I was in the mood the other day for Pecan Sandies...those little round pecan shortbread cookies from my childhood...the kind made by the Keebler elves. Rather than going out and buying some to satisfy my craving, I decided I would make them for myself. As I looked around for a recipe, I discovered that there are a lot of recipes out there...apparently I'm not the only one who loves this cookie. Most of them are rather uninspired variations of Pecan Shortbread. Not that this is surprising. A Pecan Sandie is, after all, a type of pecan shortbread cookie. But it has a particular taste and texture all its own. None of the recipes I happened across inspired me with confidence that the author had figured out what it was that made a Pecan Sandie different. After trying one of the more promising of the recipes, and being rather dissatisfied with the result, it became obvious that I would have to come up with my own version of a Pecan Sandie--if for no other reason than to discover through my own taste testing what it was that set a Pecan Sandie apart.
As I worked on my recipe, I felt a bit like Goldilocks...this one was too crunchy, that one too tender, another had the wrong shape, and another was too dry.... Goldilocks only had to try three beds. I made five batches of "Pecan Sandies" before I arrived at the one that I felt I could pronounce "just right."
It will probably not come as a surprise that the recipe I ended up with is basically a variation of my own favorite shortbread. To get to a pecan cookie, I simply substituted pecans for a third of the flour. The next change I made was to substitute a combination of light brown sugar and powdered sugar for the granulated sugar in my original shortbread recipe. The brown sugar contributes a faint butterscotch note that is characteristic of a Pecan Sandie (much like the effect it has on the flavor of Butter Pecan Ice Cream). The powdered sugar makes for a tender and slightly crumbly texture. Finally, to fully achieve the familiar flavor I was looking for, I increased the salt a bit and added a generous amount of vanilla.
Besides my Scottish Shortbread recipe, I want to mention a couple of other recipes that I pulled from to get to my final result. The first recipe that I tried was from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. This recipe pops up all over the blogosphere and seems to be universally acknowledged to be "as good as, or better than" the original Pecan Sandie. I disagree with this. I think the recipe contains too much sugar to really qualify as shortbread. The recipe does make a tasty little cookie, but the higher quantity of sugar, combined with the fact that all of the sugar is brown sugar, results in a cookie that is too dark and too crunchy to be a Pecan Sandie. I also thought the recipe had a little too much vanilla. But making this cookie helped me to hone in on how significant brown sugar and vanilla are to obtaining the right flavor.
The second recipe was Maria Helm Sinskey's Pecan Shortbread Finger recipe from The Vineyard Kitchen. This is an excellent cookie in its own right. Slender and elegant, it is perfect on a cookie platter or as an accompaniment to pot de crème (which is how she serves it). I make this cookie frequently. Her recipe uses all powdered sugar and has a wonderfully tender crunch. It also uses more salt than one would expect. The flavor with this higher amount of salt is, not surprisingly, fuller. When you taste these cookies, they do taste slightly salty. But since nuts are good with salt, the salt doesn't seem out of place.
I knew the minute I took a bite from the first cookie of my fifth batch that I had achieved success. But if there had been any question, the reaction of others would have confirmed it. I frequently heard the comment "That looks just like a Pecan Sandie!...and it tastes like a Pecan Sandie!" And my mother, who had obligingly served as my taste tester for each successive batch, tasted one from the final batch, looked up and said "That's a good cookie...I want that recipe."
1 stick unsalted butter (4 oz.)
1/3 c. powdered sugar (30 g)
2 T. light brown sugar (25 g)
1 t. vanilla
3/8 t. salt
1 c. plus 2 T. all-purpose flour (130 g)
1/2 c. toasted pecans, chopped medium fine (2 oz.)
Briefly cream the butter and sugars—just until smooth, not until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and salt and stir in. Add the flour and pecans and stir to form a stiff dough.
Scoop the dough using a level 2 teaspoon sized scoop.
Roll into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheets (making sure the balls are evenly spaced).
Flatten with the bottom of a glass dipped in flour.
Transfer the baking sheet to a preheated 325° oven and bake until the cookies are just set and barely golden on the edges—about 15 minutes.
Cool the cookies for one minute on the sheets before transferring to wire racks to cool completely. Store cookies air-tight. Makes about 24 cookies.