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.
Test Kitchen Notes
Featured in: Food52's Holiday Cookie Chronicles. —The Editors
- Prep time 4 hours 15 minutes
- Cook time 17 minutes
- Makes several dozen
(227g) cream cheese, at room temperature
(184g) vegetable shortening, at room temperature
(250g) sifted all-purpose flour
pinch kosher salt
(113g) confectioners' sugar, divided
(130g) halved walnuts, pecans, or any large sturdy nut
(95g) drained maraschino cherries
small batch egg wash (1 large egg + 1 tablespoon of water) (optional)
Turbinado sugar (optional)
- 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, and if using, brush with egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes until puffed up and golden brown.