Viennese Walnut Crescents
I’ve been making these cookies at Christmastime ever since my children were old enough to eat them. In fact, even earlier since their father was a first-class cookie maven, so ever since I was first married more than half a century ago. In fact, even earlier than that, since the New York Times Cookbook was published back in 1961 by Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) where I received my introduction to the world of publishing.
In short, I’ve been making these cookies at Christmas for a very long time. But still, since I only do it once a year, I have to turn to the recipe to freshen up my memory before I start—vanilla bean, powdered sugar, walnuts, butter, flour, and that’s just about it. A well-used recipe book becomes a family treasure, gaining character over the years. My copy of the NYT Cookbook was my mother’s, but it falls open automatically to the page where the recipe appears since the well between pages is filled with a dusting of sugar and cookie crumbs.
Craig Claiborne, the author of the cookbook, was called “food editor” of the New York Times during the years I worked there, although he did no editing whatsoever and simply handed in his column every week and held the hand of the Style section editor who was a little out of her depth when it came to food. The story at The Paper is that when it came time to assemble into a book the enormous mass of recipes that Craig had published over the years, copyright in which belonged to the Times, he approached the editors at New York Times Books. They were decidedly uninterested in publishing a cookbook and ceded the copyright to him. So he took it to Harper’s, not exactly marketing geniuses but quick to spot a bonanza when it was presented to them. According to the HarperCollins website, the book has sold more than three million copies in all editions. Used copies of the original are still available on Amazon for $1.14.
My version of Craig’s recipe is somewhat adapted. I don’t usually shape them in crescents since they taste just as good and are a lot easier to mold into plump circles. Also, I use a food processor to speed things up. Astonishingly, the Cuisinart was not around when Claiborne published the book. Later he became one of the greatest unpaid advocates of the little kitchen machine that made such a difference in all our lives, but he promoted it primarily for making, of all things, quenelles de brochet, a recipe that now seems as dated as beef Wellington.
But it’s the cookie recipe you’re looking for and here it is!
Claiborne’s headnote for the original says this is “the greatest cookie recipe ever devised.” You be the judge!
Makes about 40 cookies.
- 1 vanilla bean, chopped
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
- 1 cup butter at room temperature
- 2 ½ sifted cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
The day before you make the cookies, combine the chopped vanilla with about a tablespoon of granulated sugar. Either pound in a mortar until the pieces of vanilla are thoroughly combined with the sugar (Claiborne’s method), or transfer to a blender (the food processor will not work for this) and buzz until thoroughly combined. Add the vanilla sugar to the sifted confectioner’s sugar, combine well, cover, and let stand, preferably overnight.
Add the butter to the bowl of a food processor and process in spurts until the butter is creamy. Add the sugar, ¼ cup at a time, combining after each addition. When the butter and sugar are thoroughly mixed, add the flour, again in increments of about ½ cup. Add the vanilla and process. Then, finally, add the walnuts and process briefly, just enough to combine everything well but don’t process to the point that the walnut pieces disappear completely—they are part of what gives these cookies their delightful crunch.
When everything has been pulled together, the cookie mass may be too soft to work. If so, put it, covered, in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so to soften up. (You could even make this up a day or more ahead of time, then refrigerate until you’re ready to bake it off.)
When you’re ready to bake, turn the oven on to 350ºF.
Take about a piece of cookie dough, a bit more than a teaspoonful, a bit less than a tablespoonful, and shape quickly into a round—or a crescent, if you prefer. Set the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, leaving them about a half inch apart. When the oven is hot, transfer the sheets and bake the cookies until golden—about 15 to 18 minutes.
Spread a sheet of parchment or wax paper on the counter top and set a wire rack on top. The paper should extend beyond the rack for an inch or two on each side. When the cookies are done, remove the sheets from the oven and transfer the cookies to the rack. Let cool for a minute or two, then sift the vanilla sugar over the tops of all the cookies. The parchment paper underneath the rack will capture any excess sugar and you can then sift it over once more. The cookies should be thoroughly dusted with vanilla sugar so they look like snow-covered pebbles.
When they are thoroughly cooled, store the cookies in a tin. They will keep well for a week or more and seem to get tastier with time.