Monday, July 16, 2012

Nut Horns, or How I Overcame My Fear of Shaped Cookies

Nut horns, crescent-shaped and stuffed with a wholesome cinnamon-walnut filling, these buttery pastries are a hot item on Pittsburgh cookie tables.  Known as roszke, kiflik, roski and roscici, nut horns are of Eastern European origin with the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Croatians all claiming the cookie as their own.  In my Slovak family we just call them nut horns and, like an aunt or uncle who lives out-of-town, look forward to seeing them at Christmas and weddings.

  I’ve wanted to make nut horns for a while now. My great-aunt Ann’s nut horn recipe was one I had hoped to master before I left Pittsburgh, to make certain I understood how the dough looked and felt before I needed to find a sour cream substitute in Greece.

 But I’ve hesitated all summer. 

You see, before I began this project, I was convinced that nut horns were for advanced bakers only.  The pastry, with its perfect balance of tender crumb to buttery density was, I thought, impossible to produce without ample trial and error and the advice of a polish-speaking grandmother.  The filling, too, seemed to require the knowledge of a quasi-professional.  Too much would result in burst nut horns, while too little would yield a cookie the flavor of Elmer’s glue paste.  I wasn’t sure my novice skills would suffice.  But on Thursday evening I told my inner critic to, please, go away.  In a year’s time I would be a wife.  I needed to overcome some of my fears, like, killing spiders, unclogging a toilet, and—in this case—baking fancy desserts.

So I got to work.  The pastry dough was simple.  I measured just four ingredients, clicked the mixer to low then medium and two minutes later, had a smooth, firm dough the size and weight of an infant.  Assembly was not impossible, either.  If you can shape Pillsbury crescent rolls on Thanksgiving, you can assemble nut horns. The only real challenge is the time it takes to fill and bake four dozen.  I began at 7:30 and pulled the last batch from the oven around 10:45.  I was sleepy but proud of the shiny, moon-shaped cookies crowding my counter.

Were they worth the effort?
Oh yes.  They tasted like gourmet Pop Tarts, the kind with the brown sugar and cinnamon filling.  I felt marginally better about eating them, too, knowing that they were preservative-free and made entirely by me. 

The next day, my sister and I organized a garage sell as a way to get rid of some of my stuff before my move to Greece.  We offered passers-by a nut horn or two.  One woman, a local nurse in scrubs on her lunch break, looked at me, wide-eyed and said, “Nut horns?  Oh my gosh, I love nut horns.”  Another woman said, “No.  I can’t.  If I have one I won’t be able to stop.” A man asked if he could buy a few for his wife.  By the end of the afternoon, half of my four dozen were gone.  Nut horns certainly don’t last long in this town.

Nut Horns
Adapted by Lauren Wadowsky
v 4 cups all-purpose flour
v 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly cold
v 1 cup sour cream
v 4 egg yolks (whites reserved)
v 1 teaspoon salt
Cinnamon-Walnut Filling
v 1 lb walnuts, ground
v 1 ¼ cups sugar
v 4 egg whites, unbeaten
v 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
v juice of one lemon
Egg wash
v  2 egg whites
v  3 tablespoon sugar, divided

1 In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt with a wire whisk. Work in the butter using a pastry blender, two knives, or a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until the mixture resembles small crumbs.
2 In a smaller bowl, beat the egg yolks into the sour cream.  Stir it into the flour/butter mixture until a smooth, firm dough forms.
3 Tear off walnut-sized pieces of dough and roll into balls.  Place in the refrigerator to harden for two hours or overnight.

4 For the filling, combine the ground walnuts with the sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and lemon juice in a medium bowl.  Add the four reserved egg whites and stir until well-combined.  Set aside.
5 Preheat oven to 350o F.  To assemble the nut horns, sprinkle a little powdered sugar on a dough-ball and roll into a flat, thin circle.

6 Drop a scant teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle.

7 Fold one side of the pastry over the filling to cover it, then fold over the remaining side.  Seal all seams well, and gently bend into the shape of a crescent.

8 Place nut horns on a greased cookie sheet.  Be sure not to skip this step, otherwise the cookies will adhere to the pan.  Brush the nut horns with an egg wash made by whisking together the two egg whites and one tablespoon of the sugar.  Sprinkle the tops of the horns with sugar for a little sparkle.
9 Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cookies are light brown.  Cool on wire racks. 

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