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!
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.