It’s easy to describe the ideal Christmas cookie: kid-simple to make, rich but not really sweet, a good keeper but so buttery-crunchy you want to eat the whole batch before they cool.
Deciding on a name for this perfection is apparently a little trickier.
Is it a snowball or a butterball? A sand tart or a sandy? A pecan ball or an almond melt-away? My de facto mother-in-law, who is second-generation Polish, says they’re Mexican wedding cakes. But when I was growing up, in a Mexican neighborhood in Arizona, I knew them as Russian tea cakes.
Everyone agrees on the basic recipe for these powdery white confections -- always butter, powdered sugar, flour and very finely chopped nuts -- and on the shape -- round and slightly flat. But the definitive title for that recipe is still being drafted.
Nick Malgieri, a cookbook author and history-obsessed baking teacher in New York, admitted to being puzzled about the back story. Eastern Europe was his guess on the homeland of what he calls a pecan ball, since Viennese almond crescents are very similar cookies, with a low-sugar, high-nut ratio for melting texture and taste.
Noting that the cookies do have a Spanish name, polvorones, Malgieri speculated that they migrated to Mexico with European nuns. “Convents were places where they did a lot of baking in Mexico,” he said. “These may be a convent sweet that went public.”
It’s a plausible theory, and it explains why I’ve found so many recipes for the cookies made with pecans, which are so common in Mexico, and flavored with either vanilla (also Mexican) or aniseed or cinnamon, which are the designated spices in other cookies below the border.
Still, I came across them in exactly one of my many Mexican cookbooks, and then only as wedding “cookies” rather than cakes. Marge Poore, in “1,000 Mexican Recipes” (Hungry Minds, 2001), says there are several versions of polvorones in different parts of Mexico that are served at weddings and on special occasions. The name, she writes, comes from the word for dust, “because of the light, flaky texture and coating of sugar.”
Being partial to the Russian roots, I contacted Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who is the leading authority on Russian cuisine. Her response: “I just took a quick tour of my Russian-language cookbooks, including some old ones, and didn’t find anything that resembles the tea cakes.
“Just about all of the nut cookies they make are rolled and then sprinkled with nuts, usually almonds,” she said. “Even if the nuts are mixed in, the dough tends to be rolled out and then cut. My best guess is that the cookies are called ‘Russian’ in the U.S. by association with tea. The image of a hissing samovar and tea cookies is, in fact, very Russian, so perhaps that’s how they got their name.”
By then I was ready to abandon the background check and start baking. I had not made Russian tea cakes since leaving home in the last century, so I started by comparing the dozens of recipes in all my cookbooks. Aside from cooking times and sugar measurements, they varied surprisingly little, although I did come across a few versions that called for adding liquids and maple syrup and chilling the dough and generally defeating the purpose of this high-yield, minimal-effort cookie.
I also did what any think-globally cook does today: hit the Google button on my browser. After turning up 964 references to Mexican and 1,030 to Russian, I gave up and called my consort’s mother for the Mexican wedding cake recipe she has been using for nearly 50 years.
Talk about sweet and easy: The most tedious part was chopping the nuts (she uses walnuts; I’m an urban snob who couldn’t resist pine nuts). And I did think they could use just a bit of salt to separate the creamy overlap of the nuts and the butter. Otherwise, they were a five-step breeze: cream butter and sugar, add flour and nuts, roll into fat balls, bake and coat in powdered sugar.
Not willing to leave great enough alone, I tried substituting grated lime zest for her vanilla and sliced, toasted, crushed almonds for the nuts. A few dashes of angostura bitters acted the way they do in a good rum punch, accentuating the citrus flavor and countering the direct sweetness. (Orange zest without the bitters is apparently a more common flavoring in Mexican/Russian snowballs.)
Finally, knowing that chocolate is the deal-sealing equivalent of 0% financing in the cookie world, I mixed some really good cocoa powder into a third batch. (The way this cookie dissolves in your mouth is key to its bliss quotient, and chunks of chocolate would have interrupted the meltdown.) Since the ratio of dry to buttery ingredients is so important, I compensated for the cocoa by cutting back on the flour and adding more pecans.
By then I had figured out it was easiest to get the nuts really fine not by slaving with a knife but by putting them in a big Baggie and running a rolling pin over them, so that they were crushed but not pulverized into an oily butter.
All three variations yielded perfect cookies that soaked up all the powdered sugar I could sift onto them. I was actually beginning to think the name didn’t really matter when a friend who grew up in the Bay Area walked into the cloud of white in the kitchen and said excitedly: “Russian tea cakes!” Then she added, hesitantly, “Or do you call them Mexican wedding cakes?”
The answer seems to be: Don’t ask, just roll.
Classic Mexican wedding cakes
Total time: 30 minutes, plus 30 minutes chilling
Servings: About 36
Note: To toast nuts, spread them on a baking sheet and toast at 350 degrees until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Use pecans, walnuts, peeled hazelnuts, almonds or a combination. The cookies also are good with pine nuts, but they do not need toasting.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, cut into chunks
3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted, plus 1 to 1 1/2 cups for dusting
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour, sifted
1 cup very finely chopped toasted nuts
1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Combine the butter, 3/4 cup powdered sugar, salt and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until creamy. Beat in the flour and nuts. Chill the dough 30 to 60 minutes.
3. Shape the dough into balls about 1 inch across (use a 1-inch scoop, if you have one, to make the balls consistent in size). Arrange them on ungreased baking sheets about one-half inch apart. Bake on the center rack of the oven until the cookies are set on top and deep golden on bottom, 18 to 20 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets halfway through baking.
4. Transfer the cookies to a rack and immediately dust heavily with powdered sugar. Cool completely, then turn out into a large bowl and thickly dust with the remaining powdered sugar, coating all sides. Store airtight.
Each cookie: 102 calories; 17 mg. sodium; 14 mg. cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.36 gram fiber.
Almond-lime wedding cakes: Omit the vanilla and add the grated zest of 2 large limes and a few dashes of bitters while creaming the butter. Use sliced almonds, lightly toasted and finely crushed, for the nuts. Proceed as directed.
Cocoa wedding cakes: Place 3 tablespoons of top-quality Dutch-process cocoa powder in the bowl before creaming the butter and powdered sugar. Increase the vanilla to 1 1/2 teaspoons. Cut the flour by 2 tablespoons. Increase the finely chopped nuts to 1 1/4 cups. Proceed as directed.