You’ve seen this cookie before. There’s the glossy, maple-brown top, bumped and cracked like parched earth. The taste memory of a thin, crackly shell caving into fudge-brownie middles with toasted walnut studs. And even if these calling cards weren’t enough to remind you, the head-scratching ingredient list is: No flour. No butter or oil. And really, that much confectioners’ sugar? (Yes, really.)
These are the sorts of surprises that lodge in our brains. They’re why I’ve been writing about Genius Recipes for eight years now, and why still more “Yes, really” memories keep breaking free from all of you and finding their way to me.
As I was hunting down iconic sweets for my second book, Genius Desserts, this cookie came up a lot—sometimes with bonus spices or pecans or chocolate chips, but always with this same curious basic set of ingredients and proportions. I’m almost certain (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that all trace back to the mother recipe below, a 1997 invention by French pastry chef François Payard. Some are credited to him; some are several hand-offs deep, their origin lost along the way.
I had my own double-take moment with this cookie seven years ago on this very website. Jennifer Steinhauer (who we all called Jenny), a New York Times reporter by day and weekly columnist on Food52 by night, had shared her version, riffed from one from the Homesick Texan blog, explaining, “This cookie is so pleasurably rich in chocolate, and offers such a delightfully surprising texture, that most people race toward them like deer to a salt lick.”
Jenny’s columns were unlike any food writing I’ve read, before or since, and showed me what the best of the genre could be—honest and madcap, searing and sincere, short, funny, and real. It was some swirling cocktail of her example, plus the peanut gallery of early-days Food52 (“a pajamas operation,” as Jenny called it), plus the thoughts rattling around in my head, that helped me find my own writing voice—a voice which, with any luck and clarity, didn’t need to be like anyone else’s.
When I called Payard to ask for the story behind his cookie-spawning cookie as I was building Genius Desserts, he told me that, when he opened his first patisserie in Manhattan in 1997, he didn’t want to compete with iconic American treats like chocolate chip or snickerdoodle. Instead, he based his signature cookie off a French macaron, a similarly featherlight confection with a chewy middle and a thin, crisp outer shell that’s made from little more than egg whites, ground almonds, and sugar. Finally, the ingredients made sense.
The nuts can disappear or be swapped; the cocoa can be Dutch-process or natural; chocolate chips are fine; spice and extract at will. But to the inevitable question of substitutes for the egg white, I’ll quote Jenny’s own reply, “I confess I am at a loss but some of the vegans in this community will probably have ideas.”
Heat the oven to 350°F (175°C), with racks in the upper and lower thirds. Spread the walnut halves on a large rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven until they turn golden and smell toasty, about 9 minutes.
Let the walnuts cool to the touch, then transfer them to a cutting board and coarsely chop them. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
Combine the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, salt, and walnuts in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until well combined. With the mixer running, slowly add the egg whites and vanilla. Mix on medium speed until the mixture has just slightly thickened, about 3 minutes.
Using a 2-ounce (60ml) cookie scoop or a large spoon, scoop the batter onto the baking sheets in 12 mounds, spacing them 3 inches (7.5cm) apart. Put the baking sheets in the oven, immediately lower the temperature to 325°F (165°C), and bake until the tops are glossy and lightly cracked, 14 to 16 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from front to back and top to bottom halfway through baking. Slide the parchment paper (with the cookies) onto two racks to let the cookies cool completely before removing the cookies from the parchment. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Genius recipes surprise us and make us rethink cooking tropes. They're handed down by luminaries of the food world and become their legacy. They get us talking and change the way we cook. And, once we've folded them into our repertoires, they make us feel pretty genius too. Watch for new Genius Recipes every Wednesday morning on our blog, dug up by Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore.