Spending the holidays in Santa Fe inspires a kind of festive spirit like no other I’ve ever known. Perhaps it’s that the place itself is wondrous and mythical, and its beauty so different than any place I’ve lived. It’s just deeply special, a place of treasure and joy. And during the holidays—especially around Christmas – it changes further: candlelit paper bags line the rooftops, and the night air is thick with the smell of burning piñon firewood. If it’s snowing, it’s hard not to get carried away in the moment.
I hadn’t tried a piñon nut until my family and I started visiting Santa Fe about a decade ago; my parents introduced it to my brother and I as one of their very favorite places. It’s an overwhelmingly charming place for someone like me, who loves worn, cluttered, colorful, eclectic spaces like a painter’s studio. I feel at home in those spaces, eager to fold into its story. Maybe that’s why my connection to Santa Fe felt easy and assumed from the first visit.
That, and the place revolves around food.
It has its own distinctive cuisine that reflects the history of the city, layers of different communities that all fell in love with its land and what grew there. Abundant crops of chiles and corn in the area dominate the menu, though it’s another truly unique and local ingredient that holds the strongest tie to me: the piñon nut I mentioned earlier. They are nuts harvested from the pine cones of the piñon tree, and the variety grown in New Mexico are reputed to be the best. They are the only ones I’ve ever had, and I love them. They are crunchier than the pine nuts I use in salads, say, or in pesto, and they have a heady flavor that is all its own: very softly floral, but milder and buttery flavor. Their texture lends them to be chopped while retaining their character, or used whole in salads. My favorite use for them is in cookies, where their flavor sings clearly alongside butter and flour. (And because enjoying it that way means I get to eat a cookie.)
Piñon cookies – ubiquitous in markets around Santa Fe, especially around the holidays alongside the city’s other classic cookie, the bizcochito—are only as flavorful as the nuts held within them. But, let’s be honest, the store-bought cookies I loved while I was visiting are usually made with pine nuts, not piñon, as they are more readily available. Therefore, my memory of piñon cookies are actually a comingling of a simple pine nut cookie with the idea of the piñon nut, which is what I’ve made here now. A former version of myself would have considered this cheating, or worthless when authenticity is held as a pinnacle value. But the version of myself who is writing and cooking here today has found great joy in adaptation and knows that “close enough,” when paired with the right moment to share with people I love, will taste just as good as the real thing.
Gluten-Free Toasted Pine Nut Shortbread
Makes 8 to 10 shortbread fingers or wedges
Cookies can be stored in an airtight container on the counter for up to 3 days, or frozen (also in an airtight container) up to 3 months. They’re my favorite treat to nibble while writing and drinking tea.
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1 cup almond flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) softened butter
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1 / Heat a large heavy skillet (such as cast-iron) over low heat until hot. Add pine nuts; gently toast, stirring often, until pine nuts are golden brown (about 10 minutes). Transfer pine nuts to a plate and set aside in refrigerator to cool quickly (about 10 minutes). In a small bowl, whisk together flours and salt.
2 / While pine nuts cool, make shortbread: In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light. Stir in dry ingredients to form a stiff batter. Chop pine nuts and stir in.
3 / Scrape dough into a fluted tart pan with a removeable bottom (sizes that work: 13 x 4 rectangle; 8-inch round; 9-inch round). Place a piece of waxed paper over surface of dough and press through paper to press into pan. Refrigerate dough until solid (about 1 hour).
4 / Preheat oven to 325°F. Bake shortbread until evenly golden brown (about 40 minutes). Transfer to a wire rack to cool 10 minutes. While warm shortbread block is still in pan, use a thin sharp knife to cut into 1 to 2-inch bars. When shortbread is completely cool, unmold and cut along score lines to cut into bars.