An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:
Some cookies are just too good for the children, and hazelnut cornucopias -- wafer-thin and molded to carry a bit of whipped cream and berries inside -- fall into this category. They are as close to pastry-chef perfection as the mere-mortal home baker can get. But trust me, you can make them. I do, even if it's only on an annual basis.
They are a Julia Child creation, featured in her 1980 set-menu cookbook "Julia Child & More Company." The cornucopias crowned a particular dinner for six that included artichoke scoops with shellfish, roast rack of lamb, tomatoes moussakaise stuffed with lamb and eggplant and scalloped potatoes a la Savoyarde. To an ambitious cook in her twenties, the cookies looked like the simplest recipe of the lot.
Over the years, I've learned that you need patience and kitchen confidence to make them; the first cookie usually goes south in the way that pancakes improve on subsequent pourings. But perseverance will pay off, and its reward is an ultra-light, showstopping wisp of a wafer. Dinner guests hardly ever believe that the cookies are homemade.
Packaged hazelnut meal is a boon to this recipe (I find mine at Trader Joe's); the prep time it saves you more than makes up for the fresh, toasted-nut flavor you might otherwise enjoy. The nut meal also makes for a smoother-textured cookie than Julia's original recipe, which makes it easier to mold when it's warm.
You can use a cornucopia- shaped metal form (available at some culinary specialty stores) or a small Pyrex bowl or ramekin turned upside down (see photo below) for a fluted cup effect; you can wrap the cookie around the handle of an apple corer or leave it wide and flat.
If company's coming, give this dessert a try. The oohs and ahs won't be far behind.
Makes 12 to 16 cookies
When these crispy cookies are rolled or formed, they create a tender delivery system for fresh berries and a dollop of lightly whipped cream. Because they are fragile, they will soften quickly in damp weather, so either bake them shortly before serving, keep them warm in a 100-degree oven or freeze until ready to use. Adapted from "Julia Child & More Company" (Knopf, 1980):
3/4 cup toasted, shelled and finely ground hazelnuts (about 3 ounces whole hazelnuts) or 3/4 cup hazelnut meal
1/2 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for the baking sheets
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 egg whites
4 level tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon dark rum
Have ready a thin spatula and 4-inch metal molds or 6-ounce small Pyrex bowls.
Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine the ground hazelnuts and sugar.
In a medium bowl, use a spatula to spread around the softened butter. Using a spatula, blend the nut mixture into the butter and mix just until combined. Add the salt and the cream and mix just until combined. Add the egg whites and mix just until combined. Fold the flour into the mixture in three additions, then add the rum. The batter should be heavy, and a bit like wet sand. It needs to used right away.
On a nonstick baking sheet, use a piece of softened butter or its buttery wax paper wrapper to draw and then fill in three 5-inch circles. (These will be the shape of the first 3 cookies that you bake.) Drop a 2-tablespoon blob of cookie batter on each circle and, with the back of a spoon, spread it out in a widening circle until it is 4 1/2 inches wide, making sure that the edges are the same thickness as the center. The batter will be about 1/16 inch thick and does not have to be spread evenly; spots where the cookie sheet almost shows through the batter will fill in during baking. There should be a good 1/2 inch between the circles. Bake for 4 minutes, but start watching after 2 minutes. You can be forming another set of cookies on a separate baking sheet during this time.
The cookies are done when the outer 1/4 inch of each cookie is slightly browned. (If they are cooking too fast, reduce the oven temperature as needed.) Pull out the baking sheet from the oven and set it on the open oven door so that the cookies cool for 3 to 5 seconds. This will keep the cookies pliable so that you can mold them.
Then, 1 at a time, gently slither a thin spatula or pancake turner under the cookie all around to loosen it from the sheet. Lift the cookie, which will droop slightly, and turn it upside down on a clean work surface. Quickly wrap the cookie around the mold or upside-down Pyrex bowl. Repeat rapidly with the remaining 2 cookies. In less than 1 minute, the rolled cookies will have crisped and you can gently dislodge them from the forms.
Close the door and wait for the oven to come back to the right temperature, then bake another sheet, and form another batch. You may have to remove crumbs or re-butter the 3 circles for subsequent batches.
Let cookies cool completely on a rack or parchment paper.
Per cookie (based on 12): 140 calories, 2 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 10 gm fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 3 gm saturated fat, 46 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
-- Bonnie S. Benwick