- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

If it weren’t for one secret I’m going to reveal to you now, I might have been a baker instead of a chef. Why didn’t I? Because I’m allergic to uncooked flour!

This isn’t a life-threatening allergy, and I have no problem whatsoever with finished, ready-to-eat baked goods. It doesn’t stop me from making pizza dough, or from keeping my pastry chefs, including Sherry Yard at Spago, company. But put a big bowl of flour in front of me and ask me to start mixing it with other ingredients and my eyes soon turn red and watery, my nose gets stuffy, and I start to sneeze.

It’s a shame, because I love to bake, and at no time of year more than now, in the thick of the holiday season. This is the perfect time to start baking special treats you plan to serve or give to family and friends as Christmas and the new year approach.

The great thing about baking such seasonal treats is that most of them are full of butter, sugar and other rich and sweet things that help them keep well. So you can do much of the work well ahead of the holiday rush, leaving your kitchen free for roasts and other items that demand last-minute cooking. For me, it has the added advantage that I can work in small, quick batches, so that flour allergy never has much of a chance to take hold.

One of my favorite holiday treats is an old Austrian cookie my mother used to make for my sisters, my brother, and me: Kipferl, literally “little crescents,” prepared with a dough of flour, butter, ground nuts and powdered sugar. The fine consistency of the ingredients, and the richness of the butter and nuts, results in cookies so tender that they literally melt in your mouth. And the utter simplicity of the recipe makes it possible to turn out a generous batch in just a few minutes.

You can vary the dough in so many ways. My version features hazelnuts, for example; but almonds, walnuts or pecans are equally delicious. Vanilla is a traditional flavoring, applied here in the powdered sugar that you sift over the cookies when they’re hot from the oven. I’ve seen and tasted other recipes, however, that include vanilla in the dough, or that add grated lemon zest or a splash of rum, or substitute ground cinnamon or a pinch of grated nutmeg.

If you bake the cookies in advance, as I recommend, store them in airtight containers in single layers separated by waxed paper. That way, they’ll keep for several weeks, ready to add to a holiday cookie plate or hand to someone as a gift.

And that’s nothing to sneeze at!

Vanilla Kipferl

Makes about 3 dozen

1 cup (250 ml) shelled hazelnuts, toasted

2 1/2 cups (580 ml) all-purpose flour

2 cups (500 ml) powdered sugar

9 ounces (280 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces

3 whole vanilla beans, cut crosswise into 1-inch (2.5-cm) pieces

In a dry saute pan over low heat, toast the hazelnuts, stirring continuously, until they start to turn golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Fold the warm nuts inside a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to remove their skins. Transfer the nuts to a bowl to cool, shaking the skins from the towel into the sink or trash. When the nuts have cooled, put them in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the machine until they are finely ground.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the ground hazelnuts, flour and 1-1/2 cups (375 ml) of the powdered sugar. Add the butter and, using a handheld mixer at medium speed, beat until thoroughly combined to form a soft, smooth dough. Cover the bowl and leave the dough to rest at cool room temperature for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a log shape about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide and 12 inches (30 cm) long. With a small, sharp knife, cut the log crosswise into 1/3-inch (9-mm) slices. As you cut each slice, place it between your palms and gently roll it back and forth to form a little rope about 3 inches (7.5 cm) long, thicker in the middle and tapering to a point at each end; curve it into a crescent moon shape and place it on the lined baking sheet.

Bake the cookies in the preheated oven until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the vanilla beans and remaining powdered sugar in the clean bowl of a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade. Process until the beans are chopped and blended with the sugar. Place a fine-meshed strainer over a mixing bowl and sift the vanilla-sugar mixture into the bowl, discarding the residue in the strainer.

As soon as the cookies are done baking, sift the vanilla sugar over them and leave them to cool to room temperature before serving or storing.

• (Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays and Wednesdays on the Food Network. Also, chef Wolfgang Puck’s latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, is now available in bookstores. Write Wolfgang Puck in care of Tribune Media Services Inc., 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY. 14207.)

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