Along with a profound disdain for housework and her lifelong attachment to Guiding Light, and for many years, As the World Turns, my mother also shared with me a love of baking. For my mother, Christmas cookies were a way to say thank you to everyone – neighbors, the mailmen, garbage men, oil man, and the firemen next door – back then, of course, they were all men. So, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my childhood home resembled a small bakery, with every available horizontal surface pressed into service, holding racks of cooling cookies and boxes filled with the finished product.
With the exception of pfeffernusse, a tooth-cracking German confection rolled in confectioners sugar, and strufoli, Italian honey balls, the cookies my mother, sister, brother (sometimes) and I made were standard American fare of the 1950s and 60s. Chocolate chip was mandatory. On a good day, perhaps half of the dough actually got baked, vexing my mother no end. When my nephew was small, my sister asked me to bake cookies with him. Not wanting to set a bad example, I agreed only after she assured me that she hadn’t told him not to eat the raw dough.
After I moved into a studio apartment, I continued my mother’s tradition, but on a necessarily smaller scale. Then, I began working on my undergraduate degree at night, while working full time. Thankfully, Harvard was on its old academic schedule back then. Students returned in early January for finals. Most students hated not having an almost six-week winter break. I sympathized, but not having to deal with papers and finals meant I had time to bake and prepare for the holiday.
It was around this time that I came across a recipe I’ve made for the holidays ever since. One of the physicians at the clinic where I worked brought in some spiced walnuts that were delicious. I’ve long since lost the hand written recipe from his wife, but it was walnut halves (from a particular store, as I recall) coated with an egg white beaten with water, tossed with a mixture of sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and a pinch of salt, then baked. Perfect for a part-time student with a full-time job and limited space.
Unlike my mother, who rarely altered recipes, I can’t remember the last time I read a recipe and following it exactly as written. So, I replaced the walnuts with pecans. And began experimenting; adding vanilla and a splash of brandy, sherry or rum to the egg whites. This year, it was bourbon. The there was the sugar and spice mixture. Adding a bit of cocoa was good. And if a little chocolate was good, more was likely to be better – an axiom that’s always served me well. Maybe a pinch of cayenne would compliment the chocolate? I think it does; if you don’t, skip it. Same with espresso powder. Here’s the final (for now) version:
cocoa spiced nuts
1 pound pecans (halves or pieces)
2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons bourbon, brandy, rum, sherry or water
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa
½ teaspoon each freshly ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves
1 teaspoon espresso powder
Place pecans on a baking sheet and toast in a 300-degree oven until fragrant – about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool. Mix together dry ingredients. In a large bowl, beat together the egg whites, vanilla and liquid of choice until frothy. Add nuts, and mix until nuts are wet. Sprinkle 1/3 of sugar-cocoa-spice mixture and toss until nuts appear wet. Repeat two more times. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (or spray with non-stick coating). Put nuts on tray and bake in 300-degree oven for 30 minutes, stirring several times. Let cool and store in airtight container.
Having perfected cocoa spiced nuts, I began a quest for the ultimate chocolate shortbread. The standard recipes were simply not chocolaty enough – at least, for me. It took a few tries, but recipients tell me I nailed this one, as well.
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 tablespoon espresso powder
Mix dry ingredients together and set aside. Cream together butter and brown sugar. Add vanilla and melted chocolate. Add flour mixture and mix well. Roll dough into a log, wrap and refrigerate or freeze. Cut into ¼-ince slices and bake in a 350-degree oven for 7-10 minutes. Cool and store in an airtight container.
For many years after graduating, I lived in homes large enough to host ever larger tree-trimming parties, inviting both old friends and those I’d met since the previous party. Of course, these two recipes were always on the menu – along with raspberry-filled truffles, chocolate pecan turtle cookies, and a few non-chocolate goodies. Then my landlord died, and I found myself back in a studio – this one even smaller than my first – with a fridge to match, not teeny, but not full size, either. So, it was back to my old standbys. And while my tiny apartment has far fewer horizontal surfaces than my childhood home, all are filled with containers of chocolate shortbread and cocoa-spiced nuts, waiting to be delivered to the people at the library, bank, pool – and friends.
Because people come to expect these Christmas goodies – last year, for instance – I got my hair cut in early November, weeks before I began baking. As he cut, Johnny asked, rather plaintively, “You’re not going to be back before Christmas, are you?” Of course, I was back. Not for a haircut, but to deliver a cellophane bag, tied with a red ribbon, and filled with shortbread and nuts. Because if there’s one person in your life you want to keep happy, it’s the guy who cuts your hair. My mother would have been proud!
© 2010 Lynn Liccardo
Limited Licensing: I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby publish it under the Creative Commons Attribution license, granting distribution of my copyrighted work without making changes, with mandatory attribution to Lynn Liccardo and for non-commercial purposes only. Lynn Liccardo
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