tis the season…Holiday Cooking
Sand Tarts are an old and very traditional Lancaster County Pennsylvania Christmas cookie. European in origin, family recipes brought to the colonies and handed down from generation to generation and cherished as a very special holiday delight. Tins full of Sand Tarts were made weeks in advance of the holidays in the house where I grew up and everyone gathered in the kitchen to help with the baking.
Simple butter cookie dough is rolled out paper thin, cut with handed down family cookie cutters, and baked into feathery light sand colored Christmas tarts dotted with nuts and dusted with cinnamon sugar. The secret to success is amply chilling the dough and, of course, quickly rolling the dough out until nearly transparent. This takes some practice, but well worth the effort. Once you’ve got the technique in hand it’s almost like riding a bicycle when the next Holiday season rolls around.
Sand Tarts: makes 70 to 85 cookies
- 1/2 cup/ 4 oz farm fresh unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup super fine sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 large organic egg, well beaten
- 1 3/4 cups/8 ½ oz pastry flour, twice sifted
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 good pinch fine sea salt
- 2 egg whites well beaten
- 1/2 cup coarsely broken nuts; walnuts, pecans, or almonds
- 1 tablespoon super fine sugar
- 1 tablespoon fresh ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg and set aside for dusting the cookies before baking.
Cream the butter and sugar together by hand in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Add the vanilla and the beaten egg and whip everything together until well combined.
In a separate bowl twice sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together.
Begin adding quarter cups of the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture and mix in by hand until combined. As you add the sifted ingredients the dough will begin to come together and once all added the dough should easily pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl and bind together. At this point use your hands to form the dough into a ball.
Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a work surface. Divide the dough into three equal pieces and place on large squares of plastic film. Flatten the dough into discs about 1/4 inch in thickness. Wrap the film around the dough tightly and place the dough in the fridge and chill for at least twelve hours or overnight!
Remove a round of the dough from the fridge and roll out on a very lightly flour dusted pastry cloth or silicone pasty mat. Work as quickly as you can and roll the dough as thinly as possible. When you begin to see through the dough you are nearly there.
Unless you are working in a very cool kitchen I would suggest re-refrigerating the rolled out dough on the mat until it is firm for cutting out the cookies.
Continue rolling out the remaining dough and chilling before you begin cutting out cookies.
Preheat the oven to 325F/165C Place an oven thermometer in the oven. Have several baking sheets ready and lined with parchment or Silpot mat.
Enlisting some willing helpers for the cutting, baking, and cooling will make the baking go much more smoothly…and it’s fun for all!
Remove a mat of chilled rolled out dough from the refrigerator and begin cutting out the cookies with as little waste as possible between each cut cookie. Remove scraps of dough around the cookies and carefully lift the cut cookies onto a baking sheet. Reserve the scraps and set aside, combining all scraps for a final rolling out of dough, although the re-rolled dough will not be as fine, but worth doing as motivation for your busy helpers!
Brush the tops of the cookies with the egg whites and stick broken nuts in the center of each cookie followed by a dusting of cinnamon nutmeg sugar.
Check the oven temperature on the oven thermometer before baking! Temperature and timing are of the essence for these delicate cookies!
Pop the cookies in the oven and bake for 6-8 minutes. The cookies should only faintly begin to color when done. Remove from the oven and rest on the tray for a minute or two to allow the cookie to firm up a little bit before transferring the cookies to a cooling rack.
Once the cookies are completely cool you can transfer them to tins or other air tight containers. The cookies will remain fresh for several weeks kept in a cool place, without refrigeration!