Perhaps I should tell you about “gasoline cookies.” That short story might save you the trouble of foraging for black walnuts sometime. My father, who forages his plot for anything edible, most of which turns into wine, hoarded bag after bag of black walnuts a few years ago on a year that produced more nuts than the squirrels could stow away. He had grand plans for these nuts, so he sat eagerly picking the tidbits of meat out of the impossible nuts. The phrase, “a tough nut to crack,” must have referred to black walnuts. After long hours of cracking he discovered a few things about black walnuts. First of all, black walnuts leave a black tar on your hands that is pretty difficult to remove with any earthly substance. It wears off in about two weeks. Secondly, black walnuts have a very distinct and strong flavor. One for which many people do not have a hankering. His childlike visions of a Thanksgiving full of black-walnut treats dissolved into a single simple question “Now what do I do with all these nuts?”
In the end, he made cookies which guests either loved or hated. Most of us felt they had a distinct petroleum flavor that earned them the name “gasoline cookies.” One guest—only one though—loved them for the savory, oily, umami flavor that others just did not understand.
Now, you may think it’s strange that I start out my post on brown-sugar walnut cookies with a story about black walnuts; an ingredient not present in the finished recipe. Here’s why: I spent a lot of November thinking about past Thanksgivings and the crowd that gathers every year for the feast. My parents love to entertain, and through the years they have collected a diverse yet truly lovely extended family that gather for a long weekend of eating and celebrating each other. Some years the crowd is larger than others, and I only get there every other year. On the years I spend with the other half of my family, I mull over all the memories of all the Thanksgivings I have spent with my parents’ Thanksgiving family. The people that grace their Thanksgiving table are so important to my family’s memories that the foods each person introduces bear his/her name from that time forward. Imelda Berries and Pam’s Potatoes are normal side dishes (thankfully Erin’s sauerkraut never took off – sorry Erin!).
Every year is a different Thanksgiving, and each year a different story is told. One year the stuffing exploded; one year my mom invited the florist (or was it the pharmacist?) When I asked my parents about how Thanksgiving went this year my first question was, “Was it a good stuffing year?” My father’s famous stuffing recipe evolves every year and some mutations are more successful than others (this year was a hit). And the second question was, “What was the food star this year?” Every year there is one food item that gets all the talk. This year it was a pecan-pie cookie so good that one taste was enough for a family member to lay claim on the entire batch. So while I thought about those food stars, I kept coming back to the year of the gasoline cookies.
Considering the ingredients, those gasoline cookies should have been wonderful. But, it turns out that you can have too much of a good thing. Black walnuts, prized for their strong flavor and unique nuttiness should be used sparingly and cautiously–especially in baking. Many love black walnuts in savory dishes such as salads or for snacking with strong cheeses, but not usually as the main ingredient in cookies. When you want a walnut cookie packed with nut flavor black walnuts might not be the right choice for you. By the way, after a few years in the freezer, the black walnuts mellowed and made some delightful desserts. Do you have a few years to wait on your walnuts?
For a cookie that is crunchy and sweet with a mouth full of brown sugar and nutty goodness, then you want to use English walnuts. That’s what this cookie uses. To heighten the nutty flavor of the cookies, I brown a portion of the butter and re-cool it before adding it to the mix. There isn’t anything in these cookies that doesn’t add to the flavor; there’s no eggs and no leaveners. The finished cookie is something between a sweet sugar cookie and a shortbread. They are sweet and very nutty (with my normal dose of whole grains). I made them small and coin-like (hence the name), but don’t expect to stop at one or two cookies. They are so good that you’ll need to make sure you have all four dozen ready to go when you serve them, and as a bonus, they are guaranteed to be free from all fossil fuels. Perhaps I should nick-name them alternate energy cookies…Enjoy!
Brown Sugar Walnut Pennies
Makes 48 small cookies
Spelt flour adds a wonderful crunch to these cookies, but no one will guess that there is any whole wheat flour in them.
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks) divided
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups spelt flour
1 cup English walnuts
Melt 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Watch the butter carefully and remove from the heat when the butter reaches a light nutty brown color.
Let the butter cool back down completely to room temperature even if it starts to harden slightly.
While the butter cools, finely chop the walnuts until they are about the size of a piece of rice (I pulse them in a food processor). Set aside.
Mix the cooled browned butter with the rest of the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Beat on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the salt and vanilla and beat again, scraping down the sides. Add the flour, mixing until just combined, and then fold in the nuts.
Place half the mixture on a long piece of plastic wrap and form into a long rope about 1” wide and about 12” long. Repeat with the second half of the dough forming two long thin rolls of dough. Refrigerate the dough for at least two hours, or until it is hard and cold.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice each roll of dough in half and then each half into twelve even “coins” forming 48 small cookies. Place the cookies on baking sheets lined with parchment or a non-stick baking mat – 24 to a baking sheet. Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are slightly browner than the middle and the middles look set. Let the cookies cool before removing from the baking sheets and store tightly covered until serving.