The Balkans’ best kept cookie secret

Ok, I’ll just tell you–it’s orasnice (pronounced: oh-raz-neet-sa)! This chewy, crunchy, not-too-sweet, crescent shaped walnut wonder consists of only three ingredients, egg whites, sugar, and walnuts, and can be found all over the Balkan region… if you’re looking for it.

I first ran into this cookie with a new backpacker friend at an unimposing locals restaurant in Skopje, Macedonia, where it was offered as dessert along with a large macaron-type thing that I never saw again. While the steroidal macaron was pretty yummy, that first bite of orasnice sent me on a near-obsessive hunt to figure out what it was and how I could make it.

Bingo!

Google searches for “U-shaped walnut cookie” turned up zilch, but I finally ran into orasnice again about a month later in Sarajevo, where I figured out its name, and a few weeks later a Bosnian friend helped me track down a good recipe.

Here is where I wanted to give you a really good, detailed history of the cookie, but there is surprisingly little online information–a few recipes and video tutorials with varying degrees of successful translation, a couple of brief mentions on regional cuisine wikipedias, and that’s really it. However, my shaky knowledge of regional history did give me a hunch about possible origins, and I found some interesting similarities to traditional cookies in Turkey, Austria, and Italy.

The Ottoman Empire, which we associate with modern-day Turkey, occupied most of the Balkans, for varying lengths of time from the 13th century all the way up to the early 20th century AD. Accordingly, the cuisine of the Balkans has Turkish influence peppered throughout, which led me to acibadem kurabiyesi, a traditional Turkish cookie composed of only egg whites, nuts (almonds), and sugar. Surely at least a cousin to orasnice, no?

The Balkans’ other big influencer, the Austro-Hungarians (a.k.a. the Holy Roman Empire, a.k.a. the Hapsburg Monarchy, a.k.a. the Austrian Empire, a.k.a. the Austro-Hungarian Empire) also occupied much of the region for varying lengths of time between the 16th and 20th century AD. And of course, Austria has its own contender to the orasnice thrown with a crescent shaped almond-based cookie, vanillekipferl, which was originally made with walnuts instead of almonds according to the linked page. Like its more famous Austrian sibling the croissant, the crescent shape of the vanillekipferl supposedly symbolizes the Hungarian defeat of Turkish forces in the 17th century.

Although not always as obvious as the Ottomans or Austrians, one can’t ignore Italy’s influence on the Balkans (especially along the Adriatic coast), dating back to the Roman occupation of the region in the 2nd century BC. Famous meringue-based cookies from Itally include the hazelnut brutti ma buoni and almond amaretti; though, neither seem to date back farther than the Renaissance. Nevertheless, Italy still has a small territory called Trieste on the border of Slovenia, and also dabbled in occupying Albania in the 1920s-1940s (the very harrowing mountain road into Theth was built by the Italians).

I can’t say definitively if any of these relate to our beloved orasnice, but the cookie certainly fits within a rich European confectionary tradition.

Note: I also happened upon a recipe with near-identical ingredients and preparation by an author of Ukrainian descent.

Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade

Orasnice is as fun to make as it is to eat, with only three ingredients and four basic steps.

I’ve made this recipe twice now using a couple of variations for the walnut flour. The first time I made it, I tried processing my own walnuts, untoasted, but couldn’t get them fine enough without turning into butter–and it doesn’t take long at all for that to happen. I went ahead and used the meal at that consistency and found that the meringue mixture came out almost too gooey and sticky to shape at all.

The second time around, I toasted the walnuts first but still couldn’t get a fine grind, so then I replaced 1/3 of the walnuts with almond flour and was able to get the grind slightly smaller, thus making the rolling process more manageable (though still pretty sticky). The almond meal wasn’t noticeable in taste, but I think it did have an affect on the baked texture.

Surprisingly, I liked the end results of my first try better. The orasnice were just a little chewier and had a slightly richer taste than the second time around. Both were good, but the first one felt more authentic to what I had in Macedonia and Bosnia.

You can also buy walnut meal from Nuts.com if you’re not in the mood for messing with your own (my walnut meal did not come out as fine as the walnut meal pictured there).

The first step to this process is to make a meringue with your egg whites and sugar. To whip your meringue into shape, be sure to start with room temperature egg whites and use a stand mixer with whisk attachment or hand mixer on the highest speed. Once stiff peaks form, you can check to see if it’s ready by taking the bowl off the stand and tipping cautiously until the bowl is completely upside down. If the egg whites don’t move, they’re ready for the sugar.

Place the bowl back on the stand and turn to a little over half speed while you slowly but steadily pour the sugar into the egg whites. Turn back up to full speed, stopping when the mixture looks glossy and not too grainy–just a few seconds.

Take the bowl off the stand again and dump in all the walnut meal/flour, folding it into the meringue with a spatula or flat wooden spoon so as not to flatten out all air bubbles. You do this by running the spatula or spoon down the side of the bowl, along the bottom, and plopping it on top; repeat until evenly incorporated.

Before you start the next step, preheat your oven to 250F, because this is where things get messy! To roll out the orasnice, take a tablespoon of the mixture, plop it in the bowl of chopped walnuts, and use the tablespoon to roll the mixture in the chopped walnuts until well covered. At this point, you can use your hand to roll out into a 5″ log shape–still in the bowl of nuts; DON’T DO THIS ON THE PARCHMENT DEAR GOD–then gently bend into a U shape and place on a baking tray with parchment paper. I prepare two trays ahead of time so I don’t have to stop and wash my hands in the middle of shaping. Bake for 25-30 minutes and let cool completely on tray before attempting to move. Enjoy!

Ready for baking

Orasnice

  • Servings: 2 dozen
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Print


Ingredients

  • 3 egg whites, room temperature
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 10oz walnut meal/flour
  • 10oz chopped walnuts

Directions

  1. In stand mixer or hand mixer, whisk room temperature egg whites on highest speed until stiff.
  2. Reduce speed to half while slowly pouring in sugar. Return to full speed for 5-10 seconds until mixture is glossy and sugar is well incorporated.
  3. Take bowl off stand and fold in walnut meal until well incorporated.
  4. Pre-heat oven to 250F. Using the spoon, roll tablespoon of mixture in chopped walnuts until well covered. Once well covered, use your hand to roll into 5″ log, then gently bend into a U-shape and place on parchment paper-lined tray. Space at least 2″ apart.
  5. Bake for 25-30 minutes and let cool completely on tray before moving.

I left my heart in Sarajevo!

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