Gram’s Recipe Box: Nut Horns

Just in time for the holiday cookie season, we were given the gift of another recipe from T’s grandmother’s recipe box, this time for one of her personal favorites, Nut Horns.

I had never tried a nut horn before baking these last week, but during a recent visit with Gram while she is convalescing and undergoing rehabilitation she asked me to retrieve this recipe from her second recipe box at home and make them for her. Although I actually forgot to get the recipe cards on that trip, my MIL was kind enough to find the recipe (actually there were 2 versions in the files), scan the cards and email us photos of the cards, some of which are in Gram’s handwriting and some of which are neatly typed. (Thanks, Mom!!)

For me, the best thing about having hard copies, or at least photos of hard copies, of personal recipes is seeing the notations, changes and adjustments that have been made and to see how a recipe might have evolved or grown over time. It is always more precious when it’s in a loved one’s own handwriting, too.

In this case, Gram’s recipe was a little vague on the actual method of shaping and filling the dough and a brief web search for similar recipes was required to fill in the gaps for me. And since I had never tasted this cookie, I was unclear on what the final texture and taste should be. Here’s what I’ve learned after this first attempt at a classic (which I’m happy to say met with Gram’s approval)!

This recipe for nut horns yields a very tender, mildly sweet and nutty cookie that is very addictive with a cup of strong coffee! It starts with a yeast cream dough that does not have any sugar except for 1 tablespoon to feed the yeast and the powdered sugar for rolling the dough. The ground walnut meringue filling is just sweet enough to balance the dough, and the meringue rises and fills the cookie as it bakes so it is important to roll the dough loosely to allow the meringue room to expand.

Both Gram’s recipe and most of the similar recipes I found on the web call for rolling out the dough on powdered sugar, which I found to be a very sticky proposition. Literally. This makes your dough very sticky and a bit difficult to work with. I tried one batch rolled out on plain flour, which was easier to work with but which changed both the sweetness of the dough (remember, it has very little sugar in it) and the appearance of the final cookie — those rolled in sugar had a pleasantly crackled appearance (see photo below), while those rolled in flour were smooth (see top photo). For the last 2 batches, though, I hit upon a system of putting first flour, then powdered sugar on the counter, then rolling the dough out — that makes the dough less sticky on your board or counter, while still giving it some of the traditional crackled surface once the cookie baked. But once powdered sugar is sprinkled over the baked cookie, only the most finicky connoisseur can really tell the difference in looks or taste. In fact, as she sampled the first cookie, Gram confided that she usually rolled out her cookies in flour because it went a lot faster that way.

After tasting the first batch of cookies as they came out of the oven, I admit that I tweaked the filling a little — you can’t really taste the spices I’ve added to Gram’s original recipe, but they just seem to round out the flavor of the walnuts. The new additions are marked (**) so you can try Gram’s original or the tweaked version (or both). Gram only taste-tested her orginal version, so that’s the one that actually has her “grin of approval”.

Another point of difference I saw among nut horn recipes was whether you spread the filling over the entire rolled-out dough before cutting it into 8 pieces (Gram used this method); or cut the dough, then put filling just in the lower half or third of the dough before rolling it up. As mentioned earlier, the filling is actually a meringue (whipped egg whites and sugar) and is expected to rise quite dramatically as it bakes.

For the first 2 batches I followed Gram’s instructions and rolled out the dough balls into a 9-inch circle, spread one-sixth of the flling over each circle, then cut 8 pie-shaped wedges, and loosely rolled up each wedge beginning at the wide part. Once I saw how much the filling expanded and cracked the dough in some places and spilled over in others, I switched to the other method for the last 4 batches and filled only the lower half or third of the wedge before rolling (that’s what is recommended in the recipe below). In the photo above, the cookies in the foreground were filled only in the lower half and I think make for a neater presentation (especially for gift-giving). The ones in the background (slightly blurry) are filled from wedge to point. Surprisingly, the cookies have about the same amount of filling whichever method you use so the final taste is pretty equal no matter which rolling method you choose.

I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to make another batch of nut horns this holiday season, because we have so many recipes bookmarked to try from past “Eat Christmas Cookies”events sponsored by Susan at Food Blogga. Last year we added Gram’s Molasses Crinkles to Susan’s Christmas cookie platter and this year we’ll continue the tradition by sending along these delicate Nut Horns for this third annual international cookie fest! Check out the first 2 years of cookie fabulousness now at Food Blogga, or send along your own favorite treats. Susan will post periodic Round-ups of this year’s cookies as they are submitted so check back for new cookie inspiration until the event closes on December 20th.

Makes 48 cookies

Note: Dough has to chill for at least 6 hours before finishing. If you have a marble work surface, it will help keep the dough cool as you roll and fill.

½ cup/ 120ml lukewarm water
1 2oz./56g cake yeast, or 1 packet (.25oz) active dry yeast
1 TBL raw sugar
½ lb/455g butter, cold
3 cups/445g unbleached plain flour
3 egg yolks from large eggs, beaten
(reserve 2 whites and keep refrigerated to make Filling)
8 TBL/8 oz/120ml heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
powdered sugar for rollling dough and to dust for garnish

Dissolve yeast and sugar in lukewarm water, and set aside until foaming.

Cut butter into flour until crumbly. Combine egg yolks, cream and vanilla, and beat well. Add to flour and mix to combine.

Add yeast mixture and form into a ball for kneading — dough should not be sticky. Sprinkle with teaspoonful of flour until dough is not tacky. Knead until smooth. Refrigerate overnight, or at least 6 hours.

Prepare Filling no sooner than 1 hour before you are ready to roll out dough or it may become too stiff.

½ lb/ 225g walnuts, ground
1½ cup/285g raw sugar
2 egg whites from large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
** 1/2 tsp cinnamon
** 1/8 tsp or less fresh ground nutmeg
(Cinnamon and nutmeg are not in Gram’s recipe — see notes above)

Make Filling: Beat egg whites to soft peak. Slowly add sugar, with the beaters on the whole time. Fold in vanilla and nuts. (Note: since I was using raw sugar, I could not hold a soft peak because raw sugar is so granular — but the fillling worked anyway.)

Pre-heat oven to 375/180C.

Sprinkle work surface with flour. Lightly flatten dough, divide into 6 parts and roll each into a ball. Keep remaining balls of dough covered and refrigerated as you work with the first one. (Note: I recommend using flour for the first roll since you need to refrigerate the remaining dough — if you use powdered sugar and then refrigerate, the remaining balls of dough are very sticky when they come out of the fridge… as I found out the hard way…)

To keep the final dough tender, use a light touch when rolling. Sprinkle work surface with flour, then cover generously with powdered sugar. (See notes above for flour vs. powdered sugar for rolling.) Roll first ball of dough to about a 9”/230mm circle.

Working quickly, cut into 8 wedges and fill each wedge with 1 heaping teaspoon of nut filling spread over widest half or third of the wedge. Roll dough starting at widest part and ending at the point. (Also see notes and photo above for alternative method for fillling cookies.) Bend corners of the cookie to the middle to achieve a nice crescent shape, and place on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until light brown. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Each ball of dough will give you 8 cookies. Working with 2 cookie sheets, I put each batch of 8 cookies in the oven as soon as I was done so they didn’t sit in the warm kitchen too long. Because of the high fat content from the butter and cream, the cookies would tend to soften and flatten if left in the warm environment. Also make sure your cookie sheet is completely cool before placing finished crescents on them — a quick way to cool a warm cookie sheet is to place it on a cool, wet kitchen towel for 1 minute or so. The wet towel pulls heat from the pan faster than air-cooling.

Cool cookies completely on rack. Dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

These seem best the first few days after baking, and then lose their tender quality with every passing day, although they were still wonderful the first 8 days after baking (they didn’t last past that so I can’t vouch for longer storage). If the cookies don’t have sugar dusted on them yet, they can be re-warmed and re-sofened if wrapped loosely in foil and set in a pre-heated toaster oven for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired.“

If the cookies have to travel, omit the powdered sugar when packing since sugar can make the cookies sticky by the time they reach their destination (as you probably guessed, these were destined for Gram’s bedside). You might include a note suggesting a sprinkle of powdered sugar before serving.

Happy Baking, Everyone!