This photo was taken in their natural habitat, the Christmas Eve cookie tray, so the caramel has been slightly rumpled by interstate travel.
The problem (or “problem”) with having so many kickass favorite holiday treat recipes is that you have scant opportunity to try new ones, unless you want to add to your list every year until your Christmas baking becomes an unmanageable burden and your output far exceeds what your friends and family could possibly eat in an already sugar-laden season. This year I already knew I had to—had to!—make spritz, coconut-apricot cookies, peppermint bark, chocolate peanut-butter balls on pretzels, and rosemary roasted cashews, so I decided I only had room in my life for one experiment. I stumbled upon the ideal candidate early—my Delicious account, where I organize all potential new recipes, indicates that I bookmarked it on January 15, 2010—and the fact that it remained the frontrunner for nearly an entire year is in itself a testimonial to its worthiness. I found it while browsing a random food blog I don’t normally read, and it was from a cookbook (Cuisine at Home Holiday Baking) produced by a magazine I hadn’t even heard of. The blog didn’t reprint the recipe, so I had to Google it and track it down at another blog. That’s dedication! It just sounded like such a perfect showstopper Christmas cookie: not only did it combine two of my favorite things, cashews and caramel, but it was also complicated enough to merit special-occasion status. (I can’t help but get cranky when everyday cookies show up on holiday cookie trays. I love chocolate chip as much as the next girl, but in the tradition I was raised in, Christmas is the time to eat cherished cookies—by the plateful—that you only get once a year and yearn for during the next twelve months. [Sugar cookies are an exception, because although they can show up all year round, their holiday incarnations are festively shaped and decorated enough to still be special.])
No source I could locate specified the recipe’s yield, so I doubled it to be on the safe side and got about 4 dozen, which was perfect; it’s labor-intensive enough that while you’re at it, you’d might as well do a lot of it. The cookie ingredients are a little odd, in an awesome way; there’s only brown sugar and no baking soda or baking powder, providing a toothsome but subtle platform for the main attraction of salty cashews and sweet caramel. (In my opinion, the white chocolate’s function is mainly decorative, and if you wanted to skip it, I would look the other way, though it definitely kicks everything up a notch.) The process is definitely on the elaborate side, since most of the stuff goes on top of the cookies rather than in them, but none of the tasks were too exacting in themselves, so you don’t need to have a lot of special skillz other than good direction-following (though no doubt there are those who could make their chocolate drizzles look far more artful than mine). I did have a little trouble making the caramel-holding divots deep enough (they nearly disappeared during baking, and even straight from the oven the cookies resisted my remaking them), but I noticed that you can still get a fair amount of caramel into even a shallow depression; once you've laid down an initial layer and it's had time to cool for a minute or two and get tacky, you can pile another layer of caramel atop it, even higher than the level of the surrounding cookie. (I still had a little caramel mixture left over, though.)
And how did they taste? Well, my mother, although she might be biased, declared them “the cookie of the year” to anyone who would listen, and I received rave reviews from other eaters as well. I love them, too. There’s a reason the salty-sweet combo is uber-trendy right now: Because it is awesome. This is definitely going into my permanent holiday baking repertoire, which means that next Christmas, unless I forgo trying anything new or I temporarily retire one other favorite (a la the Disney “vault”), I’m just going to have to start my holiday baking before Thanksgiving. For cookies like these, it’s worth it.
1cup butter, softened
1⅓ cups brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
2⅔ cups flour
2 egg whites
2 teaspoons water
3 cups chopped roasted salted cashews
32 caramels, unwrapped
6 tablespoons heavy cream
6 ounces white chocolate
2 teaspoons shortening
1. In a mixer bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and salt; beat on low until blended. Add flour and beat until combined. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for one hour.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment. Beat the egg white and water with a fork in a small bowl; set aside. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the dough balls in the egg-white mixture and then in the chopped cashews. (For maximum cashew coverage and adhesion, I found that it helps to give the cashew-covered dough balls a gentle squeeze in your hand to press the nuts slightly into the dough.) Place the cookies on the baking sheets and make an indention in each cookie with your thumb. Bake cookies until the edges are set, about 12–13 minutes. (You may need to remake the indentations while the cookies are still warm.)
3. In a small saucepan, heat the caramels and heavy cream over low heat. Stir until the caramel melts and then remove from the heat. Spoon the warm caramel filling into the indentations. Allow to cool completely.
4. Heat the white chocolate and shortening in a bowl in the microwave until the chocolate melts. Drizzle over cookies and refrigerate until set.
Yields: About 4 dozen
Time: 3.5 hours (but that includes 1 hour chilling time and at least 30 minutes cooling time)
Leftover potential: Good; they freeze well.