Vanilice — Serbian Christmas Crescent Cookies
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These vanilice are classic Serbian nut crescent cookies, perfect during the Christmas season or any winter holidays.
Vanilice are an example of what the Serbs call “sitni kolaci,” or tiny cookies. Small, delicate cookies made with fine ingredients are traditional Christmas cookies in the Serbian culinary tradition, which more or less eschews big, loaded cookies.
This is my take on cookies, also. I like them small and special, each one a bit of handiwork. Each one worth savoring by little nibbles. This is a tradition that we have to step back and take a moment to appreciate, I think. We’ve become so accustomed to complex cookies being produced in factories made with processes and ingredients that guarantee uniformity and sturdiness — think of Oreos, for instance — that it’s easy to lose sight of what it takes to make a finely wrought cookie by hand, out of real ingredients. One by one.
This recipe from my grandmother (pictured here) comes to me from my aunt, who fortunately has kept the recipe all these years. These were my Ujka (uncle) Sava’s favorite cookies when he was a little boy. He’s pictured below, to the left of my mother.
Just to give an idea of the timelines involved here, my grandmother Ljubica (b. Stefanovich) Jankovic was born in 1888, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My mother was born in 1920, and her brother (my uncle), was born in 1923. So, want to talk about an heirloom recipe, this is it.
A few notes: my grandmother, whom we called Baka, did not use an egg. However, these cookies are very fragile without one. When my aunt (my Ujna) would make these for my Ujka, she started adding an egg for strength. I made these for the first time this month, specifically to ship to my Ujka and family for Christmas, and I didn’t want to take any chances with shipping a box of broken cookies, so I used the egg variant.
These hyper-vanilified cookies use a whopping two tablespoons of vanilla in a batch. Not only that, but they’re dusted with vanilla sugar. Baka would place a vanilla bean in powdered sugar for a week or so in advance of making these cookies, and have a wonderfully perfumed sugar to dust with.
If you don’t want to incur the expense of a vanilla bean, you can pour a teaspoon or so of vanilla into a container and then place two cups of powdered sugar right on top, and wait a few days or weeks for a similar effect.
I didn’t plan ahead, and I found myself making the cookies the day before I needed to ship them. Not enough time to make vanilla sugar! So I placed vanilla directly into the resealable container in which I was packing the cookies, and packed the cookies in powdered sugar. The result: I had a great insulator for my cookies that protected them from breakage, and by the time the cookies arrived by UPS ground, and then were opened a couple of days later, the powdered sugar had become vanilla sugar.
These develop more flavor after a few days. They freeze well, also.
Vanilice: Serbian Christmas crescnet cookies
To ship or store these cookies, pack them in plenty of powdered vanilla sugar. They make a wonderful Christmas gift. Include a vanilla bean, or a piece of a bean. When the recipient opens the cookie container after a few days of storage and shipping, a marvelous vanilla aroma will flood their senses.
Be sure to tell your friend to keep the bean and the packing sugar — they now have their own store of vanilla sugar, too.
About eight dozen cookies
Temperature and time
350° F oven for 9 minutes
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature or a little colder
2 cups walnuts, almonds or pecans
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 whole egg (optional will make cookies less fragile)
4 cups powdered vanilla sugar
Powdered Vanilla Sugar
(Make this in advance, or else pack the cookies in the sugar)
1 to 2 pounds powdered sugar
1 vanilla bean
Equipment that bears mentioning
1/2 ounce (tablespoon) disher, or a tablespoon
In a nutshell
Place vanilla bean in powdered sugar at least a few days in advance. Grind nuts. Combine all ingredients except powdered sugar. Form into crescents and bake. Roll in vanilla powdered sugar.
First, prepare the vanilla powdered sugar. Place a vanilla bean and one to two pounds of powdered sugar together in a container. You can substitute a couple of tablespoons of vanilla extract for the bean — just pour the extract into the bottom of the container and add the sugar. Don’t stir them together. The vanilla flavor and aroma will be infused throughout the sugar within a few days. It will keep indefinitely — months or years. After you remove sugar from the container to make vanilice, refill the container with more powdered sugar. The vanilla bean will continue to flavor and perfume the additonal sugar.
Now make the cookies. Place two cups nuts in the bowl of a food processor. Grind fine. This will be really loud — especially with almonds — and will take a couple of minutes. You can start with nuts that are already ground, but the flavor won’t be as fresh and wonderful.
Add sugar and process until nuts and sugar are well blended. Processing along with granulated sugar helps break down the nuts a little finer.
Transfer the nut-sugar mixture to a mixing bowl. Break or cut each stick of butter into three or four pieces. Add the flour, butter, vanilla and egg to the mixing bowl. Mix well — about two minutes.
Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and preheat oven to 350° F. Portion out 1-tablespoon scoops of cookie dough onto the cookie sheet, arranged five columns across and four columns deep — 20 scoops distributed evenly over the sheet. Pick up each scoop of dough and shape it into a tight little crescent.
I found that the prettiest crescents are made like this: Shape a tablespoon of dough into a ball. Roll the ball back and forth between your palms until it forms a rope the width of your palms. Roll the rope with a few more back-and-forth motions. The ends of the rope will extend just beyond your palms, but will be tapered. Shape this into a crescent, with the points nearly touching.
Bake at 350° F for nine minutes. When ready to pull from the oven, the cookies will still be soft and will not appear browned on top, but should be very slightly browned on the bottom.
To check for doneness, look under a cookie very, very carefully by lifting a corner of parchment and partly rolling back one of the cookies. Once you know you have the time and temperature combo right, you won’t need to check under the vanilice for the subsequent batches.
The vanilice will become more firm as they rest on the cookie sheet after being removed from the oven. Let them rest at least five minutes before rolling them in powdered vanilla sugar, They will pick up the sugar best when warm, but they will crumble easily and melt the sugar if they’re still hot.
Place a few cups of vanilla sugar in a flat-bottomed container, like a lasagna baking pan. Place a vanilice crescent on the sugar. Scoop some sugar over it, using your finger. Roll it in the sugar until it’s nicely coated. Set aside on a serving platter. Continue rolling each vanilice nut crescent cookie until all are coated with powdered vanilla sugar. Experiment with placing them in the sugar in batches until you find the method that’s most efficient and yields the best results.
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These cookies, like my prune-bran muffins, are great for what ails you, if what ails you can be fixed with some fiber in the form of wheat bran and raisins, if you catch my drift.