Walnuts used to be an occasional baking ingredient for me; maybe I had some in the pantry, maybe I didn’t. BUT! all of a sudden my kitchen is bursting with delicious walnut-laced delights, such as Mae’s Crescent Cookies a few weeks ago. The rippled nuts were not particularly a favorite of mine, but that has really, truly changed. Case in point: this week’s recipe for Baked Sunday Mornings, Derby Cookies from Baked Occasions. In honor of the Kentucky Derby, we made these glistening, sugar-crusted, bourbon-and-vanilla-infused gems that I cannot get enough of. (I should consider it a victory that they even made it into the oven at all, since the dough was so good that I could’ve eaten the whole bowl. In other words, you’re welcome.) To be honest, I don’t know jack-crap about horse-racing, and frankly, I don’t care for the idea of horse-racing (can’t we leave the pretty horsies alone?), but apparently celebrating Derby is a thing, so voilà, here are some delicious cookies!
A bunch of stuff about ingredients:
- Walnuts: The key to bringing out walnuts’ best flavor is to toast them nice and dark– they take on a smoky quality that also lends a lot of depth, in addition to the toasty flavor. It is totally different than that raw nut flavor that turns off many people (including me).
- Bourbon: I’ve said before that I’ve never been a big drinker, and bourbon is not something I stock in my liquor cabinet, so I wanted to use something that I could get in a mini size. At the same time, I’ve learned that even a little good-quality booze in a baking recipe makes a difference versus low-end hooch, so I was glad to find a small bottle of Knob Creek, which I gather is fairly decent. I’m constantly learning as I bake through BAKED’s recipes, and I have to say that these cookies are a bit of a revelation– I may actually *like* bourbon! I found the flavor smoother and more palatable than whiskey, and WOW, does it blend well with vanilla and walnuts!
- Sugar: The book suggests two variations of bourbon-infused sugar: “Quick and Dirty Bourbon Sugar” made by shaking up raw sugar with bourbon and letting it sit for 30 minutes, and “Slow & Steady Vanilla Bourbon Sugar”, which is made by adding a split-open vanilla bean to the raw sugar and infusing with bourbon, and letting it sit for a week. I didn’t have enough time to make the latter, which would have been my hands-down preference… but I did have coarse vanilla sugar from Nielsen-Massey on hand! Forty-eight hours ahead of time, I mixed up some of this deliciously aromatic sugar with a little Knob Creek and shook it a few times a day until I was ready to make the dough.
- More sugar: Also, in a case of why-the-hell-did-I-buy-this-obscure-stuff, I finally used some of the Smoked Bourbon Sugar that I had in the pantry (originally purchased a while ago in order to make a couple of recipes from Mindy Segal’s Cookie Love, but as yet unused). I thought this would be a great combination with the toasted walnuts.
- Vanilla: I used vanilla bean paste in place of extract, because it’s a little more intense and I’m having a moment with vanilla seeds. 🙂
The dough is extremely easy to make and very nice to handle. It is very smooth to roll into balls at room temperature– I didn’t have dough stuck to my hands at all. You’ll first cream the butter, bourbon, and vanilla together. The mixture sloshed around at first until the liquid became incorporated, which took several minutes. Then you’ll add the brown sugar and mix again; during these 3-4 minutes, the mixture will get very light in color. Next add the flour, followed by the ground walnuts, which you’ll finish mixing in by hand with a wooden spoon.
Scoop the dough with an ice cream scoop and roll the scoops into balls (I got 36 cookies), which you’ll place on a sheet pan and freeze for 30 minutes to firm up. I had to make the dough ahead of time, so I just left them in the freezer for a couple of days at this point. I then let them thaw in the fridge for about 2 hours before rolling them in sugar. It is definitely easier to roll them when the dough is very firm because getting the sugar to stick requires some pressure. They softened as I worked through the batch, becoming more difficult to handle, but still all-in-all pretty easy. I re-chilled them for 15 minutes before baking for good measure.
I baked my cookies for 12 minutes, on the low end of the recommended baking time; we are instructed to pull them out when they are just starting to take on some color. I should have left them in for another 30-60 seconds, as they were a touch underdone in the center.
Based on the photo in the book, I expected these cookies to stay fairly round, or at least mound-like, but they spread and flattened out to about 1½”. They were still cute and domed, but definitely not ball-shaped. You can also roll these in confectioners’ sugar after baking, but I chose not to because I like the sparkle of the sugar.
The Derby Cookies were a big hit– I brought them to a work luncheon and received several compliments and questions about what they were. The combination of walnuts, bourbon, and vanilla was downright perfect! The bourbon flavor was really smooth and just the right potency, not harsh or boozy in the least. And the sparkly sugar is both pretty and pleasingly crunchy. I couldn’t taste much of a difference between the cookies rolled in vanilla bourbon sugar versus smoked bourbon sugar. Verdict: both delicious!
Whether you are rooting for your favorite horse or simply like your cookies with a splash of Kentucky, head over to Baked Sunday Mornings for the Derby Cookies recipe! Take a look at my baking buddies’ sparklers while you’re there too. 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2016.