A good reason
And it’s the holidays! Right! A couple of weeks ago, during a reprieve between viruses, my mother, June, and I managed to bake a double batch of Russian Tea Cakes, a cookie that my mother used to make every year when I was a kid, back when she and our family friend Barbara Fretwell would hole up together in the weeks before Christmas and churn out eight or ten kinds of cookies and candies to pack in decorative tins and distribute to lucky friends around town.
Chocolate Rads, Espresso-Walnut Toffee, and Fruit-Nut Balls. There were also cranberry-pistachio biscotti, and chocolate-dipped pecan bars with shortbread crust, and a cookie called an Apricot Crescent, with cream cheese-enriched dough and apricot jam inside. They even made mendiants. Opening one of their tins was like looking inside my mother’s jewelry box, rows and piles of color and shine. Maybe next year, I’ll tell you about their Linzer Cookies, the best Linzer specimen I’ve had. But they’re fiddly, and though Mom and I did manage to make some last week, I didn’t take pictures and instead wound up taking a nap. Russian Tea Cakes are easier, even if you’re short on time, energy, and/or holiday spirit, and they’re something that even a two-year-old could help with, sort of, if she doesn’t eat all the dough first.
I imagine you’ve heard of Russian Tea Cakes. They also go by the name Mexican Wedding Cookies, and probably some other names, too. Sometimes, to be frank, when I run across them out in the world, I don’t think Russian Tea Cakes are all that great. Some taste mostly of sugar, or worse, of flour. This makes me cranky. A Russian Tea Cake should be rich, tender, melting almost instantly when you bite into it. As holiday cookie recipes go, this one is plain, bare-bones: just six ingredients, a mixer, maybe 15 minutes to mix up the dough, maybe 15 minutes to roll the cookies, maybe 10 minutes to roll them in powdered sugar. But the return on investment is impressive: these things are so delicate, so buttery, so nutty, that people get grabby in their presence. They’re nothing new, no, but there’s a good reason why we still make them.
The recipe my mother uses was given to her by someone named Nettie Maxwell, the wife of a physician who was once in practice with my dad, and I have a xerox of it, written in Nettie’s looping old-lady script. While I would like to think that Nettie’s version is unique, there are tons of recipes out there for Russian Tea Cakes, and most are very similar to hers. I don’t think any of us can take credit. Nettie used pecans, so Mom and I do, too; it feels like the Oklahoma thing to do. But you could try any other nut: hazelnuts, walnuts, even macadamias.
Russian Tea Cakes
From my mother, via Nettie Maxwell
My mother’s version doesn’t call for toasting the pecans, but I think the cookies would be best if you toasted them. And it would be easy to do: before chopping them, pop them in a 325°F oven for a few minutes, until they’re fragrant. Allow to cool, and then chop away.
2 sticks (226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (about 50 grams) powdered sugar, sifted, plus more for rolling the cookies
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
¾ cup (about 85 grams) finely chopped pecans, preferably toasted (see above)
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with handheld beaters), combine the butter, ½ cup powdered sugar, and vanilla, and beat until light and fluffy. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, beating just to blend. Add the pecans, and mix just a little more, until the nuts are incorporated. Use your hands to gather the dough into a ball, pressing in any runaway nuts. Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, preheat the oven to 375°F, and line two baking sheets with parchment. Remove the chilled dough from the fridge, and allow it to soften for about 10 minutes before handling it. Pinch off small lumps of dough, roll them into 1-inch balls, and space them evenly on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until they are set but not browning – though, yes, the undersides will brown slightly. Allow to cool for a few minutes. Put some powdered sugar in a pie plate or shallow bowl. While the cookies are still warm, roll them in the sugar, and then set them on a cooling rack. The sugar will only coat them lightly, and they may feel a little sticky. Cool them completely, and then roll them a second time.
Yield: about 40 cookies