Every family has holiday stressors.
For ours, it was always the travel. As far back as I can remember, our family and our closest friends have held “Christmas on Thanksgiving,” trading off who has to travel each year. Every year, we’d have the best of intentions to leave early — and every year, we’d roll into Wisconsin well after dark, pile into the house late at night, and sit down to unwind with some slivovitz.
As a kid, the ultra-strong plum brandy (the stuff’ll put some hair on your chest for sure) was off limits — but I still got to partake in Baba’s cookies. Because our annual “Christmas” falls around the same time as the family’s slava — a Serbian Orthodox feast, cooked up by the matriarch of the family (“Baba”) and celebrating the family’s patron saint — we were always privy to the leftover cookies. Among the spread of 7-8 different treats — buttery, jam-filled half moon cookies and delightfully boozy rum balls among them— the dainty, diamond-shaped pink cookies perched atop the Tupperware were always the standouts. The cookies comprised eight to 12 ultra-thin, buttery layers alternating with a mixture of butter, sugar, ground-up walnuts, and a touch of cocoa powder, topped with rum-kissed buttery frosting. With one cookie, the frustration of the long car ride and late arrival melted away.
I’m not sure what makes them so good — the massive amount of butter? The sheer amazement that someone could fit so many layers into a relatively small cookie, or even that they’d willingly choose to spend their time doing so? Regardless, I finally learned how to make the cookies this year from the master herself… and dang, they’re good.
Yield: 60+ cookies
16 oz walnuts
1 c milk
2½ c sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 lb butter
Grind walnuts in a hand grinder (or, in the absence of a hand grinder, pulse briefly in a food processor). They should comprise a coarse “flour.”
Combine milk and sugar over medium heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Stir in the ground walnuts and cocoa and simmer to thicken slightly. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. In the meantime, whip the butter in a mixer, then mix in the cooled walnut mixture to complete the filling.
½ lb butter
3 heaping tbsp sugar
3½ c flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ c milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Whip the butter in a mixer. With the mixer running, add remaining dough ingredients (in listed sequence). The dough should achieve a Play-Doh-like consistency; if not, adjust the flour or milk as needed.
Decide how many layers you want to make (8-12, depending on your motivation level). Work the dough into a log and slice into equal parts (e.g., 8 parts for 8 layers). Lay one segment on a lightly floured piece of wax paper atop a Silpat non-stick baking sheet (if you have one). Roll out to the size of a rectangular 9×13″ cookie sheet. Butter the bottom side of the cookie sheet and place the buttered side over the rolled-out dough; flip to transfer the dough onto the pan. Gently remove the wax paper from the dough, taking care not to rip the dough. Trim any excess dough hanging off the edge of the pan and use these pieces to patch any holes / particularly thin areas and reinforce the corners of the sheet. Poke the entire surface with a fork and place in the oven to bake for 5-6 minutes (the finished product should be very light in color and slightly golden on the edges). Remove from the oven when done, slide a long chef’s knife between the baked layer and pan to loosen, and slide carefully onto a rack to cool. Repeat with each section of dough until finished.
ASSEMBLING THE LAYERS:
Select the best (unbroken, intact) layers for the top and bottom of the cookies. Place a layer on a flat cookie sheet (ideally a flat one without sides) and spread with some of the reserved walnut filling (good rule of thumb: two sizeable spatula-dollops’ worth).
Slide another layer on top of the filling, taking care not to break the layer, and repeat with another layer of filling (try to save a little extra for the last layer of filling). Repeat until all layers are stacked; the sequence should begin and end with a cookie layer. When complete, cover with wax paper and place something heavy and evenly weighted on top, like old phone books or cookbooks, and refrigerate overnight.
Note: If you’re completely worn out at this point, you can either freeze the unfrosted layers after they’ve pressed overnight, or you can take a drink, bite the bullet, and whip up the frosting to serve immediately.
1 stick of butter (soft)
Powdered sugar (approx. 1-1½ c)
a few drops of red food coloring
1 tsp vanilla extract or rum
Whip the butter in a mixer. Add sifted powdered sugar, food coloring, and vanilla / rum; adjust the butter or powdered sugar to achieve desired consistency. Frost the cookie layers evenly. If you have a textured decorating tool available, “rake” the surface of the frosting to create a decorative pattern across the top of the cookies.
CUTTING THE COOKIES:
Cut frosted, assembled layered cookie into strips about ¾-inch wide. Cut off the end of each strip (creating triangles of excess cookie) and cut parallel to this sliced-off triangle to create a diamond shape. Repeat this cutting process with all strips to create a lot of diamond-shaped cookies to share (and some triangular “ends” to eat right away!).
Refrigerate to store; return to room temperature prior to serving.