Four Fabulous Holiday Dessert Recipes by Virginia Willis | Basic to Brilliant Y'All

Eat | Four Fabulous Holiday Treats

Christmas presents an abundance of food memories – yule logs, boozy eggnog, and contentious fruitcake – but very little is more traditional than baking cookies.

A large chunk of this friendly dessert’s holiday PR is thanks to Old Saint Nick’s late-night snacking habit. Cookies are an unselfish food, meant to be gifted and shared. Cookies are one of the rare foods that are as much about the process of making as it is about the result – the people with whom they are created and shared make them special.

Brimming with family get-togethers, office parties, and local food drives, December is a perfect time to dust off those baking sheets and share in the sweet spirit of giving.

Here are some of my favorite sweet treats for the holidays. Here’s to celebrating old traditions.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Virginia Willis

Brown Butter-Pecan Financiers, Southern Pecan Tassies, Quick and Easy Fudge, Wedding Cookies | Four Holiday Dessert Recipes from Virginia Willis

1. Brown Butter-Pecan Financiers (Makes 32)

According to French food lore, these traditional buttery bites that are also known as financiers originated at a bakery located in a financial district and were shaped like bars to mimic gold bullion. Other versions of the tale insinuate that they are called financiers because they are so rich. I am not certain what the real story is, but they are, in a word, addictive.

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for the molds
  • ¾ cup ground pecans
  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 2½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 8 large egg whites, at room temperature, whisked just until frothy
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Using a pastry brush, butter mini muffin cups or silicone molds with butter. Set aside. In a small heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it stops sputtering and starts to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to lukewarm.

Thoroughly mix the pecans, flour, confectioners’ sugar, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Add the egg whites and whisk until well combined. Set the saucepan over low heat and whisk constantly until the mixture is just warm to the touch. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, leaving behind the dark brown milk solids. Fill the prepared molds about two-thirds full.

Bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool slightly and before inverting onto the rack. Repeat with the remaining batter.

2. Southern Pecan Tassies (Makes 2 dozen)

These petite pies are a holiday staple and keep well in an airtight container for a week or so. To bring out their flavor after they’ve been in storage for a few days, simply pop them in a 350°F oven for a few minutes, and they will taste freshly baked.


  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt


  • 1 large egg
  • ¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ½ cup chopped pecans
  • 2 dozen perfect pecan halves, for decoration

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Set out a nonstick mini muffin tin or grease a standard mini muffin tin.

To make the crust, in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Add the flour and salt and continue to beat on low speed until a dough forms. Divide the dough equally into 24 balls, each about the size of a gumball. Press the balls of dough into the muffin cups, using your thumb to press the dough against the sides to form a shell. Set aside.

To make the filling, combine the egg, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt in a bowl. Sprinkle ½ to 1 teaspoon nuts into each shell. Top with a teaspoon of the egg mixture. Place a pecan half in the center.

Bake for 15 minutes. Then decrease the temperature to 325°F and bake until set, 10 to 15 minutes more. Remove to a rack to cool.

3. Quick and Easy Fudge (Makes 1 (8-inch) Square)

Who doesn’t like fudge? And, better yet, what busy cook doesn’t like a Basic dump-and-stir candy made from essential pantry ingredients, with no candy thermometer required? Sign me up.

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), more for the pan
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 (16-ounce) box confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • ¼ cup whole milk
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Brush an 8-inch square baking dish with butter. Melt the butter with the salt in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the confectioners’ sugar and milk until very smooth. Add the cocoa; stir until combined and remove from the heat. Add the walnuts and vanilla; stir until combined. The fudge will have a very smooth, shiny texture.

Spoon the fudge into the prepared dish. Transfer to the refrigerator until set, at least 2 hours. Or, if you just can’t wait, slip it in the freezer. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and invert the firm block of fudge onto a clean work surface. Using a long utility knife, slice into 1 1/3-inch cubes. Heat the knife in hot water and pat dry before each cut for the smoothest slices. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

4. Wedding Cookies (Makes about 4 dozen)

Mama’s always called these cookies teacakes, but they are also known as Mexican wedding cookies, butternuts, butterballs, and snowballs. I don’t care what you call them, they are good.

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, for rolling

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking liner or parchment paper.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, granulated sugar, and vanilla on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the flour, pecans, and salt, beating on low speed after each addition until well blended. Using a small ice cream scoop, shape the dough into 1-inch balls. Place 1½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake until the bottoms of the cookies are lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. While still warm, roll the cookies in the confectioners’ sugar until evenly coated. Transfer to a wire rack set on top of a rimmed baking sheet to cool completely. Store in a tightly covered container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

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Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc © Photos by Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis has been featured in USA Today, Country Living, and House Beautiful as well as Food52 and She is a contributing editor to Southern Living and her writing has been published in Family Fun, Fine Cooking, and Taste of the South. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, Martha Stewart Living Television, Paula Deen's Best Dishes, and as judge on Thrown Down with Bobby Flay. She is the author of the acclaimed cookbooks Bon Appétit, Y’all! Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking and Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company Virginia has a popular food blog and website and was named by the Chicago Tribune as one of "Seven Food Writers You Need to Know."

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