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By Stephanie Burt
Chef Alex Harrell’s restaurant, Angeline, sits in the French Quarter in New Orleans, a little removed from much of the wild nightlife for which the area is known. Chartres Street is quieter and narrow, with houses and buildings in tones of brick red, yellow, and oyster-shell gray packed in tight and built right up to the street. Plenty of lacy ironwork adorns the outside piazzas and railings, and dark green shutters or black shutters or white shutters on the buildings are still for much more than decoration if a storm blows in. This is a quintessential French Quarter street, the kind of street that can make you think for a minute about moving to the city, even if you’re not used to the humidity. It’s a powerful spell of a spot.
Inside the restaurant, though, Alex is conjuring up another locale through his work. “Angeline is so much designed and informed by my personal experience,” he explains. “So much of that is tied personally to my family,” he says. He left more of a fine dining approach to open a place of his own that still requires the same attention to detail of food and service but provides a more relaxed feel for the guests. “I want this to feel comfortable, for guests to feel at home,” he explains.
His childhood home was just a few miles from the Florida-Georgia line, where he spent summers on his grandparent’s farm. Ma-Maw and Pa-Paw, his paternal grandparents, have influenced his approach to cooking as much as has his time in professional kitchens.
“Anything my grandmother made, I would eat,” he says, “And she was a great cook. One of my chores was collecting pecans for her to use from underneath several trees on the property.” According to Alex, the senior Harrells were much more of a cake family than a pie one, and he remembers an almost Hummingbird-esque cake Ma-Maw made with pecans and crushed pineapple.
But for his grandfather, nothing beat out her super-simple Pecan Sandies. She made them especially for him, and today, Alex makes them for guests of Angeline. That’s right. It’s his family’s Pecan Sandies that are served nightly alongside the seasonal sorbet selection on the dessert menu. Since Angeline doesn’t employ a pastry chef, the baking falls to Alex, which seems only fitting since the cookies are a family recipe -- and Alex is what he terms “an enthusiastic home baker.”
Whether you are on Chartres Street or in Florida or Georgia (or in the kitchen of your condominium), the scent of baking sandies makes it feel like home even before the first bite.
Pecan Sandies Cookies
From Chef Alex Harrell, Angeline, New Orleans, LA
1 c. butter, softened
1 c. vegetable or canola oil
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. salt
2 c. chopped pecans
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