Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pecan Sandies with Integrity

Much to Henry’s chagrin, pre-packaged junk food does not grace the shelves of our pantry.  The reason for this is twofold:  first of all, if it was there, we would eat it and second, if I am going to abandon my skinny cook scruples and eat something like a cookie, I would rather enjoy a homemade one instead of something mass-produced and loaded with trans fats.  Now, I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou (if you could buy ready-to-eat truffled Asiago fries in a bag, I’d be a goner), but why settle for something that comes out of a factory when you can have the real thing?

Take Keebler Pecan Sandies, for instance.  A package of them was always in our house when I was growing up.  I suppose it had something to do with the fact that my mom grew up in the South and therefore anything having to do with pecans was always around.  Even my grandmother, who was an amazing baker and cook, deigned to keep a bag or two around when we would visit.  And although I was always an Oreo-kind-of-kid, it didn’t stop me from devouring those crumbly, slightly dry pecan cookies.

Fast forward to the first time I worked at Watershed (the original one, in that converted gas station in Decatur) and was lucky enough to be in the kitchen with my dear friend, the extraordinarily talented Chef Scott Peacock.  I vividly remember one afternoon in that hot kitchen when I had just finished working the sauté station at lunch.  It had been a busy service and I was sweaty, drained of energy and weary.  As I gathered up my knives to head out the door, Scott gestured me over to the space where he was working.  “Here, taste this,” he said, handing me a small something carefully placed on a paper towel.  “Tell me what you think.”

The “something” was the most delicious cookie I had ever tasted.  It shattered in my mouth as I savored it, evoking faint memories of those old pecan sandies, but amped up to pure perfection.  If I were Giada DiLaurentis on the Food Network, I would take a bite of it, roll my eyes, let out a long “Ummmmmm!” and proceed to describe it as getting the wonderful tastes of butter, pecans and vanilla, all in one ethereal crunchy cookie.  Since I am not Giada DiLaurentis, you will just have to rely on my statement that this was the best cookie ever.

Fortunately Scott had the good sense to include the recipe in the cookbook he wrote with Miss Edna Lewis (pretty much my favorite cookbook of all time, I might mention.  I told him recently that if I could only have one cookbook, it would be this one.  I wasn’t kidding.  If you don’t have a copy, you are missing out – here is the link

So here is the recipe.  Scott and Edna called them Nut Butter Balls, but I prefer to think of them as Pecan Sandies with Integrity.  Either way, bake up a batch sooner rather than later.  You won't be sorry.  Trust me!

NUT BUTTER BALLS  (adapted from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’ “The Gift of Southern Cooking”)

For the cookies:
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature                                       
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt (I use kosher salt)
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour, sifted after measuring
1 ½ cups very finely chopped or grated pecans (about 6 ounces)
3 cups vanilla sugar (recipe follows)                                                        
Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add the salt and extracts and mix until blended.  Add flour gradually, beating on low speed.  Add the nuts, stopping to scrape the bottom and sides of bowl.  Cover dough and chill at least 3 hours, or preferably overnight.

Shape the dough into 1-inch balls (I use an ice cream scoop for this task).  Flatten each ball slightly and mark the top with the tines of a fork to create lines on top of each cookie.  Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment, wrap well in plastic wrap and chill again until firm (alternatively, you can freeze them and bake as needed).

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375-degrees.  Place cookies ½-inch apart on ungreased baking sheets (or baking sheets lined with a Silpat).  Bake for 12-15 minutes or until they become slightly firm to the touch and are lightly golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 30 minutes.  Transfer to an airtight container and cover completely with vanilla sugar.  Store up to 1 ½ weeks.

Yield:  4 dozen cookies

For the vanilla sugar:
2 vanilla beans
4 cups granulated sugar

Twist and bend the vanilla beans back and forth to bruise them and release their oils.  Split them lengthwise.  Place one piece in the bottom of a 1-quart jar.  Pour ¼ of the sugar over.  Repeat, using all of the vanilla beans and all of the sugar.  Cover tightly and store in a cool, dark place for at least 4 days before using.

Yield:  4 cups

*  Scott (and Edna if she were here) would probably not approve, but I used the food processor to chop up my pecans.  Just make sure not to overprocess so you don't end up with pecan paste.

*  You don't have to flatten and score the unbaked cookies - you can just roll them into balls and bake that way - but I like the indentations on top as they catch more of the vanilla sugar.

*  Speaking of the vanilla sugar, make extra and keep it in your pantry.  Just replace the sugar as you use it.  Try substituting it for regular granulated sugar when you bake!  Not bad on cereal, either!

*  I recently had a dinner party and made these cookies to serve alongside a silky smooth and scrumptious butterscotch pudding.  Pure.  Heaven.

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