To accompany the chocolate biscotti with me at work today, I took Russian tea cakes (and peanut butter cookies). I don’t have any backstory on the tea cakes except to say that they are part of the traditional Christmas cookie repertoire my mom has always baked for as long as I can remember (at least back when she used to bake every year…). Even the years now when she does not bake very much, she still bakes these because they are just an integral part of Christmas in our household, I guess. That said, they have absolutely no connection to Christmas but have naturally become a part of the line-up. I sometimes wonder (especially now that it is too late to ask her myself) what was in my grandmother’s traditional set of holiday baked goods. I spent so much time with her growing up but don’t have much recollection of the holiday cookies except for gingerbread men (and a few feeble attempts at building gingerbread houses). These kinds of traditions have a way of being passed along while at the same time new traditions are added. For example, I almost always bake all the same cookies my mom made but have added a wide variety of cookies to my must-do holiday baking list.
(The other side story – or complete tangent,if you prefer – is just the words “tea cake” together, which always remind me of the character Tea Cake in the Zora Neale Hurston novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. A book that was difficult to appreciate at the time (required high school reading) but its layers unfolded to me in subsequent years. A good example of the diversity of American literature. My then-best friend, Terra, and I used to laugh about someone being called “Tea Cake”. At some point Tea Cake says, “You got de keys to de kingdom.” That has always stuck in my head. See—absolutely nothing to do with cookies or baking.)
The Russian tea cake (alternately known by the names Mexican wedding cake, Italian butter nut, Southern pecan butterball, snowdrop, Viennese sugar ball or snowball) is a fixture in my holiday baking, but I quite often make them at other times of year because they are simple, small/delicate and can, if the right quality ingredients are used, illustrate perfectly how sometimes simplicity is best. Good quality butter and vanilla make a big difference in a cookie like this. Unfortunately there are not that many choices in terms of butter quality or vanilla here in Oslo (at least not that I have discovered), so I take what I can find and work with it. Some recipes call for very finely ground nuts in the cookies. I usually just use finely chopped nuts (I generally use walnuts or almonds but other recipes call for pecans). Some recipes also instruct the baker to toast the nuts first, but I generally skip this.
RUSSIAN TEA CAKES (or any of those aforementioned names people call them; I happen to like this name)
Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C when ready to bake (dough should chill for an hour or two before baking)
1 cup butter
½ cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup finely chopped nuts (almond, walnut, pecan, whatever you like, more or less)
Mix all ingredients together. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for 1-2 hours.
After chilling, preheat the oven while rolling the dough into 1-inch balls. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets. The baked cookie should still be white, not browned.
While still warm, roll the cookies in powdered sugar.