Portland’s annual snow storm arrived yesterday, turning the city into a holiday postcard, while bringing school and work to a screeching halt. Though some have dubbed our little storms “snowpocalypse” or “snowmageddon,” I much prefer the term “snowcation.” Because that’s what it is. A cozy break from the day-to-day routine. A free pass to procrastinate. Sure, I have emails to answer and deadlines to meet, but on a snow day none of that matters. On a snow day, we play.
But since this is the Northwest not the Northeast, we only got about 2 inches — and it’s not sticking around for long. Today, freezing rain has turned all that powder into crusty puddles of ice, and the sidewalks could double as a skating rink. That means another day off from school, another day making snowballs.
But this time we’re doing it indoors.
In honor of Snowcation 2016, and the classic beauty of the Northwest in winter, we bring you Oregon Snowballs. Think of them as a Northwest spin on Russian Teacakes, which happen to be Wendi’s favorite holiday cookie. What makes this version different? A hefty dose of hazelnuts, which our region is known for, plus the secret ingredient: fir needles.
Now, if you see “fir” and think “Pine-Sol,” you are sorely mistaken. Needles from a true fir are not nearly as resinous. In fact, even rosemary is far stronger. There’s something delicate and almost floral about fir tips, with a scent that evokes a crisp, cool walk in the woods.
If you ask us, there’s nothing more Christmas-y than the scent of evergreens. So why wouldn’t we capture it in a Christmas cookie? And what cookie could be more perfect for the job than one that looks like a snowball?
It actually takes quite a bit of chopped fir needles to impart a noticeable amount of flavor to these cookies. To help move things along without wrecking their delicate, buttery-nutty texture with gobs of needles, I turn to another Northwest classic: Clear Creek Distillery. The expert artisans have created a gorgeous pale-green Douglas Fir brandy that distills the fragrance of our state tree down to a drinkable, truly special spirit. (I know that botanically Doug Firs are quite different from true firs, but their flavor and aroma are similar.)
I boil the liquor until reduced by half to concentrate it and cook off the alcohol. Then I add it to the dough where it adds a delicate, evocative flavor that’s almost more scent than taste. A winter hike, in cookie form.
The brandy isn’t cheap, but I found a work-around if you don’t want to invest in a bottle: Process some fir needles with granulated sugar, and roll the cookies in it before rolling them in powdered sugar. The fir-infused sugar will deliver a hit of fresh evergreen with every bite.
Gift these to a friend, and watch them try to figure out their familiar yet mysterious flavor. Then say fir needles and watch the lightbulb go off.
They’re a holiday classic with a fun twist, and delicious celebration of life in Oregon.
Makes about 4 dozen
The classic Russian Teacake gets a quintessentially Oregon twist with the addition of chopped fir needles and Clear Creek Distillery’s Doug Fir brandy. I happen to have a true fir in my back yard, but if you don’t, look around the neighborhood or go for a walk. If you use Doug Fir needles, keep in mind that they’re more potent. Just don’t use your Christmas tree, unless you know for certain it hasn’t been sprayed. These cookies are a great option for time-crunched bakers. If you have a food processor, the dough comes together in mere minutes. And the cookies keep well, though the fir flavor begins to wane after a couple days.
1/2 cup Clear Creek Distillery Douglas Fir Brandy
1 1/2 cups toasted hazelnuts
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus about 1 cup for rolling
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons very finely minced fresh fir needles
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a small saucepan set over medium-high heat, bring the brandy to a boil. Simmer until reduced by half (1/4 cup). Set aside to cool.
In a food processor (or by hand) finely chop the hazelnuts. Set aside.
In a food processor or stand mixer, process or beat the butter and 1/2 cup powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, reduced brandy and salt and pulse or mix to combine. Add the flour and nuts and mix until fully incorporated.
Shape the dough into 1-inch balls and arrange on the baking sheets (you can place them about 1 inch apart because they don’t spread). Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until just barely beginning to brown.
Allow to cool slightly until warm, then roll in powdered sugar. When completely cool, roll again. Store in an airtight container.
Brandy-free variation: In a food processor, process 1/2 cup granulated sugar with 2 tablespoons chopped fir needles until the needles are reduced to fine particles blended into the sugar. Roll the baked cookies in the sugar while still slightly warm. When completely cool, roll in powdered sugar.