Punch Up the Flavor of a Classic Cookie with this Native American Walnut
Say “sandies,” and we usually think pecans. But you can use almost any type of nut to make these wonderful shortbread-like cookies.
Walnuts make scrumptious sandies. They’re less sweet than pecans, but they have a more robust taste. And when you’re making cookies, there’s always enough added sugar, so sweetness isn’t a big concern anyway.
Most supermarkets carry two varieties of walnuts: the so-called English walnut (which actually originated in Persia) and the black walnut, which is native to eastern North America. English walnuts tend to be more abundant (and much less expensive), in large part because they’re easier to cultivate — they are grown commercially, while black walnuts often are harvested wild (by hand). And the shells of English walnuts are much easier to crack, making them less costly to process. But black walnuts deliver especially good flavor — bold, rich, and earthy.
If you don’t want to splurge on black walnuts (or have trouble finding them), you can substitute English walnuts — or use a mix of the two. Any way you make them, these cookies are so good, you’ll want to eat more — OK, quite a few more — than you really should. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Recipe: Black-Walnut Sandies
Sandies are really gussied up shortbread cookies. Traditional shortbread contains nothing more than butter, sugar, and flour. This recipe adds other ingredients, including nuts (which provide fat as well as flavor), so it isn’t true shortbread. But it’s a close cousin.
You’ll find some recipes for sandies that contain egg. Sorry, but that’s a no, IMO — the egg adds too much richness to the dough, changing its character.
With all the butter and sugar these cookies contain, no one would call them “healthy.” But at least walnuts add some protein, omega-3 fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins.
There are loads of recipes available for sandies. Mrs. Kitchen Riffs is the baker in our family, and she adapted this one from Martha Stewart’s recipe for pecan sandies. (When you see “I” in most of the Notes, that’s Mrs K R talking.)
It takes about 10 minutes to mix the sandies, and maybe half an hour to bake them (assuming you’ll need to do the baking in a couple of batches). This recipe yields about 60 cookies (depending on how big you make them). Leftovers store well in an airtight container for a few days.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
- 1½ cups dark brown sugar, packed (light brown or granulated sugar also work; see Notes)
- 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- ~2 cups black walnuts, chopped coarsely (may substitute English walnuts, or a mix of the two)
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper (see Notes).
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together flour and salt.
- In the bowl of stand mixer (or in a mixing bowl, using a hand mixer), beat butter and brown sugar until creamy. Add vanilla extract and mix in. Then gradually add black walnuts, mixing until fully incorporated. Gradually add the flour mixture, beating at low to medium speed until fully incorporated.
- Roll dollops of dough into balls measuring about 1 inch across. Place dough balls on baking sheets and flatten them with a spoon.
- Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, or until they just are just becoming firm. Don’t overbake — if in doubt, take them out. Cool cookies on a wire rack for about 5 minutes before serving or storing.
- I’ve used all sorts of baking sheets for making cookies over the years, including expensive insulated sheets. Nowadays, I just use 11 x 17-inch (half-sheet) pans with 1-inch sides, and line them with parchment paper. They provide ample surface space and the sides keep the cookies from slipping off. I can’t say I’ve noticed much difference in quality. Although some of the fancier sheets theoretically make for better results, none of them are likely to perform as advertized in the typical home oven, where baking conditions are sub-optimum at best. (The temperature of my own home oven tends to be off by 20 degrees or more, for instance.) So I just go with what’s easiest to use — and quickest to clean up.
- You can substitute granulated or light-brown sugar in this recipe, but I think dark brown yields the best flavor.
- I prefer black walnuts in this recipe, but they’re expensive. English walnuts make a perfectly good substitute.
- How expensive are black walnuts? Even online (where they tend to be cheaper), black walnuts often cost about twice as much as English walnuts. In the supermarket, the price differential tends to be even larger.
- Although black walnuts grow throughout much of eastern North America, about 65% of the wild commercial crop comes from Missouri. It’s common to find black walnut trees in wooded areas of Missouri, particularly in the southeastern part of the state.
- Walnuts have a fairly high oil content, which means they can become rancid after being shelled (though not right away — it takes a while). So after opening a bag of walnuts, it’s best to store them in the freezer (in an airtight container) if you don’t expect to use them all immediately.
- Even if you don’t store nuts in the freezer, it’s probably a good idea to store them in an airtight container.
- You should use high quality (pure) vanilla extract in this recipe. Its flavor is so much better than the imitation kind.
- Pure vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and alcohol for several months. BTW, the FDA requires that pure vanilla extract contain at least 35% alcohol. If the label doesn’t say “pure,” that means it’s made from synthetic vanilla. The artificial kind is usually derived from the sapwood of several species of conifers — or from coal extracts! How appetizing (not).
- The flavor of some imitation vanillas can be nasty. You don’t have to spend a fortune on pure vanilla extract, but getting decent quality does mean spending a bit more for something that’s not loaded with sugar or imitation flavoring. Do yourself a favor and get the real stuff.
Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is
“So, which kind do you prefer?” asked Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, pointing to the two platters of cookies she had placed on our kitchen island.
“They’re both good,” I said, reaching for another round of cookies to confirm my first impression. “Though I think this first one is better.”
“I thought so!” she beamed. “That’s the one with the black walnuts. The other’s made with English walnuts — the more commonly available kind.”
“There is a difference in flavor,” I admitted. “Although I’d be happy with either one of these.”
“But the black walnuts are better!” said Mrs K R gleefully. “I thought they would be — it’s important to test these things. I wanted to be sure before I ordered a bunch of walnuts.”
“Order?” I wondered. “Can’t you just get them at the supermarket?”
“Sure,” she said, “but black walnuts tend to be expensive, and supermarkets slap premium prices on them. Much cheaper online.”
“How expensive?” I asked, suddenly wondering about our bank balance.
“Have another cookie,” said Mrs K R sweetly. “Not too expensive — nothing to worry yourself about. Besides, you’ve always said that when it comes to food, quality, not cost, should be our main concern.”
I nodded as I bit into another cookie. Sometimes my big mouth gets me into trouble.
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