My first cookbook was a Ladybird children’s book called We Can Cook. I was ten or eleven at the time, and my mother bought it at the annual Calcutta Book Fair. My sister and I spent hours flipping through the slim hardbound volume, marveling at recipes for strange dishes such as “Welsh Rarebit,” “Shepherd’s Pie” and “Cornish Pasties.” Most of the recipes required ingredients that appeared to exist only on another continent.
One recipe seemed to be within our reach. It was called “jam tarts,” and it required a simple shortcrust pastry made of flour, butter and water. Mom taught us to rub the cold butter into the flour with our fingertips and then add a little cold water such that a dough came together. The dough was rolled out on a cool marble counter-top. We cut little circles with a cutter to fit the muffin pan, and then pressed down the circles into the pan, to form shallow rims. Each tart shell was jabbed with a fork before the tray went into our tiny oven. When the tarts came out, they were filled with spoonfuls of strawberry or mixed fruit jam and baked again for a few minutes. The jam melted to form a smooth top in the pastries.
The warm tarts were utterly divine to bite into: buttery and crumbly, sticky with bits of warm jam. This tart became our secret midnight feast snack. We became adept at pretending to be asleep, and then creeping into the kitchen at night to quickly bake a small order of these treats. In later years, my sister went on to earn a culinary degree and become a pastry chef. As for me, well let’s just say that I’m still in search of a good cookie recipe.
Recently, I found myself at a Mexican cooking class at ICE where we made a very easy and tasty Mexican wedding cookie. The nutty cookie dough had almond and pecan flour and was subtly flavored with vanilla and sweet, fragrant anise seeds. At home, I decided to beat soft butter and sugar with an electric beater for a minute before gently stirring in all the dry ingredients instead of using a food processor as in the original recipe. The result was a airier, fluffier cookie than the one from class, although I equally preferred both. I’ve written out the recipes below.
Mexican Wedding Cookies
Adapted from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York
Makes about two dozen two inch cookies
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup pecans
1 stick cold butter, cut into pieces
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar + more for rolling
1 1/2 tsps vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp anise seeds
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees
2. Grind the almonds and pecans in a food processor until fine. Add the butter and continue to grind until you obtain a smooth paste. Add the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla and process again. Add the flour and anise seeds and process until everything is well blended.
3. Roll the dough into small one-inch balls using your hands. If the dough sticks and is hard to roll, refrigerate briefly. Place the balls about 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes or so, until brown on the bottom.
4. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes. Roll the cookies while still warm in the remaining confectioner’s sugar. Let cool slightly more, and roll in confectioner’s sugar again.
Note: if you decide to use my method of using an electric beater, first beat the sugar and room temperature butter for a minute or so on the lowest setting. Add the vanilla and beat a little more. Separately mix all the dry ingredients – flour, nut flours and anise seeds. Fold gently into the beaten butter and sugar, to make the dough. Proceed as above.