rice flour to absorb excess moisture. A sprinkle of flaky salt over the top offsets the sweet richness of the filling. When baked, a layer of caramelized nuts gives way to a soft custard infused with the deep tastes of nuts and molasses.

I used my usual flaky gluten-free pie crust here and it turned out wonderfully (though next time I hope to try this variation from the Salvation Sisters with added almond flour and baking powder).

For the prettiest slices, chill the pie before cutting, then let the slices sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or so. If you’re impatient as I was here, let the pie cool for an hour or two, then cut messy pieces and serve warm, topped with a scoop of melty vanilla ice cream and accompanied by a sip of nocino.

And if you like, splash a little more over the top.

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Ins-pie-ration:
Pecan-Topped Sweet Potato Pie
Kabocha Pumpkin Buttermilk Pie {Gluten-Free}
Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie
Concord Grape + Walnut Frangipane Tart {Gluten-Free}
Kinda Raw Marbled Pumpkin Pie {Grain-Free + Vegan}

One year ago:
Gluten-Free Rugalach with Cranberry Port Jam, Chocolate, and Walnuts

Two years ago:
Cranberry Apple Crumble Pie

Salty Nocino Walnut Pie {Gluten-Free}

Loosely based on my Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie which was generously adapted from Cook’s Country

If you don’t have nocino on hand, you could try a different liqueur here such as coffee or hazelnut, decreasing the sugar a bit if the liqueur is on the sweet side. Alternatively, trade in walnuts for the pecans in my favorite Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie. I think you could throw down a layer of chopped bittersweet chocolate over the bottom of the crust prior to adding the filling for a chocolatey twist.

All ounce measurements here are by weight.

Makes 1 (9″) pie, 10-12 small but rich servings

For the pie:
1 parbaked 9″ flaky gluten-free pie crust (or wheat-based pie crust if not gluten-free)
3 cups (9 ounces / 260 grams) raw walnut halves
1/2 cup (3 ounces / 85 grams) unrefined cane sugar (muscobado) or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons (.5 ounce / 15 grams) sweet white rice flour (or all-purpose flour if not gluten-free)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 stick (4 ounces / 110 grams) unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs
1/3 cup (2.75 ounces / 75 grams) heavy cream
1/3 cup (4 ounces / 110 grams) maple syrup
1/3 cup (2.75 ounces / 75 grams) nocino walnut liqueur (I used this kind)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon flaky salt (such as Maldon)
vanilla ice cream or barely sweetened whipped cream, for serving

Let’s make pie!:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325ºF. Place the parbaked crust on a rimmed baking sheet (optionally lined with parchment for easy clean-up).

Spread the walnuts on another rimmed baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, until golden and fragrant. Let cool completely, then break them into halves and quarters.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, and salt. Whisk in the melted butter, then the eggs. Add the cream, maple syrup, nocino, and vanilla, whisking until smooth. Stir in the walnuts and pour the filling into the parbaked crust. Sprinkle evenly with the flaky salt.

Bake the pie until just set, 30-40 minutes. Ways to tell when the pie is done:

The pie wobbles slightly when you shake it from side to side, but doesn’t slosh wetly.
An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 160-165ºF.
When you press down on the center of the pie with the back of a spoon, the custard feels softly set, like Jell-o.
The sides of the pie may be very slightly puffed, but they should not be so puffed that the pie cracks around the edges.

Remove the pie from the oven and let cool completely, 2 hours. Cut into wedges and serve with ice cream or whipped cream. Or chill before cutting for cleaner slices, letting the slices come to room temperature before serving.

The pie will keep at room temperature for up to a day, or chilled airtight for up to three days, though it is best the day of baking when the crust is crisp.

49 thoughts on “Salty Nocino Walnut Pie {Gluten-Free}”

  1. Your pie turned out beautifully, Alanna! The nocino tasted like the perfect pairing for a sweet walnut pie. I can understand why you'd be impatient in waiting to cut into it. We need to figure out how to get that shop to sell some of their nocino to you!

  2. This is beautiful beyond words! I can't believe Nocino made it all the way there from Italy and people actually know about it but come on – it is San Fran you live in! California walnuts (well, California everything, tbh) are just gorgeous!

    1. Thank you Valentina! I know, I've been seeing nocino at all the awesome Italian places in SF lately. To think I lived in Bologna for a year and never even heard of it – che peccato! ;) Thanks so much for the note – it means worlds to me coming from a force such as yourself.

  3. Could this be any more incredible? Your pie game is unreal, Alanna! This pie is so beautiful (that perfect crust! that texture!) and it sounds so delicious. Amazing.

  4. This sounds like such a sophisticated and delicious take on a classic; I've grown to love the bitterness of walnuts too and find them such a nice contrast to the sweetness of the everything this time of year. This is a totally killer pie.

  5. Sounds wonderful! And if you really do want to try making homemade nocino then I can help you out with procuring the green walnuts you'll need. We've got an English walnut tree in the backyard and it's usually just the squirrels who take advantage of all the walnuts it produces. Let me know if you are interested; you can get my email address from Joelle :)

  6. I just ran across red walnuts at the store and bought up the whole lot — this pie is spectacular, especially love that shot of the liqueur flowing over the ice cream…I really need to find that nocino, it's right up my alley! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend!

  7. Dude, I have a teeny tiny batch of homemade nocino just chilling in my cabinet, and our neighbors down the street have a HUGE black walnut tree that overhangs the sidewalk. I can definitely get some for you come next June!

  8. How DELIGHTFUL is this pie?! I'm swooning over it. I really need to get my hands on some of this nocino- what a unique and special-sounding ingredient!!

  9. I have Pinned several recipes, but for me, it’s the Chocolate Chestnut Cake that I aim to make over the Holidays. Though it is a bit of a financial extravagance, I feel certain it will be well worth it. I can’t wait to hear the reviews round my table after serving. Thank you.

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