It’s been about a billion degrees Fahrenheit with equivalent levels of humidity here, so it’s not the ideal time to be baking. Still, expectations have been created at the office for Monday morning treats, and a friend was throwing a wine tasting dinner and had asked us to bring dessert, so the oven was going to have to come on. To add a further degree of challenge, one of the guests at the dinner doesn’t eat eggs. Oh, and I also had a work commitment on Sunday.
In considering what dessert items might be relatively quick and easy, not too oven-intensive, and egg-free, I thought of a favorite and versatile base recipe for Mexican wedding cookies from the San Francisco Chronicle, clipped out and pasted into the three-ring binder that is my own personal relic of those quaint old pre-web-archive dinosaurs-roaming-the-earth days. (God, I don’t miss those days. I was not cut out for scrapbooking, as the disastrous state of that binder explosively testifies. Just try picking it up without two dozen unanchored bits of yellowing newsprint flopping out in all directions.)
The great thing about this recipe, despite the fabulous melting texture and not-too-sugary simplicity, is that you can vary the nuts according to your whim and shape it into any number of forms. Since I’ve had a random craving for Linzer Torte lately, I decided to modify the recipe in that general direction by using almonds, adding the traditional spices and lemon zest, and pushing a thumbprint hollow into each cookie that could be filled with raspberry jam after baking and before the final sprinkling of powdered sugar.
I ended up making two separate batches, because there weren’t enough leftovers after the dinner to take in on Monday. For the second batch, I experimented further to see if a combination of almonds and hazelnuts would be an improvement over almonds alone. Having run out of raspberry jam, I also substituted boysenberry.
Both batches had all the charm of the Austrian classic and were eagerly received by their intended consumers, but I think the first batch was just that bit better. I preferred the more traditional tartness of the raspberry jam, as well as the additional rustic texture from the seeds. The hazelnuts neither helped nor hurt the taste, but I did get a more refined cookie by using sliced almonds in the first than from the whole nuts in the second. The smaller, more uniform slices offered more surface area for toasting, and also gave me a head start on a very fine and even grind. The nut meal made from whole nuts was a rougher mixture of powder and slightly gritty sand. The difference is not great enough to merit a special trip to the store if you have whole almonds in the house, but do try it with sliced almonds if you’re starting from scratch or want the best possible result.
A couple of notes on methodology:
Despite the name, I find that the bowl of a 1/4 teaspoon measure is a much better tool for shaping the crater than your thumb. The hollow will be perfectly round and even, and you won’t be left digging dough from under your nails.
Also, if you don’t bake immediately after mixing, try not to use the dough when it’s too cold, since that will promote cracking along the edges. This not only makes for a less attractive cookie, but also causes fissures in the hollow that can allow jam to flow out the caldera like lava streams oozing down Kilauea’s slopes. The dough should be at room temperature, not straight from the fridge but not soft and oily either.
Makes 50 cookies
4 ounces sliced almonds (1 1/4 cups), or two ounces each whole almonds and hazelnuts (just under 1 cup)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar, plus extra for dusting
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon each ground cloves and mace
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
Grated zest of one lemon, approximately 1 teaspoon
1 cup jam of choice, preferably raspberry
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Toast the nuts on a cookie sheet until fragrant, approximately 10-15 minutes. If using sliced almonds, stir periodically to ensure even browning, and remove from oven as soon as they are pale golden brown. If using a mixture of almonds and hazelnuts, remove from oven when the skins on the hazelnuts have darkened and cracked, and the meat peeking through is starting to turn gold. Set aside to cool briefly and, if desired, rub off some of the bitter hazelnut skins.
Sift the flour, salt and spices together in a small bowl.
In a food processor, blend the toasted nuts with 1/4 cup of confectioner’s sugar and 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar until finely ground. Do not overprocess or the nuts will become oily and start to produce a nut butter.
In a mixer, cream the butter and remaining confectioner’s and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla, then the lemon zest. Reduce speed to low and mix in the nut mixture, then the flour mixture, until combined.
Using a small scoop or a tablespoon measure, form balls 1 to 1 1/2 inch around and place 1/2 inch apart on parchment-lined sheets. Using the back of a 1/4 teaspoon measure or, if you really prefer, your thumb, gently make an indentation in each cookie, pushing halfway down to the surface of the sheet.
Bake 13-15 minutes, until just starting to brown. Remove to racks to cool completely.
To serve, mix lemon juice into the jam to brighten the flavor slightly, and fill each crater with the jam. Dust the filled cookies with a light coating of additional powdered sugar before serving.
Unfilled but dusted with powdered sugar, these will keep very well in an airtight container for days, and their flavor will even improve a little. If you’re planning on traveling with them, I suggest you take the cookies and the jam in separate containers and fill them on site before serving. Keeping the filled cookies from sliding around, flipping over or sticking to each other and smearing jam everywhere is more of an engineering challenge than you probably want to tackle.