Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Baking and a Recipe for Pecan Balls

I love baking Christmas cookies. From what I've been seeing on so many other food blogs, I'm not the only one. This weekend I went into a highly organized frenzy of holiday baking.

All I did was make batches of cookie dough, watch sweet loaves of bread puff up out of their pans, and roll out individual little nut pies. Okay, I also went to a wine tasting on Friday, had a fun dinner out on Saturday and watched a football game on Sunday from the comfort of my sofa after the day's cookies were out of the oven.

It was all so much fun! This morning, I was wondering aloud why I go through so much work, especially when there aren't a ton of people around to eat my goodies (that's what freezers are for, right?). It's not because I need food to be happy (food makes me happy, but that's different) or because I want to relive childhood Christmases past (I wasn't a very child-like child, so that's not it). I just love to cook. And bake. Either way, I love recipes that challenge me somehow.

I do make a lot of family recipes this time of year because I want to make them my own--master them so I can then improve upon them--and enjoy them without thinking they don't taste quite the same as they did when I was 10. More than that, baking just tells me it's Christmas. It's a knee-jerk reaction sort of thing. Since I enjoy it so much, why not indulge?

All of the cookies in the photo happen to be things I ate as a kid, and I love them all. Today, I want to post the recipe for Pecan Balls (the ones that look like little snowballs). I've been seeing this cookie everywhere of late and no wonder--it's a Christmas classic. I poured over several recipes trying to find the ultimate version that would produce a very tender cookie with a nearly under-baked texture and without anything too fancy going on. In the end, I used a very old recipe from my mom that seems to be the classic version.

Newer recipes use more nuts, but I think one cup is plenty nutty. Sugar seems to be the most controversial ingredient. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe using superfine sugar (white sugar ground very fine), but they don't say if that produces a softer texture or not. Dorie Greenspan has a version in Baking with granulated sugar, but she seems to be a fan of crisp cookies. I will try these recipes eventually and tell you about any revelations they might bring. For now, I've got a simple, delicious cookie that is both tender and crumbly. Anna just posted a similar version here, and Jennifer made the Cook's Illustrated version with hazelnuts. More holiday goodies to come!

Pecan Balls
The recipe I used actually calls these tender little cookies Russian Tea Cakes (one of their many names), but my mom called them Pecan Balls, and I think that’s a more descriptive name anyway. You could substitute other nuts--I think walnuts or hazelnuts would work particularly well. I error on the side of under-baking these cookies because I like the centers to be a bit moist, as opposed to crumbly. A food processor comes in handy to chop the nuts, but be careful not to grind them to a powder. This recipe requires at least two hours of chilling time (for the dough, not you...hehe!).

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
Additional powdered sugar (about 1 1/2 cups) for rolling

With an electric mixer, blend the butter and 1/2 cup sugar at medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in the flour and salt just until combined. Stir in the pecans. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Roll dough into one-inch balls and place on prepared baking sheets (cookies will not spread much during baking). Bake for 12-14 minutes or until bottoms are just barely golden.

Sprinkle some powdered sugar on a rimmed baking sheet or a plate. Cool cookies on baking sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, then roll in powdered sugar and place on racks to cool. When cookies are completely cool, or just before serving, roll in powdered sugar again.


Jennifer said...

Julie, aren't these the best? Whatever variation you make, these are one of my all-time favorites. Happy holidays and happy baking!

Kristen said...

I love the idea of making the oldies but goodies for the holiday giving! I really like this tradition.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

Yum--pecans make any cookie better. The snowballs I've had never had pecans in them. I like yours better. Much better.

Julie said...

Jennifer--Your post reminded me that I had to make these, and then my husband started asking about them too.
Kristen--Those are the recipes that always seem to come to mind for the holidays, at least for me.
Susan--I've only had these with pecans, and I probably won't try anything else anytime soon; it's just what you're used to, I guess:)

Dana said...

I baked these cookies on a very cold and snowy winter evening this week. I shared them with neighbors and friends. Boy, they were a sure hit! I also sent the website to my daughter-in-law in Oahu.

Julie said...

Dana: thanks so much for your comment! I love hearing feedback especially when it's so nice! Have a wonderful holiday.