“Did you buy stock in a walnut farm?” asked my husband when I returned home from the market with a bag full of tawny colored nuts. I simply couldn’t resist them. The flavor is creamy and sweet, with hints of maple syrup and spice. What better way to finish a meal than with a glass of port, a handful of walnuts and a slice of blue-veined cheese?
But the other evening, as my grandmother told me about her 40 pound walnut harvest, I was inspired to browse through my family recipe books for something Ukrainian themed. My grandmother’s walnut and honey torte and rich walnut roll are delectable, but they are desserts for times when you have a whole evening to devote to cooking. By contrast, I had just finished my work day and was too exhausted to tackle a complicated project. So, I settled on a recipe for walnut crescents that I knew by heart.
The inspiration for these cinnamon and vanilla perfumed crescents comes from Ukrainian Practical Cuisine (“Українська практична кухня”), a collection of recipes published in 1929 and reprinted by the Panorama publishing house in 2006. Compiled by Olga Franko, the book features dishes prepared in her household and those of her friends. Franko lived in Galicia, a region bordering Poland, and for a period of time until 1918, a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Today, it comprises western Ukraine, with cities like Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk as the regional centers.
When you flip through Franko’s book, the melting pot of Galicia becomes instantly obvious. There are recipes for Italian pastas, French ragouts, Austrian cakes and Polish dumplings, but the majority of dishes are traditional Ukrainian. Unlike the stodgy cuisine of the Soviet brand, these recipes are sophisticated and nuanced. Vanilla, saffron and fragrant geranium leaves are used to scent desserts, while savory dishes are accented with allspice, chervil, lemon zest, and of course, dill, a beloved Ukrainian herb.
The recipe that ultimately became my walnut crescents originally called for hazelnuts, and as Pani Olga commented, it came “from Pani Lilikova of Nadvirna.” I thank both ladies for this crumbly, aromatic cookie. I’ve made it with different nuts in the past, but walnuts give me the familiar flavor of my grandmother’s pastries, so that’s my favorite choice. While Pani Olga calls for jam, I selected the luscious nutty filling for a true walnut delight. To highlight their natural spicy-sweet nuances, I paired walnuts with a touch of cinnamon and vanilla.
The dough needs only a brief rest before you’re ready to roll, fill and shape the crescents. Put them in the oven, brew a pot of tea and 10 minutes later you can sit down in front of a snow covered window with a steaming cup and a plate of cookies. This is what makes winter more bearable.
Ukrainian Walnut Crescents
You can substitute other nuts such as hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, and pecans. If you use hazelnuts and almonds, I recommend toasting them in the oven to pale gold. This will bring out the flavor, and in the case of hazelnuts, help you remove some of the tough skin. Instead of a nutty filling, you can use any thick jam. Apricot is particularly nice with walnuts.
Makes 40 small crescents
300 g (2 1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
100 g (7 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
100 g (1 cup) ground walnuts
80 g (1/3 cup + 1 teaspoon) granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
3-6 Tablespoons of milk or water, enough to make medium-soft dough.
vanilla flavored confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
Mix ground nuts with flour and salt. Cream butter with sugar with a fork, and add the flour mixture. Rub butter into the flour with your fingertips till the dough looks crumbly. Add the egg yolks and enough water or milk till the dough comes together. It will be soft and pliable, but not sticky. Be sure not to overmix. As soon as the dough comes together, form it into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge, while you prepare the filling. You can also make the dough in the morning and bake cookies in the evening.
Divide dough into four pieces. Roll each between two pieces of waxed paper to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut each round into 8-10 triangles, fill them with about 1 teaspoon of filling and roll up, starting from the wide edge.
Place crescents 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake until barely golden, about 10-12 minutes. Coat liberally with vanilla sugar while warm.
100g (1 cup) ground walnuts
75g (1/3 cup) granulated sugar
1 egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Mix walnuts with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Whip egg white to soft peaks and fold into the walnut mixture. The filling should be thick but soft.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin
Extra: Fragrant Holiday Baking