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~ Nana's Pennsylvania Deutsch Sand Tart Cookies ~

IMG_4890Over the weekend we took a quick trip to Eastern Pennsylvania (Hometown) to visit my parents. Mom and dad subscribe to The Morning Call newspaper, which publishes quite an impressive food section each Wednesday.  My mother saves them for me, so whenever I visit, I have a short stack of "foodie reading" to peruse during our two hour ride back to Happy Valley.  It's very enjoyable, and, on occasion, one inspires me to write a blog post.  Today is such a day.

IMG_4944On Wed., Dec. 7th, the foodie headline in The Morning Call read:  "Macungie woman finds late Great-Aunt's recipe for sand tarts."

It immediately evoked fond memories for me.  These very thin, crisp, addictive cookies are a Pennsylvania Deutsch tradition.  They're typically made around the Christmas holidays, but, truth be told, my then husband's Nana (a lovely PA Deutsch* woman and a talented cook and baker) made them much oftener -- they were her husband's favorite cookie. It wasn't unusual to find a small tin of sand tarts on the side-table next to Pap-Pap's chair in their living room -- where he enjoyed offering one (or two if he really liked you) to almost anyone who visited.

IMG_4898The article went on to explain in detail how the texture is what makes these cookies unique.   It contains only a handful of ingredients:  butter (no substitutions), flour, brown sugar, eggs, cinnamon and walnuts.  There is no leavening agent in these cookies, and, because they're rolled extremely thin, they "bake up in a flash" -- about 7 minutes.  They are not hard to make, they are just "finicky".  The dough must be kept cold while rolling and cutting -- for best results it's refrigerated overnight.  Why?  As the dough warms up, the butter softens and the dough gets sticky and tears -- which is why Nana taught me to refrigerate the dough in small batches and work in small batches, removing only one-at-a-time, when it's time to roll, cut and bake it.  

IMG_4832A personal comment and tip from Mel:  You do not need any fancy equipment to make these cookies. No powerful stand mixer required -- a hand-held one works fine.  

Keep in mind, when these types of treasured, now-vintage recipes were being baked by our ancestors, many folks didn't have electricity -- not even to control the heat source of the hearth or oven.  That most likely explains why these cookies IMG_4831were traditionally made around the Christmas holidays (the cold months of the year) -- the dough could be placed in a safe spot outside to chill.  That said, since Nana's recipe was/is weight specific (equal weights of sugar and flour and she was CLEAR on that point), I use and rely on my digital kitchen scale to insure an exact measure.  It's a modern day invention, but it sure does take all the guesswork out of this recipe!

Why do they call them sand tarts?  

IMG_4854Because the dough is initially the texture of moist sand.

IMG_48408  ounces light brown sugar (about 1 1/4 lightly-packed cups)

1  large egg, at room temperature

5  ounces salted butter, at room temperature, very soft (1 1/4 sticks/10 tablespoons)

8  ounces unbleached, all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 cups), plus additional bench flour for rolling each batch of cookies

1  large egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water, for brushing tops of cookies

ground cinnamon, or a mixture of cinnamon and granulated sugar, for sprinkling on "wet" cookies immediately after brushing with egg wash prior to baking 

approximately 1 cup walnut halves cut in half (traditionally just 1 per small cookie)

IMG_4841 IMG_4846~ Step 1.  In a large bowl, place sugar, egg and butter.  Starting at low speed of mixer and working up to high, cream together, about 3 full minutes, scraping down sides of the bowl with a spatula.   A creamy, paste will have formed.

IMG_4851 IMG_4854~ Step 2.  Lower the mixer speed to low- medium-low and slowly, in 3-4 increments, thoroughly incorporate the flour, again, scraping down the sides of the bowl with the spatula the entire time. A sandy, grainy mess will have formed.

IMG_4855 IMG_4861~ Step 3.  Gather the dough up in your hands while dividing and forming it into two equal-sized balls, about 11 ounces each.  Form each ball into a 4 1/2-round, 3/4"-thick disc, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled, 8-12 hours.

IMG_4865~ Step 4.  Line 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans (or 4, 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" pans if you are feeling timid) with parchment paper and preheat oven to 340°-345°.  In a small bowl, using a fork, whisk the egg with the water and ready a pastry brush.  Choose and have ready the cinnamon or sugar-and-cinnamon mixture and ready the walnuts.

IMG_4866Note:  If this is your first time making these cookies and are a bit apprehensive, each disk of dough can be sliced in half prior to rolling, cutting and baking, meaning:  you can work with and bake in four smaller parts (hence the smaller pans) rather than two larger ones -- a wise starter decision.   

IMG_4870 IMG_4873 IMG_4875 IMG_4878 IMG_4880~Step 5.  Generously flour a pastry board.  Remove one disc or half-disc of dough from the refrigerator and lightly flour the top of it.  Allow it to rest about 2 minutes to soften up just a bit.  Roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8", adding flour as necessary to prevent it sticking to both the board and the pin. Working as quickly as you can, using a 2" round cookie cutter, cut the cookies, placing them on the prepared pan as you work.  Lightly dab the top of each cookie with some egg wash, then, sprinkle cinnamon or sugar-and-cinnamon evenly over all.  Place a half of a walnut half in the center of each cookie.  That wasn't so hard.

IMG_4903 IMG_4904 IMG_4910 IMG_4917 IMG_4920~Note:  Place the cookies side-by-side on pan(s).  They do not spread out as they bake.  Two+ dozen will fit on each of the two larger pans, and, one+ dozen will fit on each of the four smaller-sized pans.

IMG_4891~ Step 6.  Bake on center rack of preheated oven for 6 1/2-7  minutes, until lightly-browned on the bottoms and slightly-browned around the edges and top.  Be sure to use a thin metal spatula to check the bottom of a cookie at the 6-minute mark to check for browning. Remove from oven and transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.  Repeat this process with second disc of dough.

I've never met a person who can eat just one!

IMG_4894*You say Pennsylvania Dutch, We say Pennsylvania Deutsch:

6a0120a8551282970b01a3fcafef88970bLet me make it clear that Pennsylvania Dutch cookery does not belong solely to PA and it is not Dutch either.  The term "Dutch" was the early English settlers slang for the German word "Deutsch".  So:  When most people incorrectly say "Pennsylvania Dutch", they should be saying "Pennsylvania Deutsch", crediting the Germanic or German-speaking immigrants from Germany and Switzerland for this cuisine.  The majority of these people were either Amish, Mennonite or Brethren, all of which were considered "Anabaptist".  They were fleeing the mountains of Switzerland and southern Germany to avoid religious persecution and established several communites in the Lehigh Valley.  Why?  Thank William Penn for his free-thinking, open-door, equal-opportunity-for-all of any religion or race politics.  Pennsylvania set an example for the other colonies, who all had established an official "State" religion. Pennsylvania.  The first to welcome people of all beliefs and walks of life?  You betcha.

Nana's Pennsylvania Deutsch Sand Tart Cookies:  Recipe yields approximately 4 1/2-5 dozen, 2" round cookies/2-2 1/2 dozen per disc of dough.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen scale (optional); hand-held electric mixer; large rubber spatula; plastic wrap; 2, 17 1/2 x 12 1/2" baking pans, or, 4, 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" pans; parchment paper; fork; pastry brush; ordinary wooden pastry board; rolling pin; 2"-round cookie cutter; thin metal spatula; cooling rack

4605008726_aa92c61f77_zCook's Note:  It is worth mentioning that there is another type of sand tart cookie.  It is a granulated sugar cookie enhanced by almond extract and topped with sliced almonds. They are similarly prepared, are very thin and crisp, but, because of the almonds on top, when they emerge from the oven they resemble a sand dollar.

<This image courtesy of Flickr.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2017)


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