These walnut cookies are so delicious. Though the spice ingredients are familiar, their combined flavor isn’t like anything I’ve had before; it’s warm and mellow, exotic and nostalgic at the same time. Maida called this “the perfect icebox cookie”. So comforting with a cup of tea or coffee. They make a lovely gift stacked in a cellophane* bag.
Do you know Maida Heatter? She passed away in June 2019 at the age of 102. I never met her, of course, but reading her books has given me a sense of knowing her. If you haven’t had that pleasure yet and you’d like to get up to speed on this fine baker/cookbook author/designer/illustrator/person in a hurry, here’s one article you might read. There’s a lot more out there; she was a pretty beloved figure in the foodie world.
The recipe for these cookies comes from Maida Heatter’s Brand-New Book of Great Cookies, published in 1995. The best cookies I’ve ever baked come from either that book or Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies published in 1977.
Heirloom Walnut Icebox Cookies, from Maida Heatter’s Brand-New Book of Great Cookies
- 8 ounces (generous 2 cups) walnuts
- 2-1/4 cups sifted unbleached flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice (I was out of allspice so substituted cardamom)
- 8 ounces unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 egg graded “large”
- 2 tablespoons milk
- (you’ll need some wax paper too; also Maida recommends baking these on parchment paper)
Break the nuts into large pieces; set aside. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. (Maida was a big proponent of sifting!) In the large bowl of an electric mixer beat the butter until soft. Add both sugars and beat until thoroughly mixed. Beat in the egg and milk. Add the sifted dry ingredients and beat on low speed until incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer, and with a heavy, wooden spatula (spoon?), stir in the nuts.
Spread out a piece of wax paper about 20″ long. Spoon out the dough to make a thick strip about 12″ long in the middle of the paper. Lift the two long sides of the wax paper, bring them together on top of the dough (hold them together, touching the top of the dough) and – with your hands – press on the wax paper to shape the dough into an even loaf about 12″ long, 3″ wide, and 1-1/2″ high with squared ends. Press on the paper to make the loaf as smooth as possible. (My edges weren’t nearly as smooth as Maida would have made hers.) Place on a cookie sheet or a tray or anything flat and transfer to the freezer for about 3 hours or as much longer as you wish. If you plan to leave it in the freezer for more than a few hours, rewrap it in aluminum foil.
To bake, adjust two racks to divide the oven into thirds. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with baking parchment. Unwrap the loaf, and with a very sharp knife – one with a thin blade, if possible – cut the frozen loaf into slices a scant 1/4″ thick. Place them about 1-1/2″ apart on the lined sheets. Bake about 10 minutes, reversing the sheets top to bottom and front to back once or twice during baking. When the cookies are nicely browned and spring back when gently pressed with a fingertip, transfer them with a wide metal spatula to racks to cool. If you bake one sheet alone, bake it in the middle of the oven. Store in a airtight container.
Yield: about 60 cookies
*Real cellophane bags are so hard to find these days. They’ve been replaced by plastic pretending to be cellophane. Paper Source still carries them.