Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Walnut Cookies: or, Stick to pecans. They're better.

Today, we at A Book of Cookrye are facing ingredients we have long despised!

I hate walnuts so much. Some people will never forgive raisins for looking like chocolate chips, I hate the common walnut whenever it has the audacity to intrude on a dessert. Walnuts interrupt brownies with bitterness. They add unpleasant hard spots to banana bread. They're never crunchy, just hard enough to be annoying.  

You may recall that I would not permit walnuts into the recent coffee cake without grinding them beyond recognition. Indeed, when someone in the house wanted brownies made from a specific brand of mix that contained the offending walnuts, I sieved out all the walnut pieces and ran them through a grinder before permitting them in the mixing bowl. But today, we are confronting our ingredient biases with the help of "Helping the Homemaker," the newspaper friend of every housewife of 1934!

"Helping the Homemaker," Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram morning edition p. 5, January 9, 1934

Pecan Cookies
⅔ c butter
1½ c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp cream*
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
⅔ c shopped pecans
2 eggs
3½ c flour

Heat oven to 375°. Line cookie sheets with foil, then grease them.
Cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the salt and baking powder. Add an egg, vanilla, and cream. Beat well, add the other egg, then beat well again. Mix in the flour. When all is combined, add the pecans.
Shape into 1-inch balls, then press each one flat in your hands. Place about 3 or 4 inches apart on the baking sheet.
Bake 12 minutes, or until slightly golden on the edges.
These seem to like sticking to the pan, so have a spatula ready to slide under them to loosen them up.

*or milk in a pinch

Source: "Helping the Homemaker," Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram morning edition p. 5, January 9, 1934

The recipe says to use pecans, which we have good reason to believe will be a lovely flavorful addition to the cookies (see the Elizabeth Dole cookies). However, walnuts are cheaper than pecans. Also we already had them in the house. 

But before we face our spites, we must first make the cookie dough. As much as I love the stand mixer, today I felt like doing it all by hand. It's just so satisfying to see a the butter and sugar coalesce into one smooth, sculptable mass...

Then the egg and the cream (well, milk but I figured such a substitution wouldn't ruin anything since it's only a spoonful) turn it into a runny batter. Oh no! How will we ever make cookies out of this (delicious) goop?

Then we add the flour and it seems so dry that nothing will ever come together! Where once we had sugar soup, we now have crumbly clay!

But after a bit of persistent stirring, all of the ingredients unite into cookie dough. All is resolved, and everything tastes wonderful.

At this point, we added the horrible, horrible walnuts. If you have a pathological hatred of raisins from that one time when you were a kid and thought those cookies contained chocolate chips (and it seems like that would be a lot of you), you will understand the revulsion I felt when I heard the walnuts land in the measuring cup like I was pouring out gravel.

After I had all the happiness-ruining walnuts mixed into the dough, I tasted one to see if they really are as bad as I thought. They tasted awful and rancid. For confirmation, I asked others present to taste some of the awful walnuts. "They're fine to me," I was informed. "That's what walnuts are supposed to taste like." 

I know I am biased against walnuts, but I know the smell of rancid food when it hits my nose. Like finding rotten potatoes in the pantry, if you've smelled it once you will always recognize it. If normal walnuts taste rancid, I no longer feel bad for my longstanding hatred of them. Unfortunately, I had already mixed everything very well, though I did try to pick every last shard of walnut out of the dough for a good fifteen minutes before giving up. I decided to bake the cookies anyway and hope the walnuts didn't completely ruin them.

We de-nutted about two cookies' worth of dough before resignation set in.

The recipe says to "drop from the tip of a spoon," which I took to mean that they spread out on their own while baking. This was wrong. After baking, we had the same dough plops we had put into the oven (though they did puff up a bit). 

Maybe people liked cookie lumps in the 1930s. Changing trends in home baking were just as fickle back when you had to wait for the latest issue of Good Housekeeping to arrive and tell you what you're supposed to like this month. Perhaps rock-shaped cookies were considered the sign of an up-to-date hostess. They look endearing if you are in the right mood.

Or maybe, like drop biscuits, this is one of those recipes you picked when you didn't have a lot of time. After all, cookie clumps still taste like cookies, and that's a lot better than no cookies at all. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people made cookies like this when it's just for people at home, and only took the time to neatly shape cookies for company.

For batch 2, we decided to shape them more properly. They may look a bit puny before baking, but the first batch puffed up enough that I wasn't worried about disappointing cookies. Sure enough, we had some lovely looking not-pecan cookies! They almost look like professionally made pecan sandies, don't they? Unfortunately, these cookies contain not pecans but walnuts. And while baking the walnuts did make them taste better in a toasty way, they still tasted like walnuts. 

At this point I should mention that I had planned to give some of these away as a thank-you for services rendered. Unfortunately, no one feels thanked when they get cookies full of rancid walnuts. So you know all that joy we experienced from making these by hand? We got to experience it all over again, only this time we used butterscotch chips. 

I wasn't irked at starting over. I actually find the act of baking more satisfying than eating the fruits of the oven, so it was a peaceful way to spend an evening. I was, however, irked at the walnuts for defiling a perfectly good recipe. The walnut-free cookies tasted better, but the dough formed some odd-looking holes around some of the chips.

This is a good recipe either way you make these cookies, with pecans or with butterscotch chips (or maybe walnuts if you like them- I don't judge other people's preferences unless they judge me first). The cookies are soft, but they're firm enough to drop into a cookie jar- which I'm guessing was the recipe writers' intent. 

This seems like a cookie recipe meant to be made to keep on hand. You can drop them in a bag or a box, and they won't crumble or fall apart. You can leave them out for a day or two before they go stale. Also, if you put spoon-plops and round-shaped cookies on the same plate, they can look like a cute assortment without having to make two recipes.

With that said, this does mean I accept walnuts. I gave walnuts an entire batch of cookies, which is more than enough chance for them to prove they're not as bad as I think. And.... they're not awful, but I can't think of a single time they've made a recipe better.

Choose your plate wisely.


  1. So I'm not the only one who thinks walnuts are gross! There's so many nicer nuts out there--pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, even the classic peanut--why walnuts?

    I fully admit to making a walnut-centric recipe myself recently, though. I made "walnut balls," which clearly wanted to be something vegetarian that's a bit like a meatball but didn't ADVERTISE itself on that fact, so I felt I could trust it. Sure enough, what should have been a nice savory dish had a very weird bitter-rancid undertone that ruined an otherwise good recipe. (I wonder if it'd be any good with peanuts.)

    1. So it's not just me? Walnuts really do taste like they're rotten? I'm so glad I wasn't just imagining it. Also, I'm sure peanut balls would be a lot better than walnut balls.

    2. So, fun story: I was visiting a convention at my hometown university several years ago, and there was a "science tent" about several of the scientific advancements they were working on there. One of these was the discovery that rancidity may be one of the "fundamental tastes" alongside sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami, but unique in that it's a "warning taste" and not one intended to be appetizing. They had a little tasting booth where you could experience different flavors--so sweetness was pure sugar, sourness was lemon slices, saltiness was just salt, bitterness was little Dixie cups full of coffee, umami was fried mushrooms...

      For fattiness/rancidness, they used walnuts.

      And I think I rest my case there.

    3. Rancidness was walnuts? I feel vindicated!