Growing up, there were several cookies my mom would always make around the holidays: crispy chocolate-chip laden biscotti, delicately caramelized lace cookies filled with melted chocolate, little cups of gooey nut pastries, and these tiny bombs of buttery walnut cookies I only knew as Butter Balls.
When the gluten thing hit in my early teens, those were all off limits for years. Later, as my mom started experimenting with gluten-free flours by my side, she easily adapted some of her favorites so that I could enjoy them along with my family. To this day, her biscotti come out better than mine, even though she uses my flour blend to make them. Some things just need that extra bit of mom love, I guess.
But the walnut butter balls eluded me. Until now.
What had been hard to capture before was how to get butter, ground walnuts and flour to hold together; without eggs or gluten, crumbling is almost inevitable if your proportions aren’t right. Yet crumbling is also one of the major things this cookie has going for it; you pop one in your mouth, and it explodes with toasty sweetness.
While getting the ratio of gluten-free flour to starch is definitely vital in making sure the cookies keep together, making batch after batch also helped me figure out what technique also leads to feast or famine: grinding the toasted walnuts down to almost a meal (rather than using ground walnuts out of a bag), making sure there’s enough fat to keep them together and deftly holding them while tossing in powdered sugar to bind are all pretty important steps. With gingerly-moving fingers and a bit of calm while rolling and tossing, they come together perfectly; an old-school cookie reminiscent of Italy and Portugal and Mexico and, as I learned the other night as a good friend kept stealing one after the other, in Eastern Europe as well (he’s Romanian, and the smile on his face made the botched batches more than worth it.)
So, cheers to family and feasting, and simple little cookies that mean so very much.
Notes on this recipe:
The majority of Butter Ball recipes I’ve seen say nothing about toasting the walnuts beforehand – my mother’s didn’t, either – but I found buying whole, raw walnuts and toasting them in the oven at 350°F until golden and then grinding them in a food processor made for incredibly fragrant, crunchy bites within the cookie. Just make sure to let them cool completely before folding into the flour, so that they don’t melt the butter when combined together.
I used brown and white rice flour as the bulk flour both with success, and found a small amount of buckwheat helped make them even toastier. But as long as you follow the ratio of 1/2 cup bulk flour (like brown or white rice), 1/4 cup starch and 1/4 cup of another delicious, toasty flour (like buckwheat or quinoa), I’d say you’re good to go. Just avoid really fine flours like millet or any nut flours, since there’s such a high proportion of nuts already and you need everything to pull together.
And while I’m normally a stickler for weighing ingredients rather than measuring, these are such a simple cookie with a “feel the dough” kind of approach, so below are only measurement. This one time….
Gluten-Free Toasted Walnut Butter Ball Cookies
- 1 1/2 cup finely-ground walnuts (toasted = better!)
- 1/2 cup brown rice flour
- 1/4 cup tapioca starch
- 1/4 cup buckwheat flour
- A pinch of xanthan gum (about 1/16th a teaspoon)
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 3 Tbsp light brown or Demerara sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, slightly soft (it’s okay if it’s hard, though, as the heat of your hands will work it in)
- Around 2 cups of powdered sugar, for rolling
Preheat oven to 325°F. You want these to bake nice and low.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment or Silpat. Pour powdered sugar into a small bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, toss the ground walnuts, flours and starch, xanthan gum, baking powder, and sugar until all are evenly dispersed.
Sprinkle in the vanilla extract.
Cut the butter into chunks, and toss it into the flour.
Working quickly, use your fingers to press the butter into the flour mixture, making sure it’s evenly worked in until the dough pulls together. If it seems dry, keep working the butter so that it melts a bit and pulls together appropriately. If the mixture seems really moist or greasy, sprinkle an additional tablespoon of brown rice flour at a time, working in until the dough feels solid but not too buttery or dry.
Roll into small walnut-sized balls and place on cookie sheet. These won’t spread, so feel free to pack them in with only an inch or so between them.
If your place is humid or it’s a warm day, pop them in the fridge for about 30 minutes to harden up a bit.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until they are firm to a gentle touch.
Cool on sheet for about 5 minutes. Gently toss in powdered sugar and place on cooling rack. When all are done, toss again.
Cool completely before storing or serving.
These freeze incredibly well!