Swap One Ingredient, Get Entirely New (Rich & Buttery) Cookies

February  6, 2017

How much do I love ingredient swaps? I invented one of my new favorite chocolate cookies when I replaced the roughly pulverized nuts in an already beloved recipe for a non-chocolate cookie, with an equal quantity of roughly pulverized chocolate chips. The results were accidently and uniquely wonderful.

As many bakers know, mixing loads of melted chocolate into a butter-rich cookie dough can produce dry, hard cookies. Pulverizing instead of melting the chocolate turned out to be a clever hack, giving me the best of both worlds: tender cookies and big chocolate flavor.

It all started with Russian Tea Cakes. I’m nutty about the rich buttery walnut cookies—and I love Mexican wedding cakes (or polvorones), Viennese crescents, Greek kourabiedes, and snowballs. They’re all basically the same cookie, but made with different nuts: walnuts, pecans, or almonds. Although they seem dainty and elegant, they’re embarrassingly easy to make. They addition of ground-up nuts almost guarantees tender cookies. Meanwhile, the dough itself, not counting the layer of powdered sugar on the outside, contains very little sugar, which means you get loads of lovely nut flavor and the cookies hold their pleasing round (or crescent) shape rather than spreading in the oven. These cookies beg you to play with them—and I’ve practically made a career of it. You can play, too!

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It’s probably obvious you can substitute all kinds of different nuts in these cookies—or even toast the nuts rather than using them raw. You can vary the texture of the cookies by pulverizing all of the nuts (or using nut flour), or leaving some nuts a little coarser for crunch. Meanwhile, the fact that the cookies are flavorful, gently sweet, and hold their shape, means they make superior thumbprint cookies. A dab of jam doesn’t make them too sweet or cloying and it’s fun to match different nut flavors with different fruit preserves—or fill them with chocolate or caramel sauce instead! (See my book Chewy Gooey, Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies for more ideas).

Chocolate on the left and nut-heavy on the right. Photo by James Ransom

Recently, I wondered if I could boldly go beyond simply swapping one nut for another. How about swapping a non-dairy fat (coconut oil) for the butter, or replacing the nuts with seeds or coconut? Or adding a flavor boost from nut or seed butters? Finally, I wondered if I could turn the entire cookie on its head by trading all of the nuts in for chocolate. As it turns out, all are possible. The basic recipe is below, followed by details for swaps (and a wonderful new chocolate cookie).

A few notes about how it all works:

  • In general, the volume (1 1/2 cups) of nuts, sesame seeds, coconut, and even chocolate stays the same—since the weights of these ingredients vary, I have supplied them for you.

  • I found sesame seeds, coconut, and tahini all need a little extra sugar and salt to bring up their flavors, and chocolate needs less sugar.

  • To swap coconut oil (which is pure fat) for butter (which is 80-85% fat plus water), I used less coconut oil than the amount of butter called for and added a little water to mimic the way the moisture in butter produces steam in the dough.

  • Tahini turned out to be a delicious addition to nutty cookies (especially almond or pecan). To compensate for the fat in the tahini I reduced the butter in the recipe by about half as much as the amount of tahini that I added— to avoid a greasy cookie. Natural nut butters (almond, cashew, peanut etc) should work similarly.

  • Keep in mind you can do more than one swap at a time: You can make the cookie with sesame seeds and add tahini, or make the cookie with coconut and swap coconut oil for butter.

  • You can do a half swap: half nuts and half chocolate (reduce the sugar by 1/2 tablespoons instead of 1 tablespoon).

Photo by James Ransom

Starting with this Russian Tea Cake recipe as a base, here are a few swaps to try:

Sesame Seed Swap:

Replace nuts with 1 1/2 cups (170 grams) toasted sesame seeds. Increase sugar to 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons and salt to 1 teaspoon. Add seeds right after the sugar and pulse with the sugar before the rest of the ingredients are added to bruise and release some of the sesame flavor into the sugar. Proceed as directed. (You can try this with sunflower, hemp, or poppy seeds.)

Coconut Swap:

Replace nuts with 1 1/2 cups (120 grams) unsweetened dried shredded coconut. Increase sugar to 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons and the salt to 1 teaspoon.

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Top Comment:
“Yes! Thank you so much for including grams in the recipe!”
— Mimu

Omit step 1. Add the coconut with the flour in step 2. Proceed as directed.

Coconut Oil Swap:

Replace the butter with 14 tablespoons coconut oil (I use unrefined coconut oil) and add 2 tablespoons of water with the vanilla. If you are doing the coconut swap as well as the coconut oil swap, the dough with be slightly crumbly and become more so as it sits—shape the cookies as soon as the dough is mixed for easiest handling.

Tahini Flavor Boost:

Make cookies with any nut you like (or coconut, or sesame seeds), but increase sugar to 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons and salt to a generous teaspoon. Decrease butter to 13 tablespoons (185 grams) and add 6 1/2 tablespoons (88 grams) tahini with the butter in step 2.

Chocolate Swap:

Replace the nuts with 1 1/2 cups (255 grams) chocolate chips. Use actual baking morsels or chips, rather than chopped chocolate for this, or the cookies won’t hold a nice shape. Decrease sugar to 3 tablespoons. Don’t use the egg yolk.

In step 1, process chocolate chips until pieces range from pulverized to 1/4-inch. Don’t reduce all of the chocolate to powder, you want lots of small pieces as well as some powder or the cookies will be flat and less tender. Remove the chocolate from the processor and proceed as directed. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops look slightly crackled and don’t feel squishy when lightly pressed with a finger. I’ve also provided a recipe for these below.

Tell us: What swap sounds the best to you?

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Erin Wagner
    Erin Wagner
  • Mimu
  • Amelia Saltsman
    Amelia Saltsman
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Erin W. February 7, 2017
Thank you for the wonderful post. Can't wait to start experimenting!
Mimu February 6, 2017
Yes! Thank you so much for including grams in the recipe!
Amelia S. February 6, 2017
I LOVE Russian Tea Cakes, too!! Very excited to have so many variations to play with, thank you. I can't wait til you do this with alternate flours!