A cookbook should be treated like a school textbook. When reading it, or cooking from it, keep a pencil handy for notations. Underline things you especially want to remember, make notes–just don’t be afraid to write in it. [. . .] In the future you will find that your own notes have added to the book and made it more valuable to you.
–Maida Heatter, Book of Great Cookies
In today’s digital world, where every recipe we could dare to imagine is accessible at the click of a button, there’s still nothing I enjoy more than sitting down with a good cookbook. A real cookbook. Good old paper and ink, where every turn of the page holds a different adventure.
My cookbook collection is vast (and, by “vast” I mean borderline “hoarder”). Some of the books I reference most often are my mother’s, owned for so long that they’re inscribed with her maiden name. Their worn bindings, butter-splashed pages, and recipes filled with hand-written notations (first, Mom’s, now mine as well) are rich in memories.
One of these is Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies, home to the most delectable walnut crescent cookies you’ll ever taste.
Maida Heatter and the Book of Great Cookies
I’ve learned so much over the years from pastry chef, cookbook author, and invariable baking guru, Maida Heatter. She is often referred to as “The Queen of Desserts,” and with good reason. Heatter’s publishing career spans over forty decades and five James Beard Foundation cookbook awards.
Maida Heatter’s clear, accessible approach to recipe instruction not only inspires confidence while baking, but creates absolutely delicious desserts. In reading her cookbooks, you feel as if a (very well-informed) friend is sharing a recipe with you.
From the Book of Great Cookies (my favorite) to the Book of Great Desserts, and the Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, her recipes have been at the foundation of my love for baking. I can’t imagine my cookbook cabinet without her books, or recommend them more highly.
Learn more about Maida Heatter in Saveur Magazine’s interview and article, “The Queen of Cake“.
Walnut Crescent Cookies: A Christmas Tradition
My mother has made Heatter’s walnut crescent cookies (called “Austrian Walnut Crescents” in the book) for more than thirty years. Our family and friends look forward to them every Christmas. In fact, the recipe has been referenced so many times that her cookbook automatically opens to the page.
These six-ingredient crescent cookies are delicate and buttery in texture, punctuated by the warm flavor of ground walnuts and a snow-like dusting of powdered sugar. They make a beautiful presentation on holiday cookie trays (if you’re willing to part with them, of course!).
Mom has always made these cookies a bit smaller than Heatter instructs. We find that the smaller size is more suitable for holiday noshing, where an array of cookie varieties are consumed in one sitting.
Since the baked cookies are quite delicate, a few will break when moved to cooling racks. This is to be expected.
As a child, I always made sure I hung out in the kitchen during the transfer, staking claim to any and all broken cookies. They were unsuitable for gifts, but a perfect snack for me!
Santa’s Favorite Cookies
Walnut Crescent Cookies are perfect with a cup of tea, though I’ve heard they’re also delicious with a cold glass of milk.
Let’s just say that “Santa” never seemed to leave anything but a few stray crumbs behind when I left him a plate of these on Christmas Eve.
In fact, I remember being concerned one year as a small child that he might be getting bored with my yearly offering. My father assured me in no uncertain terms that of all the cookies in our kitchen, Santa would want the walnut crescent cookies. He was right. Dad must’ve known the big guy well!
Crescent Cookies with Walnuts
These buttery, powdered sugar-topped Austrian Walnut Crescent Cookies are a longtime favorite on our Christmas cookie trays.
Adapted from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Cookies (Knopf, 1977)
- 1-1/2 cups shelled walnut halves (about 5.25 ounces)
- 1 cup unsalted butter , room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- confectioner's sugar for dusting
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F with racks in upper- and middle-third positions.
- Pulse walnuts in the bowl of a food processor or blender until very fine (as Heatter notes, it's ok for the walnuts to develop an oily appearance as they're ground). Set aside.
In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium speed until smooth. Add the vanilla and ground walnuts and mix until combined, stopping and scraping the bowl as needed. Add the granulated sugar, and beat until incorporated.
With the mixer on low speed, add the sifted flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until combined, scraping the bowl once or twice.
Place a piece of wax paper on your countertop. Using a one teaspoon measuring spoon, divide the dough into rounded portions. Roll each ball between your cupped palms until about 2-1/2 inches in length. The roll should be slightly thicker in the middle, with tapered ends.
Curve the rolled dough into a "C" shape and place on parchment-lined baking sheets, about 1-inch apart.*
Bake cookies 16-18 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. The finished cookies should be lightly-browned on the tapered ends, and still light in the center. Remove cookies from oven and let stand 1-2 minutes.
When cookies have slightly firmed, use a thin metal spatula to gently transfer them to wire cooling racks set over wax paper. The cookies are very delicate, so don't be surprised if a few break.
- While the cookies are warm, dust generously with confectioner's sugar. When cooled to room temperature, store in several layers between pieces of wax paper in an airtight container for up to a week. If cookies are stored, re-dust with powdered sugar before serving for the prettiest presentation.
*We use about 4 cookie sheets to bake the entire recipe, two sheets at a time. If reusing cookie sheets, let them cool between batches. Using a hot pan will affect the baking time.
Maida Heatter’s original recipe yields 56 cookies. We like to make them smaller for cookie trays, thereby increasing the yield to 9 dozen. The recipe is easily halved. To make larger cookies, divide the dough into 56 balls and roll to about 4-inches long. Larger cookies will need to bake about 20 minutes.