I suppose we all have strong memories of certain smells and tastes and treats from our family holiday table. For us, the days leading up to Christmas were certain to find all of my siblings and I sampling any number of the treats that came rolling out of the kitchen, made mostly by my oldest sister or my mom. Peanut Butter Balls were a major favorite of my brothers’ – they’d eat them straight out of the freezer before they were dipped in the semi-sweet chocolate coating that made them taste like a big round peanut butter cup, and then eat more once they’d been freshly dipped, the chocolate barely having time to firm up against the frozen peanut butter filling. Fudge was always on the menu too; and I sometimes made Peanut Brittle or Caramel Corn with or without peanuts. On Christmas Eve we nearly always had a big buffet of treats which included my sisters luscious cherry tarts – just two bites big and the perfect combination of crispy shell, creamy vanilla custard and the sweet-tart cherry topping – a glistening, festive red.
And then there were Pecan Sandies – sometimes called Russian Tea Cakes or Mexican Wedding Cakes – a well-loved child has many names. These were sometimes overlooked for the flashier option on the table, but make no mistake: one bit of these crumbling, pecan and butter filled, powdered sugared orbs would soon have you reaching for another. My mom told me that a few years ago, she was asked to make them for every party she attended – 6 batches or so.
I hadn’t had Pecan Sandies in years; in fact I’d forgotten all about them until a few days ago when I saw a picture that I thought had to be these old-time cookies but turned out to be powdered sugar-covered truffles instead. I couldn’t get the image out of my head, though, so I decided to rework the old recipe to make use of the whole grains and raw sugars readily available now.
Now I know your thinking: “wait a minute – we’ve got walnuts in the post title and now we’ve moved onto pecans…??”. That wasn’t the plan. Except I realized as I moved into the kitchen intent on making a batch of these fine cookies that I’d used up the last of the pecans when I made Ina Garten’s Chipotle Rosemary roasted mixed nuts. In fact, the only nuts left in the house were cashews in walnuts, and the latter were the only chance of making this recipe work. And work it did – beautifully and deliciously. I like the slightly more crumbly texture the whole grain barley flour provides, but you could also use whole grain spelt or Kamut flour. The Indian sugar and coconut sugar are a slightly healthier option to refined white sugar – but sugar is sugar, so go easy, if you can (full confession: I ate four as soon as they were fully cool…the addition of orange zest makes them especially addictive).
You can make these with pecans and leave the rest of the recipe as is. It’ll be fantastic. Or use walnuts as I did for a new twist. Or make a batch of each, and share. It’s up to you. I deliberately designed this recipe to make a small batch of cookies because I find that with so many different kinds of treats this time of year, I always have way too many of everything, and I prefer to eat these cookies as freshly baked as possible. But, if you prefer, this can be double, tripled, quadrupled – whatever fits your needs.
The only rule you need to follow is to let these cool completely before you eat them. The flavor improves dramatically once they are fully cooled, so it’s worth the wait. One crumbly, melt-in-the-mouth bite in and you’ll understand where the term “sandies” comes from. Enjoy.
Walnut Orange Sandies
1/2 cup / 115g butter at room temperature
1/4 cup / 1/2 dl + 2 tablespoons Indian sugar or coconut sugar (you can use standard white sugar if you prefer)
1/2 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup / 250 ml whole grain barley flour
1/2 packed teaspoon freshly grated orange zest (use an organic orange)
1/2 cup chopped raw walnut
In a mixing bowl, using a stand mixer or a hand-held mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the water, vanilla and salt, and beat together again to combine. Add the flour all at once and beat on low speed until the flour begins to bind with the butter mixture. Add the walnuts and continue beating until the cookie dough is uniform. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl with a rubber spatula, and make a few turns underneath the dough in the bowl to make sure there is no flour left there. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and using a 1 ounce scoop or a couple of soup spoons, drop 1-2 tablespoon sized rounds of dough onto a parchment-covered baking sheet, evenly spaced at 1″/2.5cm apart. Rub each lump of dough lightly between your palms to form a smooth, round ball of dough. Place each dough back onto the parchment (see second picture, above).
Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden brown. Remove from oven and allow the cookies to cool on the pan completely. Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of powdered sugar into a fine-mesh sieve and shake it gently over the cookies to very lightly dust the cookies with a decorative touch of sugar.
Makes 20 cookies.