I'll be the first to admit that this is not the prettiest cookie in the world. But don't let that stop you. Once you've had a bite of buttery, salty, flaky Ritz cracker, coupled with sweet dates and walnuts, baked together in one crispy yet gooey treat, aesthetics will be the last thing on your mind. The first will be, "How fast can I eat another one?"
These cookies, for me, offer a mixed message of low-brow and genteel. One the one hand, the recipe calls for a boxed cracker — none other than the ubiquitous buttery Ritz cracker from the snack aisle. On the other hand, this cookie is inextricably bound up with memories of my great-grandmother, who snipped it from the pages of a magazine in 1973. She made this cookie her own, baking thousands of them over the years I knew her, bringing them to nearly every family graduation party or summer cookout. Today my mother and grandmother still bake them by the hundreds for family events, and
the crispy, flaky saltiness and chewy sweetness are still associated with bustling family chatter.
For those of you who don't have such sentimental memories and associations, and to whom this may look like a strange mix of ingredients, I just say: Trust me. If you love salt and sweet together, this is a dreadfully addictive treat. If you do make them and don't want to eat the whole batch by yourself, plan a party. These are easy to whip up, and they keep beautifully. Stash two dozen in the freezer for last-minute get-togethers (they stay fresh for a month or more) and put out platters at parties.
If you're still dubious, let me tell you that this is the kind of cookie that holds teethmarks. You bite into it, and the rich, gooey topping of dates, walnuts, and sweetened condensed milk (cooked down into a jammy, milky date paste) sticks at first to your teeth, and then there's the buttery snap of the cracker. I add a touch of cinnamon to the sweet glaze that holds it all together, too, so there is an aroma of spices and the lingering taste of walnuts after you're done. The first touch of sweet and final tang of salt will leave you reaching for another. Like I said, addictive. Horribly so.
Ritz cracker cookies are humble and homely, but always a hit. And aren't those always the best sort of treats?
Ritz Cracker Cookies
Makes 36 to 48 cookies, depending on amount of topping used per cracker
(14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 to 1/2 pound
Ritz crackers (1 to 2 sleeves of crackers)
Heat the oven to 350°F and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the walnuts in the bowl of a small food processor or chopper and blitz them for about 15 seconds, or until ground until small pieces — not into dust or a paste. Add the dates, 1/4 cup at a time, and continue blending until the mixture is finely chopped. (See photo above for reference.)
(Note: You can do this without a food processor, but it will be more time-consuming. Chop the dates by hand until they are very fine, pieces no more than 1/8-inch to a side. Finely chop the walnut as well.)
Place the chopped walnuts and dates into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and pour the sweetened condensed over them. Stir thoroughly, then turn the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring frequently to prevent the mixture from scorching. Heat until it comes to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes or until the mixture darkens slightly and pulls away from the sides of the pan. (Refer to photo above; it will no longer be liquid. It will be a thick, gooey, sticky mixture.)
Turn off the heat. Use a small spatula or spoon to spread the mixture on the crackers. Personal taste should dictate how much you spread on each cracker. My grandmother places just a dab on each cracker; my mother and I use a heaping mound. Up to you! It won't affect the baking time.
When the crackers are covered, bake for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the crackers are just slightly more golden brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and place the baking sheet on a cooling rack. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet.
To make the glaze, place the 1/2 cup powdered sugar in a large glass measuring cup. Whisk in the cinnamon. Add the milk a little at a time, whisking vigorously. Whisk in the vanilla, and continue whisking until no lumps remain.
Drizzle this glaze over the cooled cookies, and let them stand for another few minutes to let the glaze firm up.
These keep very well in a covered container. They also can be frozen in a well-sealed container for up to a month. For this reason they are one of my family's favorite make-ahead party sweets.
(Images: Faith Durand)