Go nuts with these sweet treats

Spiced pecan date shortbread, baked and cut into bars, constitutes a spice-infused dessert that is likely to find appreciative audiences this or any holiday season.
Spiced pecan date shortbread, baked and cut into bars, constitutes a spice-infused dessert that is likely to find appreciative audiences this or any holiday season. The New York Times

Pecans, with their rich, buttery, sweet flavor, are considered by many to be the quintessential American nut.

They once grew wild throughout what is now the American South and Mexico. Native peoples foraged for these highly nutritious nuts, and Spanish explorers took pecans – along with other unknown New World foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn and chilies – back to Europe for cultivation.

Today, orchards in the United States continue to produce most of the world’s supply.

I have had them on the brain ever since I received a giant bag of new-crop pecans from a friend in New Mexico recently. With the holiday season (a.k.a. the baking season) upon us, I began to think of what to do with them.

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I will happily make an exception when homemade pecan rolls or other members of the sticky bun family are in the room. And if they happen to be rolled in cinnamon sugar, so much the better.

Years ago, I found work as a professional baker, and making cinnamon rolls became a daily task. I baked dozens and dozens each day, even more on weekends, gaining proficiency, to say the least. (For quality control, I sampled one from each batch.) So playing with this pecan version was like riding a bike.

Some home bakers are fearful of yeasted doughs. Don’t be. The key is to let the yeast do its work and allow the dough to rise sufficiently before popping your creations into the oven.

These pecan rolls are baked in muffin tins to help them puff proudly. Just be sure not to rush them: The longer they rise, the lighter they’ll be. Bake them until the tops are nicely browned and well burnished. That is the way to ensure a golden glazed underside.

Don’t we all love the classic gooey-nutty filling of a good pecan pie? For these pecan bars, I wanted a similar sensation, but with a heaping dose of spice. Cardamom, allspice, nutmeg and clove add a kind of peppery warmth to these.

For the savory cookies here, grated Parmesan was my choice. Chopped pecans, fresh sage and a good spoonful of coarsely ground black pepper went into the dough.

Give friends and family savory pecan cookies to start, molasses-spiked pecan bars for dessert and a bag of sugar-dusted pecan rolls to take home.

Savory pecan cookies

Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling

Makes about 30 cookies

2 cups (310 grams) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves

1 cup roughly chopped pecans

1 1/2 ounces (40 grams) grated Parmesan (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large eggs, beaten

Egg wash (see note below)

Coarse sea salt

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, pepper, salt, sage, pecans and Parmesan. Stir in oil and eggs and mix well. If dough seems crumbly, add a tablespoon of cold water and mix again.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead dough for a minute or two, until smooth. Divide in half and roll each half into a cylinder that is 2 inches in diameter. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. With a thin-bladed knife, slice 1/8-inch-thick rounds from each cylinder.

Use a spatula to transfer cookies to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Paint each cookie lightly with egg wash, if using, and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake in batches for 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on a rack. Store in an airtight container.

Note: To make an egg wash, beat 1 whole egg with 2 tablespoons water. Leftover egg wash may be kept refrigerated for 3 days. You may use cookie cutters if you’d like. In Step 2, shape the dough into a disc before chilling. In Step 3, use a rolling pin to roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness, and cut out shapes.

Pecan-raisin rolls

Total time: 2 hours, plus rising

Makes 12 rolls

For the dough:

3/4 cup whole milk

2 teaspoons dry active yeast

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten

1/2 cup (1 stick), melted and cooled, plus butter for greasing muffin tins

2 3/4 cups (425 grams) all-purpose flour

For the filling:

2 cups (360 grams) light brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup golden raisins, soaked 30 minutes in warm water and drained

Egg wash (see note below)

For the topping (optional):

1 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Prepare the dough: Put milk in a mixing bowl and stir in yeast and sugar. Leave until mixture begins to bubble, about 10 minutes.

Whisk in salt, beaten egg and melted butter, then stir in flour until a rough dough forms. Knead dough until smooth, soft and satiny, about 5 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Butter a standard 12-muffin tin. Punch down dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out to a rectangle approximately 12 inches by 8 inches.

Prepare the filling: Mix together brown sugar, cinnamon, pecans and raisins. Sprinkle mixture evenly over rolled-out dough.

As if rolling up a carpet, roll dough tightly into a 12-inch-long cylinder. Cut into 12 equal pieces, about 3 ounces each. Set dough pieces flat side down into buttered muffin tin and paint each lightly with egg wash. (At this point, unbaked rolls may be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated overnight, to be baked the next day if you’d like.)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Loosely cover muffin tin with plastic wrap and put in a warm place to rise. Let rolls rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Paint rolls lightly with egg wash, place tin on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes, until tops of rolls are well browned. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes.

Carefully invert hot muffin tin over a baking sheet. Use a fork if necessary to help remove rolls from tin. (Be careful: The hot caramelized sugar on rolls will cause a bad burn if dripped on skin.) If desired, make topping by combining sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle rolls with the topping while still warm. Let rolls cool bottom side up on baking sheet.

Note: To make egg wash, beat 1 whole egg with 2 tablespoons water. Leftover egg wash may be kept refrigerated for 3 days.

Pecan date shortbread bars

Total time: 1 hour

Makes 18 bars

For the shortbread crust:

2 cups (310 grams) all-purpose flour

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), chilled, cut in 1-inch chunks

1/2 cup (50 grams) confectioners’ sugar

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

For the filling:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup molasses

1/4 cup golden syrup or organic corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon cardamom

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon clove

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon orange zest

1 tablespoon dark rum

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ounces chopped dates (about 1 cup)

8 ounces pecan halves or pieces (about 2 cups)

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Make the shortbread crust: Pulse flour, butter, confectioners’ sugar and salt in a food processor until mixture looks like wet sand. (Alternatively, work the mixture with fingertips or a pastry cutter.)

Press shortbread mixture into the bottom of a 9-by-9-inch square cake pan in an even layer. Bake crust for 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool.

Meanwhile, make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together melted butter, eggs, molasses, golden syrup, cardamom, allspice, clove, nutmeg, salt, orange zest, rum and vanilla extract. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in dates.

Pour filling over prebaked crust, then sprinkle pecans over filling. Bake for 30 minutes, or until filling is no longer jiggly and seems set.

Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of pan to loosen cake, then invert pan over a cutting board to remove. Invert again and cool completely before cutting into bars approximately 1 1/2-by-3 inches.