In one way only, it’s like a box store at my house: the day after Thanksgiving, we’re prepping for Christmas. If Thanksgiving was my grandmother’s holiday, Christmas was Mom’s. As it approached, we dragged box after box of decorations from under the stairs and distributed their contents around the house. Every room was adorned, and multiple trees, including one that brushed the ceiling, sagged under handmade, generations old, and otherwise treasured ornaments. Then the baking began.
When laying out cookies for their chief eater (Dad, aka Santa), my sister and I struggled to limit ourselves to a small plate. Choices included painted cutouts, thumbprints, Berliner kranzer, butter spritz, and gingerbread biscotti. Two that I never fully appreciated until I was older—Vanilla Bean Cookies and Chocolate Rum Balls—are now my annual contribution to the array. I make them after Thanksgiving so that they fully develop their flavors by the big day.
Vanilla Bean Cookies
1 cup ultrafine sugar
1-1/2 cups unblanched whole or sliced almonds
2 whole vanilla beans
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until thoroughly combined. Combine the almonds and vanilla beans in a food processor and grind until both are very fine and the almonds start to clump. Mix the ground ingredients into 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 a couple of hours to overnight to retain their shape. Bake at 350°F on an ungreased baking sheet for about 25 minutes, until the cookies are just beginning to darken on the bottom. Let the cookies cool completely, and then roll each in powdered sugar. Place them in layers, separated by waxed paper, in a container with a tight lid. Set the container in a cool place for at least 3 weeks so that the vanilla can permeate the cookies. Makes about 80 cookies.
Tips & Tricks
- I’ve always known these as Vanilla Bean Cookies, but they most closely resemble Russian tea cakes and have a passing resemblance to polvorones, a Spanish shortbread. If you roll them into smaller, bite-size balls, you can get up to 120 cookies from one batch. Alternatively, you can halve the recipe—but I’ve never made too many.
- The vanilla beans are key to the flavor in this cookie, and grinding them and the almonds finely is key to making the cookie hold together. I’d argue against substituting vanilla extract; the flavor won’t be as rich and delicate. The effort isn’t worth making them with imitation vanilla. These cookies are supposed to be a special treat, so just splurge on the beans.
- Yes, you read right: These cookies sit for 3 weeks. As they do, the vanilla beans’ scent and flavor spread through the cookies, giving you a heady rush of vanilla when you finally open the treasure chest. I’ve never had issues with rancidity of the nuts or staleness with these or Chocolate Rum Balls (see below), only with resisting the urge to break into them before they’ve fully “ripened.”
Twice as Tasty
When it came to cookie baking, Grandma Tiny always joined us for an afternoon of painting perfect (in her case) toy-loaded sacks on honey santas and sweater vests on gingerbread men. But she also enjoyed baking without hearing my sister and I fight over who got to use the blue frosting. As a kid, it always seemed that Vanilla Bean Cookies magically appeared as though brought by Santa—along with her famous rum cake, whose barely cooked, 150-proof rum glaze permeated the house as soon as someone lifted the cover.
She was also the source of the family’s alcoholic cookie balls, which originated in my life as the Walnut Brandy Balls shown in the photo and had evolved to Chocolate Rum Balls by the time I began making them. You can thank me for actual instructions and the next evolution: I’ve swapped the corn syrup and store-bought vanilla wafers for honey and homemade wafers.
Chocolate Rum Balls
1/3 cup ultrafine sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk
1-1/3 cups unbleached flour
pinch of salt
1 cup walnuts or pecans, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1-1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided
3 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup light or dark rum
Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla, milk, and egg. Gradually mix in the flour and salt to form a soft batter. Roll out thinly on a lightly floured surface, a quarter of the batter at a time, and cut into several rectangles with a knife. Place close together on a buttered baking sheet. Bake at 400°F for about 7 minutes, until golden on the edges. Cool completely and, if necessary, store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Break the vanilla wafers into manageable pieces and then crush them in batches in a food processor until they form fine crumbs; you should have about 2-1/2 cups. Chop the nuts almost as finely, until just before they start to clump together. In a large bowl, stir together the crumbs, nuts, cocoa, and 1 cup of powdered sugar. Stir in the honey and rum until the dough is well blended and slightly sticky. Shape it into 1-inch balls. Roll each ball in the remaining powdered sugar, using more if needed to ensure a thorough coating. Layer the balls in a wide container with a tight-fitting lid, placing waxed paper between the layers. Store for at least 2 weeks before eating. Makes about 50 cookies.
Tips & Tricks
- If you’re still rich in beans after making Vanilla Bean Cookies, vanilla sugar can be substituted for the separate vanilla extract and sugar in the wafers. To make it, process 2 cups sugar and 1 vanilla bean, cut into small pieces, in a food processor until the bean is finely minced. Store the leftover vanilla sugar in an airtight container and use it in or sprinkled on other treats.
- These cookies want to age so that the rum can infuse the crushed ingredients. But they tend to be ready a week earlier than Vanilla Bean Cookies, so we always double the batch and break into them before Christmas hits—they make excellent chairlift treats midway through a ski day.
- If you can’t stand the idea of all this baking with nothing you can eat straightaway, make a double batch of vanilla wafers. Roll the extra batch so that the dough is about 1/3-inch thick and cut it out with a round or fluted cutter. Once the cookies are done and cool, drizzle with or dip half in the ganache used for Pumpkin–Chocolate Cookies. You’ll have about 36 cookies to enjoy.