I take a small bite and I hear the light crackle of the crisp thin outer layer. My teeth sink into finely chopped walnuts supported by a framework of egg white and sugar. In the morsel that now takes center stage in my mouth, the sugar dissolves and creates a substrate over which the walnut bits dance and overlay their nuttiness on the prevailing sweetness. As I slowly chew, the nuts' crunchiness is slightly offset by a stickiness that encourages slow motion to prolong the savoring.
In the days leading up to the holidays, my Aunt Lucia would bake special cookies and apportion them among family members: my uncle, my cousins, my father. My father visited her before Christmas and brought back the package allocated to our family. I never saw my aunt making the contents of that eagerly awaited package, but in my mind's eye I can reconstruct the scene: the kitchen, the table, the fireplace, my aunt and my father chatting. What came out at the receiving end were diamond-shaped torzetti and half-domed croccanti (one of which is the protagonist of the opening paragraph).
I deeply regret that I did not ask my aunt for any of her recipes. I guess in my mind I thought I had time, until one day, time suddenly ran out. For years I had been making meringues enriched with nuts that were originally inspired by my aunt's croccanti, but I knew they were different. Last year, the wish to bring my memory to life made me ask one of my cousins whether a record of the recipe existed. A few days later, I received an e-mail with the list of ingredients and a set of instructions that provided a starting point to develop my own version of the beloved cookies, a variation on a theme of egg whites and walnuts dedicated to my aunt.
She started with walnuts still in their shells. Her cool, dark storage room was a cave carved in the side of the hill on which the native village was built. Shelled walnuts should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, as they are prone to become rancid, due to their high fat content (including the nutritionally valuable alpha linolenic acid, ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid).
In her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison gives instructions on how to treat walnuts to improve their flavor when they aren't freshly cracked, and make them less irritating for people who are sensitive to their skins. Bring a pan of water to a boil, add the walnuts and let them stand for one minute, then drain them and absorb the excess moisture with a towel. Finally, spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and place them in the oven preheated to 300 degrees F until they have dried out, 15-20 minutes. Remove them from the oven as soon as they are dry.
And now, the feature recipe: Start with two and a half cups of shelled walnuts (8.5 oz.) and treat them as detailed above. After you take the walnuts out of the oven, let them cool for a few minutes, then spread them on a cutting board and chop them finely using a knife. This is quite easy, as the walnuts yield readily to the blade, and it is pleasant, as you get to inhale the aroma they give out. At the end you should have about two cups of fragments.
Place two egg whites in a mixing bowl (I use extra-large organic eggs) and let them rest until they reach room temperature. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. As far as I remember, my aunt did not have any electric gadgets in her kitchen, so she must have accomplished the task with the good old elbow grease-powered whisk, a tool I enjoy using because it puts me in a sort of pleasant meditative state. In this case, however, I resort to technology in the form of an electric hand mixer.
Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Slowly add half a cup of granulated white sugar to the egg whites and continue beating until it is well-incorporated. My aunt's recipe calls for one cup of sugar. This is where I pay attention to my not-so-sweet tooth, accepting the consequence of my action, which is a less stiff support for the walnut pieces. Switch to using a spatula. Sift two tablespoons of regular flour over the egg whites and incorporate with light movements of the spatula. Add the chopped walnuts in a couple of batches and, again using light movements, fold them into the batter. I use vanilla sugar (i.e., sugar that spent time in a jar with vanilla beans). If you don't have it, add half a teaspoon of good quality vanilla extract and mix lightly.
Line one large baking sheet or two small ones with parchment paper. Drop the batter on the sheet by spoonfuls (use a soup spoon to scoop up the batter and let the spatula help you in the dropping phase), leaving 3/4-1 inch between mounds. You should have 24 of them, of 1.5-2~~~ diameter. The mounds will slightly flatten before they harden during baking.
Bake for about 20 minutes, carefully overseeing the process. Check the cookies after 18 minutes. They are ready when you can pick one up delicately with two fingers without a disappointing structural failure. The bottom should be a light tan color. If applying the fingers' pressure presages ruin, add two minutes of baking time and check again. Be careful because it is easy to burn the cookies. Do not touch the cookies when they come out of the oven, but let them cool completely on the baking sheet. To accomplish this, you may consider closing the kitchen door to prevent the sweet smell to waft out and become an irresistible magnet on other inhabitants of the house. As you may have deduced from the beginning paragraphs, these cookies make a great gift, especially if wrapped in love.
2 extra-large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 1/2 cups walnuts (8.5 oz.)
2 Tablespoons regular flour, sifted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
Blanche and dry walnuts, then chop fine.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. with rack in middle
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Slowly add sugar and beat it in.
Fold in the flour gently, then the walnuts and finally vanilla extract.
Line baking sheet with parchment.
Drop small mounds of batter on the sheet leaving space between.
Bake for about 18 minutes, check to see if you can pick one up without crumbling. The bottom should be lightly tanned.
Cook 2 minutes more if not ready. Do not let them burn.
Let the cookies cool completely on sheet before moving them.