If I’m baking desserts during most of the year, I’m happy to dig through bins of freshly ground whole grain flours of many persuasions, experiment with natural sweeteners, and even pour cups of precious high-end olive oil into cake batter looking for more complex and (arguably) healthier versions of my favorite baked goods. Come December, however, all of this wholesomeness goes out the window. Bring on the butter, corn syrup, granulated sugar, and bright white all-purpose flour.
I’ll bake whole-grain, gluten-free cookies in January.
Where I grew up outside of Atlanta, GA, holiday cookies are always full of the state’s best nut. I’m not talking about the more famous peanut, which is far too idiosyncratic for the array of festive treats appropriate for Santa and his reindeer. No, for holiday baking, the pecan is king, its quiet sweetness and tender texture a perfect counter to the onslaught of sugar to come.
One of the simplest holiday cookies to bake is the pecan puff (or Mexican wedding cookie, or Russian tea cakes, or polvorones), a crumbly ball of butter, sugar, and nuts coated in enough powdered sugar to shower all over the counter, floor, and that nice holiday outfit you’ve just put on. My mom bakes these small round cookies in huge batches to hand out to friends, neighbors, and the endless stream of family members that files through my parent’s house at the end of December.
Making the cookie dough is as simple as creaming together butter and a little sugar before adding vanilla, flour, and finely chopped pecans. The dough is as easy to work with as play-doh, so it’s a snap to roll out a batch or two. After baking for half an hour in a low oven, the hot cookies take a quick dip in confectioner’s sugar, which melts into the exterior. I like to coat the cookies with another layer of sugar once they’ve cooled. Don’t be shy with the sugar; the barely sweet dough can take it.
Another family favorite is a slight riff on an old Joy of Cooking cookie called an angel bar. The base of the bars is made like a simple sugar cookie—flour, sugar, butter, eggs—but the gooey middle section is where the cookies truly shine. Coconut and pecans mingle with more eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla; a mixture that bakes into a thin, sticky custard akin to pecan pie filling. A thin coating of lemon glaze brightens the rich sweetness of the rest of the cookie for a treat that’s impossible to put down.
Like the pecan puffs, angel bars are a cinch to bake. Patience is the only key, as they require a two-step baking process. The cookie layer needs to bake and set before the nut mixture is added to ensure a cleanly layered bar.
Glazing the cookies while they’re still warm is the real key to the cookie, and the biggest improvement since its invention in the 60s. Like a good poke cake, the glaze will seep into the nut layer, creating a more cohesive whole.
For those looking for a little more of a challenge, try making a batch or two of pecan-filled divinity. Divinity is an early 20th century confection similar to nougat, marshmallows, and fudge. Its appearance in American cookbooks coincided with the invention of Karo corn syrup, which is a key ingredient in most recipes. (Of course, it is possible to make divinity using other liquid sweeteners, such as maple syrup, golden syrup, or honey, but for tradition’s sake, we’re sticking with good ol’ American corn.) Adding pecans gives the confection Southern flair; other nuts, dried fruit, or chopped candies are also fair game.
To make divinity, I start with a sugar syrup made with granulated sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt. I boil this to the top of the hard ball stage (265-266 degrees). To prevent the sugar from crystallizing while boiling (always a risk when cooking a mixture of sugar and water), I eschew from stirring. Instead, I gently swirl the pan to encourage the sugar to dissolve and to eliminate hot pockets in the syrup.
As the sugar heats up, I work on the other major component of divinity: egg whites. These I beat to stiff peaks using a stand mixer. It is possible to make divinity using a hand-head electric mixer, but it’ll require a bit more arm power. Once the sugar syrup hits the magic temperature, I add it to the egg whites while the mixer is running. At first the mixture will billow and appear as if it will overflow out of the bowl. Have faith; it’ll soon subside.
The egg white and sugar mixture will go through a few stages as it aerates and cools. First, it will look gooey and shiny, and it will shrink down to only a cup or so in volume. As it continues to be beaten, the mixture will gradually become lighter and fluffier, losing its gloss and looking much like butter cream frosting. Once it hits this point, I add the vanilla and chopped pecans, and then turn off the mixer.
At this point, it is imperative to move quickly, as the divinity will noticeably stiffen as it continues to cool. Using two greased spoons, I scoop golf ball-sized balls of divinity and plop it down on a parchment-line baking sheet. The goal is for the divinity to look like white puffy clouds—or, err, scoops of ice cream. Whatever they look like, they’ll still taste divinely sweet.
Recipe: Pecan Puffs
Makes about 20 cookies
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup pecans, finely chopped
1 cup cake flour
Confectioner’s sugar, for rolling
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using electric mixer on medium speed, cream together butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla until smooth.
Turn mixer to low, and add flour and pecans. Mix just until combined.
Using hands, pinch off dough in tablespoon-sized pieces and roll into small balls. Place on prepared sheet pans, 2 inches apart. Bake cookies until set and light golden brown on the bottom, 25 to 30 minutes.
Pour about 1 cup confectioner’s sugar in a shallow dish or pie pan. As soon as cookies come out of the oven, roll in sugar until evenly coated. Transfer to cooling rack set inside of a baking sheet, and let cool to room temperature. Roll in or dust with a second layer of confectioner’s sugar before serving.
Recipe: Angel Bars
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing baking pan, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 9x13-inch baking dish with butter.
First, make the cookie layer: Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, cream together butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla until smooth. Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating until smooth. Transfer to prepared baking dish. Using your hands, pat dough into an even layer. Bake cookie layer is set and edges are lightly golden, 12 to 15 minutes.
While cookie layer bakes, make the nut layer: Combine brown sugar, pecans, coconut, eggs, flour, vanilla, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
As soon as cookie layer comes out of the oven, gently spread nut mixture over the top. Smooth with a spatula. Return dish to the oven and bake until top is deep golden brown and no longer jiggles, 20 to 25 minutes.
While the bars bake, make the glaze: Stir together confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice until smooth. If glaze is too thick to drizzle, add lemon juice, 1 teaspoon at a time, until thinned.
Drizzle hot bars with a thin layer of lemon glaze. You will likely have glaze leftover. Let bars cool to room temperature before slicing into 1x2-inch bars. Use a thin spatula to remove bars from the dish and serve.
Recipe: Pecan Divinity
Makes 15–18 candies
Note: You will have the most success if making divinity on a dry day; the candy will not fully harden on a humid day.
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup chopped pecans
Line one baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Set aside. Place egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.
Place corn syrup and water in a large saucepan. Pour sugar and salt into the center of the pan, trying not to let the sugar hit the pan’s sides. Cook mixture, without stirring, over medium heat until the corn syrup and water start to boil around the edges of the pan, 3 to 5 minutes. Continue to cook, gently swirling pan, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture reaches 265 degrees on an instant read or candy thermometer, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, once the sugar mixture reaches about 240 degrees, turn mixer on to medium speed and beat egg whites until foamy. Increase the speed to high and continue to beat until stiff peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside until syrup is ready.
Once syrup has reached 265 degrees, return the mixer to medium speed, and gradually pour sugar syrup into egg whites. Pour syrup in along the sides of the mixer bowl to avoid splattering. Once all syrup is incorporated, raise mixer speed to high. Continue to beat until mixture reduces in volume, looses its glossy, and becomes very thick, 7 to 10 minutes. Beat in pecans and vanilla.
Working quickly, and using two lightly greased spoons, scoop candy mixture onto prepared sheet pan in golf-ball sized mounds. Let stand until candy is firm, 3 to 5 hours, before serving. Store in airtight containers.