I've been a bit puzzled by the LA Times food section lately. "Breakfast" pizza with a topping that includes sour cream, eggs, sausage, and two kinds of cheese? No, thank you very much. A vegetable soup recipe that requires almost three hours of preparation? And in an article about the "pure joy" of clear soups, no less. I'm intrigued, but three hours? Really? Mme E. Sainte-Ange's creepy-looking Poularde a L'Ivoire takes less time than that (but admittedly not by much). And I've already mentioned the choice of Paula Wolfert recipes that drove me nuts.
It was a welcome relief, then, to find cookie nirvana in one of the more humble recipes to be printed in those pages in recent weeks. And from an unlikely source, at least as far as this snob is concerned. Harris Ranch, an inn and restaurant owned by California's "largest cattle feeder, fed beef processor and beef marketer" (oh yes), makes these delicious little cookies that are whipped up in less time than it takes to run a load of laundry (I know, I checked). At least in an American washing machine.
And what's even better is they're made with no butter or oil or shortening, and with no flour. They're crackly on top and chewy inside and nubby all around from the pecan bits. The pinch of salt is key - it draws out the fudgy, caramel tones in the sugar and the buttery flavor from the nuts. These drops really taste like bites of pecan pie - good pecan pie (hrmph). A nibble on these after our dinner at Suenos on Valentine's day was better than anything we could have ordered (and waited an inordinate amount of time for. And, by the way, I tried, I really did. But I still don't like Mexican food. Sigh).
I only had half the amount of pecans needed, so with a bit of trepidation, I halved the entire recipe. It worked beautifully. You briefly mix the brown sugar (it doesn't specify whether or not to pack the sugar, which bugged me, but I half-packed it, half left it loose and this seemed to work just fine), salt, vanilla and pecan pieces together, then drizzle in the egg whites (it doesn't seem like a lot of liquid, but just wait). You beat this together for 5 minutes. It will go from being lumpy and unwieldy to a gooey batter, which eventually thickens slightly.
I dolloped out portions onto my Silpat and baked the cookies until they were barely brown around the edges. The cookies turn a creamy buff color and scent of toasty sugar and nuts fills the air. Freshly baked, the cookies have a nice snap to them. Kept a day, they become softer and supremely chewy. A day beyond that? I don't know - they were gone by then. These pecan drops are cookies for the ages.
Harris Ranch's Pecan Drops
Makes 3 dozen cookies
2 1/2 cups brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 pounds coarsely chopped pecan pieces
1/2 cup egg whites (3 to 4 large egg whites)
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the brown sugar, salt, vanilla and pecan pieces. Beat on low speed to incorporate the ingredients, then drizzle in the egg whites. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat for 4 to 5 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
2. Drop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto a greased baking sheet. Press each ball of dough with the back of a spoon to form a cookie 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick.
3. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and immediately remove the cookies from the baking sheet to a cooling rack. The cookies will be soft but will firm up as they cool.