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Elements: It’s not nuts to love pecans

Pecans are peculiar to Mexico and the United States, and like other members of the hickory family, they are not a nut.

No, it’s a drupe, the botanists insist.

A true nut, so to speak, has both the fruit and seed inside a hard shell, like chestnuts and acorns. Pecans, like hickories and walnuts, grow inside shells surrounded by skins, making them drupes.

In Mexico, pecans are used in mole sauces, pies and cookies such as the classic Mexican wedding cakes, the powdered sugar-dusted meltaway shortbreads that have cousins in many cuisines. In the United States, pecan pie and pecan rolls have long been classics.

Pecans won’t get stale as quickly as some of their cousins. Shelled pecans in tightly sealed bags will keep for about nine months in the refrigerator and for up to two years in the freezer.

Developing drupes: Pecans were widely gathered and used by Native Americans in what is now the Southern United States, but they weren’t commercially cultivated until the 1880s.

Here’s a recipe for Mexican Wedding Cakes from Martha Stewart. You could make similar cookies with walnuts, cashews or pistachios, but the pecans lend a toasty note that is hard to resist.

Rolling them twice in powdered sugar might seem like overkill, but the naked cookies soak up the first coat, making a second pass essential to achieve the classic result. Also, one tablespoon might not seem like enough dough for a cookie, but they puff up.


Mexican Wedding Cakes

For dough:

1 cup pecan halves

1 cup all-purpose flour,

spooned and leveled

¼ cup granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon ground


h teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

For garnish:

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

In a food processor, pulse pecans, flour, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt until mixture resembles coarse meal; add butter and pulse until a dough forms. Shape dough into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic; refrigerate until firm, 30 to 60 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Pinch off and roll dough into balls, each equal to 1 level tablespoon. Space 1½ inches apart on two large baking sheets. Bake, switching sheets from top to bottom halfway through, until cookies are just golden around edges, 20 to 25 minutes.

Cool 5 minutes on sheets; transfer to a rack to cool completely. Place confectioners’ sugar in a bowl. Roll cookies in sugar twice to coat thoroughly, tapping off excess.

On the Web: See how easy these cookies can be at