Instead of braving box-store sales in the days after Thanksgiving, I start baking for December holidays. By the time the family gathers for Christmas, numerous varieties of homemade cookies are expected to fill platters around the house. Some of the simplest recipes that appear each year earn their must-have reputation because they sit for several weeks to build flavor. So, before December begins, holiday cookies are emerging from my oven.
It all starts when I pull out an age-worn recipe card with brief penciled instructions in my grandmother’s cursive. It’s simply titled Vanilla Bean Cookies, and I only learned as an adult that they resemble Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes and snowball cookies. These similar recipes often call for pure vanilla extract and are ready to eat once baked and powdered. Grandma Tiny’s version, which slowly infuses freshly ground vanilla beans into the cookies, is well worth the wait.
I made my most recent batch of these cookies last spring for a book launch party, and the author requested all-organic ingredients. When I shared some with my family, my sister declared them the best version ever. I think that switching from a cornstarch-based powdered sugar to an organic, tapioca-based one made the biggest difference: the sugary coating didn’t overpower the cookies’ rich, buttery center.
This recipe makes a large batch; if you roll bite-size balls, you can stretch it even further. My family and friends have no problem polishing off the whole batch before the end of the holidays. As I’ve shared the cookies and the recipe over the years, they’ve become a holiday tradition that friends around the world now make for their families.
Vanilla Bean Cookies
Makes about 80 cookies
2 cups salted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups unblanched whole or sliced almonds
2 whole vanilla beans
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until thoroughly combined. In a food processor, grind the almonds and vanilla beans until both are very fine and the almonds start to clump. Mix the ground ingredients into the butter and sugar; thoroughly blend in the flour. Form the dough into small balls, about the size of a walnut, and then let them chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or overnight to retain their shape.
Arrange the chilled dough balls on an ungreased baking sheet, spacing them about 1-1/2 inches apart. Bake at 350°F for about 25 minutes, until the cookies just begin to darken on the bottom. Move the cookies to a wire rack to cool, scrape any crumbs from the baking sheet and arrange and bake the remaining dough balls. Let the cookies cool completely, and then roll each in powdered sugar.
In a container with a tight-fitting lid, place the cookies in layers separated by waxed or parchment paper. Set the container in a cool place for at least three weeks so that the vanilla can permeate the cookies.
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