I’m a dessert maximalist—so are my sisters, and so is my dad. If we had it our way, every cake would be frosted with a double batch of chocolate buttercream (the French kind, with egg yolks and all). All scoops of ice cream would prominently feature a two-to-one ratio of peanut butter swirls to banana chunks. And plain fare, like unadorned sugar cookies, would be quietly retired.
My mother, however, is a dessert minimalist. She prefers clean flavors, one at a time. No person at our local ice cream shop has ever referred to her sundae order as “literal chaos bordering on scary.” Perhaps that’s because she’s the granddaughter of Vina Slatalla, a name I know only from yellowed recipe cards and my mother’s stories. Vina’s Depression-era devil’s food cake requires little more than perked coffee, chocolate, and butter—yet it manages to taste simultaneously familiar and revelatory, the dessert equivalent of coming home to a clean house after a very long trip. Her recipes are a stark reminder of how austerity can breed creativity, how simplicity can yield magnificence.
Accordingly, the one holiday dessert on which every member of my family can agree comes from Vina. It calls on just cream cheese, shortening, flour, and confectioners’ sugar for a tender dough, which twists itself around anything you like—nuts, chocolate, dried fruit—before getting baked into festive, bow-tie shaped cookies. They’re decadent, just the right amount sweet, and best of all, they offer something for everyone.
My mom loves them in their original form, with each square of the four-ingredient dough swaddling a single walnut half, puffed up and crispy, like tiny pies. And the rest of us can get creative with fillings: I’ll go as straightforward as a hunk of dark chocolate, or as anarchistic as wrapping a square of dough around an entire other cookie. Once, I heard my older sister Zoe ask if she could use two of my mom’s walnut versions, already baked, “as if they were graham crackers, to make a s’more.” (I think that was the year my mom learned deep-breathing techniques.) And if any maximalist among us wanted to, say, build a croquembouche-like tower from 40 of them, using a batch of that French buttercream as glue, it’d be well within the realm of possibility—just as soon as my mom left the room.
In a large bowl, mix cream cheese and shortening with a fork until fully combined. Add the flour and salt and work in with hands until well mixed. Cover and chill overnight or for several hours, until dough is firm.
Heat oven to 375°F (190°C). Line two large metal baking sheets with parchment paper.
Sprinkle a clean countertop with half of the confectioners’ sugar and roll out dough on top of it, sprinkling top of dough with the rest as you roll, so the dough absorbs the sugar. Roll to about 1/8-inch (3-cm) thick, then slice into 2 x 2-inch (5 x 5-cm) squares.
In the center of each rectangle, place at a diagonal either a walnut half or a cherry, and roll up so the opposite corners of the square are moving toward one another (this will create a festive shape, rather than just a flat roll).
Place each one folded side down on baking sheet, brush with egg wash, sprinkle with turbinado sugar, and bake for 15 to 17 minutes until puffed up and golden brown.
Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.