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.

6 comments:

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.
--julie