In Italy nuts are known as Frutta Secca, which to me sounds a bit strange because it translates as dried fruit, which for us English speakers is more sultanas, prunes, dried apricots and the like.  But when you think about it, the things that fall off trees at the end of the summer; Nocciole (hazelnuts), Noci (walnuts), Castagne (chestnuts) and Pinoli (pine nuts) are all, botanically speaking, fruit; part of nature’s wonderful reproduction cycle.

Nuts can be pretty costly little things, and perfectly comprehensible considering what is involved in getting a pine nut off a tree and into the kitchen.  Picnicking in Villa Pamphili, one of Rome’s grand parks that was once the summer estate of a noble family, pine cones fall from the ancient trees to bump up under rugs and reclining picnickers.   Break the cone open and small super hard shells can be found, that when carefully smashed between two stones reveal the precious nuts.  Hence the price of Italian pine nuts and real Pesto alla Genovese!

This recipe is another family treasure, one of the hand me downs from my mother, my Auntie Margie and my grandma Marjorie, via my trusty recipe folder circa 1994 (home to butchers’ recipe cards, newspaper clippings and other late 20th Century gems). When I mentioned walnuts on the phone the other day Mum told me the full story of how she came by the recipe.

Her friend Rosemary was a good cook and very generous with her recipes, mum explains.  She often served these dainty biscuits but mum felt shy to ask for yet another of her recipes.  Some years later a recipe turned up, via her sister (my auntie) Margie, for Pecan Crescents.  Her mother in law had given her a copy of the Australian American Association’s  women’s group cookbook, published in 1958.  Mum and Margie usually swapped the pecans for walnuts when they made them, more readily available and grown locally in Australia.  Mum didn’t make them often, usually when someone was coming for ‘tea’. When she did, I was to be found lingering by the biscuit platter. 

The recipe has obvious European origins, crescent shaped biscuits are found all the from Turkey all the way up to Austria, made with various nuts, mainly walnuts and almonds.  My gut feeling says that they were spread by the Ottomans, Turkey and the mediterranean basin around it being incredible nut growing territory.  (Until you have seen the nut counters in countries like Lebanon you have not seen real bounty). In 1958 a recipe for Greek nut crescents kourabiedes (with walnuts or almonds) was published in the Yankee’s food and lifestyle pages, by editor Duncan MacDonald. The article celebrated the influx of European cuisines to postwar America, and included recipes for halva (spiced semo­lina pudding) and loukoumathes (honey-coated fried-dough pastries). Using American pecans made them American, in a nice way.  The recipe, republished recently by Amy Traverso, in New England Today, is really close, perhaps even exactly the same as the one from the Australian American Association cookbook. 

Walnut crescents, makes about 24 biscuits

125 g butter – softened
100 g walnuts
100 g sifted plain flour (00)
Pinch salt
2 tbs icing sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla essence (or half a sachet of powdered vanilla if in Italy)
More icing sugar for dusting / rolling

Finely chop the walnuts leaving a little variety, some very fine floury grain and a little chunk.  If using a hand blender or food processor be careful not to grind to a paste as walnuts are full of (good) oil.

Cream the room temperature butter using electric beaters or a stand mixer for a minute or two before adding the icing sugar, vanilla essence and a pinch of salt.  Use a spatula to gently fold in the chopped walnuts and sifted flour and mix till the mixture comes together in a dough.  Turn out onto a floured work surface, form a block, or a sausage, wrap in (the now empty) butter paper or piece of baking paper and let rest in fridge for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Dust hands and the work surface with flour.  Line a tray with baking paper.  Cut off small chunks of dough and roll into crescent shapes and place on tray.  If particularly warm rest them in the fridge as they are rolled.  Bake in the middle of the oven, rotating if you have more than one tray, for approximately 20 minutes, then lay on biscuit rack to cool.  Mum’s recipes say to roll in icing sugar while still slightly warm, I prefer to blanket with sifted icing sugar. They will keep in an airtight tin for up to a week, but there is little historical evidence of this ever happening.

 

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