Thursday, September 2, 2010

Walnut shortbread wedges

It's funny how recipes are chosen.  Maybe it's a matter of available ingredients.  Or perhaps it's a certain level of "fancy" needed for an occasion.  It could also be what I experienced yesterday -- a craving of the very serious kind.  It started sometime after lunch and continued for the duration of the work day.  I was even thinking about it during my workout, amidst calf raises and squats.  I wasn't kidding when I said that thinking about food gets me through workouts occasionally.

But seriously, this craving wouldn't budge, even after a delicious dinner: grape tomatoes and artichoke hearts tossed with a little garlic and butter and mixed with whole wheat pasta.  So.unbelievably.good, people.  Rifling through my pantry and fridge for snacks yielded popsicles, cookies from the Oakmont Bakery, Cheez-Its... and none of it seemed even remotely appealing to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that once I become fixated on something, there's no changing my mind.  I've gotta have it!  Still thinking about my craving, I got to wondering how the dictionary would describe this.  Per Merriam-Webster:

craving (noun) - an intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing

That sounds about right since at that point in time, there was no logical explanation for why I needed walnuts so badly.  Anything with walnuts, preferably something sweet and delicate.  A quick and fervent Google search yielded a few promising recipes, but most weren't what I was looking for.  So many bread or cookie recipes throw in chopped walnuts as an afterthought.  Here, put some chopped walnuts in your chocolate chip cookie dough just before baking -- no thanks, I'm a purist.  Or hey, add some texture to banana bread with walnuts -- very delicious, but the walnuts basically have no lines in the banana show.  What do people have against walnuts taking center stage?

The recipe I settled on showcased the flavor of the walnuts by keeping it simple and came together in under 10 minutes.  Flour, salt, butter, sugar, and a little flavoring.  Since I was out of vanilla (grumble grumble this is what you get when you bake in haste), I used almond extract... and wow!  Amazing what two nuts can do together :)  The deep walnut flavor with the hint of sweet almond combined to make a buttery flaky cookie.  I don't know what it is about shortbread that always makes me feel as if I should be drinking a cup of tea with my pinky in the air, sitting among royalty and generally acting mature beyond my years.  Don't be intimidated, though.  This tender subtle cookie also will please hungry boyfriends who eat the wedges in two or three bites, washing it all down with a glass of cold milk.  What can I say?  It's a versatile crowd-pleasing cookie that you must try at once!

Walnut Shortbread Wedges
(adapted from Martha Stewart)
-makes one 8" round, which I cut into 8 wedges

A few notes: If you're in a hurry and need to bring butter to room temperature quickly, do this: cut amount of butter necessary into tablespoon-sized slices and arrange on a plate and allow to sit in a warm spot (on the counter next to my oven) for 20 minutes.  Also, the original recipe called for vanilla extract which, I unhappily discovered, I was out of!  Quick thinking had me grabbing for the almond extract and wow, I can't imagine it any other way.  Two nutty flavors in one flaky cookie.  But, if you have or prefer vanilla extract, by all means, use it!

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
1/4 cup + 3 Tablespoons confectioner's sugar, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat oven to 325F.  Butter bottom and sides of 8-inch round cake pan (perfect use for the butter wrapper!).  In the bowl of a food processor (or nut grinder), pulse walnuts until finely ground.  In a small bowl, whisk ground nuts together with flour and salt; set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar and almond extract on medium high until light and fluffy.  With mixer on low, slowly add the nuts and flour mixture and mix until just combined.  Dough will be slightly stiff and form a ball.

Press the dough evenly into the buttered cake pan.  Cut into desired wedges and prick with a toothpick all over.  Bake 30 to 35 minutes until edge of shortbread is just beginning to turn golden.  Remove from oven to wire rack.  Recut wedges along original marks and reprick in similar fashion.  Allow to cool completely.  Dust with confectioner's sugar just before serving.  Enjoy!

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