Christmas can make anyone a nutcase, but this delicious cookie recipe offers a case in how specific nuts are used in various regional cuisines
By Louise Crosby
We no longer exchange gifts at Christmas in my extended family, except for the little ones. That simplifies things: no need to shop malls, get stuck in traffic, or go into debt. It leaves me, at least, free to get serious about baking.
This year’s baking bonanza started with these powdery Mexican Wedding Cakes from Alice Medrich’s Chewy, Gooey, Crispy, Crunchy, Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies. They aren’t actually cakes, they’re cookies, and according to Medrich they go by many names depending on what kind of nuts you put in them: if you’re using pecans, you have Wedding Cakes, or polvorones; if almonds are your choice, you have Viennese crescents or Greek kourabiedes. Walnuts produce Russian tea cakes. I’ve also seen them called Butter Balls and Melt-a-Ways, Snowballs and Sandies. Whatever you want to name them, they’re tender and crumbly and not too sweet, despite being blanketed in a snow storm of icing sugar. They’re the perfect winter cookie.
I used pecans, so we’re calling them Mexican Wedding Cakes. They don’t require a lot of ingredients, just butter, sugar, flour and ground nuts (I left out the egg yolk), all held together in an essence of vanilla. (Some recipes call for cinnamon.) They’re also quick to assemble, in a food processor. They make great gifts, stacked neatly in small Christmas tins or other fun packaging. Make them now and pop them into the freezer until it’s time to deliver, although being of the shortbread family, they age well and actually improve in an airtight container on the counter. To freshen them up before serving, give them another light dusting of icing sugar.
Mexican Wedding Cakes
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ cups nuts
2 cups (9 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened and cut into small chunks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk (optional)
½ cup (1.5 ounces) powdered sugar
Put the granulated sugar in a food processor and process until it is fine and powdery. Add the nuts, flour and salt and pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Add the butter, vanilla, and the egg yolk, if using. Process until the mixture looks damp and begins to clump together. Transfer the dough to a bowl. Cover and refrigerate the dough for at least 2 hours, and preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let sit for 15 minutes to soften. Shape slightly more than level tablespoons of dough into 1¼-inch balls or crescent shapes. Place the cookies 2 inches apart on the lined pans. Bake for 22 to 24 minutes, or until lightly coloured on top and golden brown on the bottom. Rotate the cookie sheets from top to bottom and from front to back halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking.
Let the cookies cool on the pan for 5 minutes and then sieve powdered sugar over them. Set the pan on racks to finish cooling. Cool the cookies completely before storing. They may be stored in an airtight container for at least 2 weeks. Sieve additional powdered sugar over the cookies before serving if necessary. Makes about forty-eight 1½-inch cookies.
THE EX-PRESS, December 8, 2015