Editor’s note: Living in the Colorado High Country is pure joy. Baking in it isn’t. High altitude makes cookies spread in the pan, cakes fall and few baked goods turn out as they do at sea level. This twice-monthly column presents recipes and tips that make baking in the mountains successful.
Adults only ... that’s who these chocolate espresso buttons are for. The sandy texture, bitter hazelnuts, barely sweet taste and chocolate-coffee flavor appeal to a sophisticated audience. And, for that group, the versatility of these little cookies could make them a household staple. Pair with sweetened berries or raspberry sorbet and they’re a light dessert; serve a couple with coffee and they’ll elevate your afternoon break; or nibble a few with sips of hazelnut liqueur for a perfect end to a dinner party. Keep some in the freezer, I guarantee you’ll use them.
They’re a variation of a classic shortbread, known as snowballs or Mexican wedding cookies, made with ground nuts, flour, sugar and butter, baked in the shape of a ball and showered with confectioners’ sugar. So they come from a distinguished pedigree that guarantees that they’re tasty and easy to make, and that they’ll store well and look pretty.
If you need to skin the hazelnuts, roast them in a single layer on a foil-lined cookie sheet in a 350-degree oven until they’re warm and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Wrap them in a clean damp kitchen towel (a dark-colored one; the nuts may leave a stain) and let them sit for about 6 to 10 minutes. Then, while still wrapped in the towel, rub them vigorously (so they’re scraping against each other) until most of the skins come off.
1 cup skinned hazelnuts
1/4 cup superfine granulated sugar, preferably Baker’s
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons bleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (one stick) unsalted butter
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
Step 2: To make in a food processor: Put the hazelnuts, sugar, flour, cocoa powder, espresso and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture is thoroughly blended and the nuts are very finely chopped. Cut the butter into 16 pieces and add it, along with the vanilla, to the processor. Pulse until large clumps of moist dough form and no dry ingredients are visible at the bottom of the bowl.
To make with a mixer: Finely chop the hazelnuts and set them aside. Combine the flour, cocoa, espresso and salt in a bowl and whisk until they’re thoroughly blended. Set the bowl aside. Cut the butter into 16 pieces, place it in a mixing bowl and bring it to room temperature. Add the sugar and vanilla to the butter and beat until smooth. On low speed or by hand, stir in the flour mixture until well combined. Stir in the nuts until they’re evenly distributed throughout the dough.
Step 3: Break off pieces of the dough, roll them into teaspoon-sized balls and place them 1 1/2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Put the baking sheet, with the cookies on it, in the freezer for about 15 minutes, until the balls are quite firm. (This helps prevent the cookies from spreading while baking.)
Step 4: Bake until the cookies are set, but not hard when touched, from about 12-17 minutes. Check the bottom of one, it should be baked through. They won’t darken in color or turn golden as they bake. Remove the pan to a rack and, when the cookies have cooled slightly, remove them from the pan to the rack to cool completely.
Step 5: Roll each cooled cookie in confectioners’ sugar until well coated. Serve, store at cool room temperature for four days or freeze, well wrapped, for a month. If the cookies have been frozen, they may benefit from an extra sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar once they’re defrosted and ready for serving.
Vera Dawson, author of the new high-altitude cookbook “Cookies in the Clouds” (available at The Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco), is a chef instructor with CMC’s Culinary Institute. She lives in Summit County where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her at email@example.com.