When my brother and his new wife were married at our home this summer, our Mom brought Mexican wedding cookies. Every year they also appear at Christmas. They’re a lovely, buttery little cookie, tasting of toasty walnuts and covered with a dusting of white. They look like a snowball rolled downhill to me and seem so right on a plate of holiday cookies. But, somebody named them first, so Mexican wedding cookies they are.
We’ve had a busy four or five days. We’d feasted on Thanksgiving with fifteen around our table. Friday we finished cleaning up after the feast and then briefly braved the crowds. Saturday, after pulling boxes and boxes from the attic, our Christmas tree was lit and dressed with ornaments collected over years. Sunday, we had family for breakfast before they headed out of town. With no precise plan for the rest of the day, a little slow and easy pre-holiday baking sounded more restful than a nap.
I’d made this snowy little confection recently as part of a cookie platter we took to a party. I do remember pulling the recipe card from its sleeve inside a large binder, but its space was now vacant. I looked in files I keep near by desk, files filled with ideas to sample and recipes I intend to post. Not there. I looked in my cookbooks, thinking maybe I’d used the recipe card as a bookmark. (Truth is: I looked in each of those places several times, disbelieving my eyesight the times before.) I looked in all kinds of unlikely places too, places I’m a bit embarrassed to confess. (Might I have left it in the laundry room on one of my many trips there? You never know.) But gradually it became clear: Mom’s recipe had gone missing.
Plan B: I’d seen a recipe for the same cookie in a special baking issue of Cook’s Illustrated and I’d wanted to sample it anyway. Thought I’d try it side-by-side my mom’s. The side-by-side would have to wait.
We’ve loved this cookie of mom’s. Trying to prepare myself for the possibility, I thought: No matter which recipe I end up using in the future, I’ll always associate this cookie with mom and the holidays. It will always be her cookie. Until yesterday, I had two unanswered questions: Can we improve upon perfection? and Why should we even try? I’ve explained the why part. Let me speak to improving upon perfection:
The Cook’s Illustrated cookie is not overly sweet, but neither was my mom’s. And it has a wonderful texture. (Some I’ve tried are a bit dry and with no particular taste. Again, not my mom’s.) But where this version shone is in its walnut-ier taste and its supreme tenderness. (The secret: half of the two cups of these healthful nuts are ground, lending their good oil to the mix – and the other half are chopped, providing their softly nutty bite.) Conclusion:
This cookie is one tender, melt-in-the-mouth, dribble-a little-powdery-sugar-on-your-sweater bite of deliciousness!
And yes, every once in a long while, we may need to update our notion of perfection.
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While enjoying a cookie or two with a cup of tea, I combed through some cookbooks that had come down through my mom’s family, some of them from as far back as the early 1900’s. Some of the ingredients, wow! At least a couple dozen updates to “perfection” have to have taken place since then!
Mexican Wedding Cookies
(Makes about 4 dozen)
- 2 cups (8 ounces) walnuts (or pecans)
- 2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¾ teaspoon table salt
- 2 sticks (16 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/3 cup (2.5 ounces) superfine sugar (see NOTE on how to make your own)
- 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1½ cups (6 ounces) confectioners’ sugar (approximate) – for dusting
Adjust oven racks to upper-middle-and lower-middle positions. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or use silicon mats.
Using a food processor, grind 1 cup of walnuts to coarse cornmeal texture (10 to 15 seconds.) Transfer to medium bowl. Using either the food processor or chopping by hand, coarsely chop the remaining cup of nuts. (5 seconds in food processor.) Transfer to the same bowl and add the flour and salt.
In a large bowl, either using hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the butter and superfine sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract. With mixer on low, slowly add the flour-nut mixture until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape the bowl and beaters, then continue to beat on low speed until the dough is cohesive. (About 7 seconds.)
Working with one tablespoon at a time, press and roll dough together into balls and lay on prepared sheets, about 1 inch apart.
Bake cookies until pale gold and the bottoms are just beginning to brown, about 18 minutes, switching and rotating baking sheets halfway through the baking.
Allow cookies to cool on the cooking sheet for 10 minutes, then move to cooling rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.
Using either a bowl or a paper bag filled with confectioners’ sugar, roll the cookies to coat. Just before serving, re-roll and gently shake off any excess.
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