Big Little Recipes

The Butteriest Butter Pecan Cookies Just Happen to Be 4 Ingredients

November 20, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week, we’re giving you permission to not make pie on Thanksgiving.

If you want a showstopper Thanksgiving dessert, you could make the flakiest pie crust and the creamiest pumpkin filling and homemade ice cream to serve on top. Or, you could make something unexpected.

While pie is this holiday’s go-to, this can be problematic for two types of people: those who don’t like pie (rare, but they’re out there) and those who don’t like making pie (common—I used to be one of them!). As food stylist and recipe developer Yossy Arefi noted in The New York Times just last week: “Not everyone loves pie. For them, there’s cake.”

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Or cookies. I love cookies for Thanksgiving for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is, well, their little size. Both pies and cakes are large-format and crowd-friendly, which is great for a full holiday table. Let me ask you this, though: Have you ever had a guest say something like, “Cut me just a sliver! The tiiiiiiiiniest slice you can!”

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Top Comment:
“I make a very similar cookie that my Mother always made but in the shape of a little log. She called them Pecan Fingers. Regarding the 2 cups of pecans, are they measured whole or after being chopped. That would seem to make a difference. ”
— TheFoodBee

This person isn’t trying to be difficult. They’re just trying to avoid insulting the host by leaving behind a mostly-uneaten slice. Because by the time you finally get to dessert, people have been eating for hours, and they’re literally stuffed with stuffing.

Enter: petite pecan cookies. These are two-bite-sized, which makes them little enough for even your least-hungry guest. Everyone can eat exactly as many as they want—and I have a feeling after you have one of these, you’ll want another anyway.

Can we drink that brown butter? Yes? Please? Photo by Rocky Luten

Now, the other reason I love cookies for Thanksgiving is more selfish. As someone who partakes in the planning, preparing, and executing of the meal, I’m always searching for an easy recipe or three, and these cookies are as easy as it gets. They have four ingredients, and you don’t even need an electric mixer to bring the dough together.

They could be called many things: Mexican wedding cookies, Danish wedding cookies, Russian tea cakes, snowballs, butter balls. Like all of those, these are defined by a crumbly, shortbread-like texture, and a liberal confectioners’ sugar coating. I call mine “Butter Pecan” because those are the flavors we’re going to Big Little–ifiy. Here’s how:

Brown the butter.

If you’ve ever melted butter, you can brown butter. All you have to do is keep melting it. The butter will start to foam, then the milk solids will fall to the bottom of the pan, where they’ll begin to toast, and your kitchen will start to smell like roasting hazelnuts. Some people like to ditch these milk solids to yield a more refined, less cloudy brown butter. But it makes no difference for the cookies. Just add a splash of water to the pan to deglaze all those flavorful bits.

Toast the nuts. And use more of them.

Toasting nuts activates their natural oils and intensifies their flavor. Plus, a toasted nut is just cozier than a raw one—and ’tis the season of cozy, is it not? Here, pecans take a quick trip to the oven until they’re deeply browned. (I prefer this to the stovetop method because the nuts cook more consistently and are less likely to burn.) After they’re completely cool, blitz them in a food processor (or chop them on a cutting board or smash them in a bag with a rolling pin) until they’re practically flour. I doubled the amount of nuts in comparable recipes, making these either the pecan-iest cookies or cookie-iest pecans. You tell me.

If you’re wondering if you can make these in advance, the answer is yes. You can brown the butter and keep it in the fridge. You can toast the nuts and keep them in an airtight container or bag. You can make the dough, scoop and freeze it—then bake directly from the freezer. And you can even bake the cookies days in advance, too. I like to store them in a confectioners’ sugar-filled container, where they’re insulated and cushioned. That’s the way the cookie doesn’t crumble.

Have you ever served cookies for Thanksgiving dessert? Tell us what kind below!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


TheFoodBee December 2, 2019
I make a very similar cookie that my Mother always made but in the shape of a little log. She called them Pecan Fingers. Regarding the 2 cups of pecans, are they measured whole or after being chopped. That would seem to make a difference.
Emma L. December 2, 2019
Hi TheFoodBee! "2 cups chopped pecans" means you chop, then measure. (Alternatively, "2 cups pecans, chopped" would mean you measure, then chop.) Hope that helps!
judy May 5, 2019
Made these with regular superfine baking sugar. I don't tolerate powdered sugar. These were great. Thanks
food52fan November 29, 2018
This sounds wonderful! I just bought two bags of pecans so I have everything I need to make these. I wonder if a drop or two of butternut oil extract would make these even more awesome?! Trying to find more uses for my extract! I'll experiment and report back!
Pam November 20, 2018
I have brought pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with lightly spiced cream cheese butter cream frosting, they were a huge hit. :-)
Emma L. November 20, 2018
Oh my gosh, I bet! Sounds so good :)
Carol J. November 20, 2018
YES to the question about cookies served as dessert for Thanksgiving!! I have a cookie cutter turkey shape. Chocolate royal icing and colored feathers, and they were a 2017 apres-dinner hit.
Emma L. November 20, 2018
Turkey! Shaped! Cookies!