Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Pecan Puffs - Rich and Devastating Cookies

Rich and Devastating. That’s how the Joy of Cooking describes my favourite cookies - little icing sugar-covered gems. Don't confuse them with Mexican Wedding Cookies because they're WAY better than those.

My Mom has been making these cookies for as long as I can remember. Strangely, I associate them with Jewish holidays. I remember sneaking into the dining room and attempting to pinch a cookie from the serving plate. It wasn’t easy. In fact it was pretty much impossible. My Mom used the same platter to serve them on every time – a rectangular crystal plate. She would line the cookies up neatly in rows, and when the bottom layer was full she would add rows on top. The end result was a beautiful, icing sugar-covered pyramid of perfectly round, bite-sized, poof-in-your-mouth confections. I was sure she counted them as she laid them out, and she would surely know (or see the fingerprints in the icing sugar) if I tried to take one.

So I was forced to wait along with everyone else. Back in the day when Mom and Dad entertained it was go big or go home. That meant an appetizer (usually chopped liver or gefilte fish), soup (chicken soup with matzah balls), salad, main course (meat, knishes, vegetables, tsimmis, homemade braided Challah, etcetera). Guests would push their chairs back from the table and rub their bellies professing that they could not possibly eat one more bite. Yet when the desserts arrived, magically they had room for more.

My brother and I always had room for more. We, like most other children, always saved the uppermost corner of our stomachs for dessert. We convincingly traced the outline of the space on our bellies while describing our technique to the grownups. “It’s right here”, I remember saying, “...I left some space right here”. Most times there was a main dessert and then accompanying treats for little fingers. When pecan puffs were on the table I didn’t see a need for the main dessert.

Before we were excused from the table, my brother would get out of his chair and go stand next to our Dad and he’d begin telling jokes to his fans – knock knock jokes when he was very young, then Fonzie jokes, which always got a good laugh. Once the jokes were done and my brother and I had enjoyed our fill of After Eights, pecan puffs, and whatever else was lying around (Elite chocolate from Israel on Passover – fruit-filled, or Rosemarie with praline inside), we relocated to our parents’ room where we were allowed to watch some TV before bed. We usually didn’t watch TV and instead hovered at the top of the stairs where you could still hear the conversation at the dining room table. The jokes got a little raunchier, the conversation at times more interesting because we were hearing things we shouldn’t be hearing, but more boring as well when they got started on politics.

The next morning, we’d always check to see which treats were left over. We considered ourselves lucky if we were able to find any pecan puffs. Without further delay, here is the recipe (from The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker). I have made absolutely NO adjustments. This recipe is perfect. One comment I would make is don’t buy your pecans already ground – you will get a much dryer cookie if you do this. Grinding your own nuts also leaves some pieces larger than others, so you’ll get a nice crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth cookie.

About forty 1 1/2 - inch balls (I never get 40, more like 30)

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Beat until soft:
 ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter


Add and blend until creamy:
2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Measure, then grind in a nut grinder:
1 cup pecan meats

Sift before measuring:
1 cup cake flour

Stir the pecans and the flour into the butter mixture. 

Roll the dough into small balls. Place balls on a greased cookie sheet (I use a Silpat) and bake about 30 minutes. Note: the photo on the left is from a batch I made with pre-grinded nuts. The photo on the right is from the batch I made by grinding my own nuts. The pre-grinded nuts cookies were very dry. The others were much better and the dough was easier to work with.

Roll while hot in:
Confectioners’ sugar

To glaze, put the sheet back into the oven for a minute. (I have never done the glazing step). Cool and serve.  

To achieve the awesome wreath-like look of the presentation in the very first photo above, use bay leaves and fresh cranberries. For the bay leaves, if they are very dry you can soak them in water for 10 minutes or so to make them more pliable before you arrange them beneath and within the cookies. For the cranberries, coat them in egg whites, then dust them with granulated sugar and toss them in the freezer for about 30 minutes to an hour. Voila!

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