Friday, March 14, 2014
Nut Crescent Cookies, A Childhood Memory Revisited
Nut crescent cookies, heavily coated with confectioners' sugar, were a Christmas mainstay during my childhood. My mother made them, but so did everyone else in Cleveland, so I assumed these rich, delicate treats must be an American standard.
I used to follow a tasting ritual. First, a bite of plain cookie, butter-rich but barely sweet and not at all appealing to my child's palate. Then, a bite of a sugar-dredged crescent, with the aching sweetness on the outside that turned the bland interior into something delectable. The contrast, and that moment of transformation, always fascinated me.
Eventually, I discovered that this style of cookie or pastry is common to many cultures in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The foundation is a mild shortbread dough, enriched by ground nuts and shaped into crescents or small balls. In the United States, the cookies are often referred to as Viennese Walnut Crescents, which suggests Central European origins.
I discovered that my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks all had multiple recipes for these cookies, under a variety of names: Crescents. Kipfel. Kiffel. Kipferlin. Piskoti. Contemporary Slovenian recipes generally use the name rogljički, which tranlates as croissants.
Now I was convinced: I had discovered one more Slovenian dish my mother had made for us, without revealing its ethnic origins.
I found a likely-looking recipe from my favorite vintage source, The Progressive Slovene Women of America. The type of nut was not specified, although the name, orehovi piskoti, suggests walnuts as the preferred choice. My mother used either walnuts or pecans. But I decided to use the freshly ground almond meal I already had in the fridge.
For the recipe and the results, read on.
Nut Crescents (Rogljički)
1 c. butter
6 T. sugar
1 t. vanilla or almond extract
2 c. flour
1 c. ground nuts (I used almond meal)
dash of salt (optional; I skipped it)
Cream buttter and sugar. Add extract. Mix in flour and then nuts. Use spoon (or hands) to make a dense and somewhat crumbly dough. Form into a smooth ball or, for ease of handling, shape into two long rolls. Cover and chill dough for an hour. Form into walnut sized balls, then roll into 2-1/2 inch strips. Shape strips into crescents. Place on parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool on sheet before moving, because these cookies are very fragile. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Store carefully.
When I removed the cookies from the baking sheet, they were delicate and fragile. I used a light hand with the sugar: a generous dusting rather than the heavy dredging my mother used to favor. The snowy crescents looked beautiful.
I repeated the before-and-after tasting ritual from my childhood. No doubt about it: Nut crescents are much tastier with a sugar coating, even to a more sophisticated adult palate. Although I am a fan of almonds, I suspect that walnuts or pecans might result in a slightly less dry and more flavorful cookie. That will be my choice the next time I make this easy but sophisticated recipe.
When I gave my mother some of the cookies, I asked her where she had first learned to make them. From my Slovenian America grandma, perhaps?
No, my mother said. It was from a magazine she bought, a collection called One Hundred Cookie Recipes. She wasn't sure what had happened to it.
I had an immediate image of that well-used magazine. It must have dated from the early 1950s, since the pages were yellow and brittle when she had passed it along to me, probably thirty years ago. I had no idea what had become of it.
The origin of the cookies? My mother thought they had become popular because of a recipe that was distributed by the makers of Crisco. I had a disconcerting memory: the big blue can of pale hydrogenated vegetable fat that used to sit in our kitchen for months on end. It was the "modern" shortening choice for cooks in the 1950s (and even later) because it didn't need refrigeration, thanks to all that chemical alternation. These days, Crisco has fallen into disrepute.
So much for my visions of a treasured family recipe. But I still like to believe these delicate cookies from my childhood carried the hidden flavor of our Slovenian roots.