Sometimes you have to listen hard to hear the universe whispering, and other times it pokes you so persistently you want to tell it to calm down already, you got the message.
Christmas cookies aren’t normally in my December lineup – holiday sweets are everywhere already, and Santa doesn’t have time to bake, for Pete’s sake – but driving in my car Friday I had a sudden memory of my favorite cookie: a melt-in-your-mouth cloud of powdered sugar, hiding a tender, buttery shortbread nugget with the fine crunch of nuts. In California I’ve always known these as Mexican wedding cookies, but I’ve also heard them called Italian wedding cookies, Russian tea cakes or snowballs.
Saturday morning I woke up to an email from my friend Jojo in Munich, with a picture attached: crescent-shaped holiday cookies, covered with powdered sugar. A Bavarian Christmas tradition, Vanillekipferl are made with finely chopped almonds instead of the pecans used in Mexican wedding cookies. Some Vanillekipferl recipes include egg, but I love the crumbly soft texture of Mexican wedding cookies, which only have butter, flour and powdered sugar. I smiled and took out butter to soften.
I hadn’t made the cookies in years, so I tried a few versions to compare, testing out almonds, pecans and walnuts. It’s hard to go wrong with butter and powdered sugar. I found it impossible to pick a favorite.
Over the weekend I read through The Pollan Family Table – a cookbook released this fall featuring fresh, uncomplicated family food – which in an unusual move last week I’d agreed to review here. I’m a sucker for healthful home cooking, and cooking for big families is my jam. It’s also the Pollan family, which includes food luminary Michael Pollan, actor Tracy Pollan, two more sisters and their mom, former New York magazine writer Corky Pollan. A family of food lovers and writers? I couldn’t say no.
When I got to the desserts chapter Monday morning, I had to laugh when I flipped to “Isaac’s Mexican wedding cookies”: a take by Michael Pollan’s son on the traditional recipe, but with the powdered sugar coating spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.
It seems a bit unfair to single out a dessert to represent the Pollan family collection, when the book in general is health-conscious in a relaxed, real-food kind of way. But once I tried the subtle tingle of the spiced cookie, festive and unexpected, I knew it was the recipe I had to share with you here.
This is a fast and easy cookie, just butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, nuts and flour.
After a weekend of wedding cookie testing, I could only stomach a half recipe Monday. Small quantities get stuck in the beaters of a mixer, so here it worked just as well to cream the butter and sugar by hand. I also figured a little arm workout couldn’t hurt after my weekend of cookie tasting.
Add ground nuts and mix in well. If you’re using an electric mixer it’s best to add nuts last by hand.
Once I incorporated the flour, the fork didn’t work as well for mixing. So I switched to a spoon, which is better for pressing the dough together.
A few beats with a little pressure, and the dough was ready to go. Some recipes recommend refrigerating first, which for some cookies is a necessary step. But I’ve found refrigeration unnecessary with these cookies, unless your ambient room temperature is warm enough to make the dough inconveniently sticky.
These are crumbly cookies, so it’s best to keep them bite-sized. The dough is firm and not very sticky, so it’s easy to form chubby disks (or a gently flattened ball) about 1 inch wide. They don’t spread as they bake, so an inch in between is fine.
When I went to prep the spiced powdered sugar while the cookies were baking, I realized I only had whole cardamom, not ground. So I enlisted a bowl and the wooden handle of my citrus reamer as a makeshift mortar and pestle. Inside the papery green cardamom pod are tiny black seeds.
Fresh ground cardamom smells amazing, spicy-sweet like chai. And yes, this cardamom is from Fairway, and I haven’t lived in New York City since before 9/11. But I’m here to tell the spice police that the whole cardamom pods are just fine, and the seeds when ground still seem fresh and extremely aromatic.
Cinnamon and nutmeg join the cardamom, along with powdered sugar. Cinnamon is sometimes found in the traditional Mexican cookie, but it’s the cardamom here that really gets me.
These cookies look almost the same after baking as they did before. For the softest texture, I like to cook them just until they’re set – by the time they brown at all, they are overbaked. They’ll still taste great, but the cookie will be firmer.
You can break one open to check doneness – a fully baked cookie will have crumbs without dense doughiness inside. With no egg in the dough, you don’t have to worry about any health risks with underbaking.
While the cookies are still warm (they only take a few minutes to cool enough), take a few at a time and gently turn them in the spiced powdered sugar.
Residual steam will melt some of the sugar into the cookie. When the cookies are fully cooled, you can run them through the powdered sugar one more time for a more perfect-looking finish. The second coating is strictly cosmetic; the thicker first coating already provides the melt-in-your-mouth sensation.
The cookies don’t take on much more sugar the second time around – just enough to cover any steam-moistened spots from the first time.
Christmas cookies are now on my December calendar for good. Thanks to the universe – via the voice in my head, and Jojo, and Isaac Pollan – for bringing my favorite cookie back to me, in a new favorite way. What took you so long?
* * *
I have a copy of The Pollan Family Table to give away to one of you hardworking elves out there! You will love it – it’s a very usable, clean format with bright photography, in the style of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, and the unfussy recipes are designed for busy family cooks.
Leave a comment here to enter, and let me know your favorite holiday (or non-holiday) cookie. I’ll pick a winner Sunday night, December 21.
I’m excited to have some new inspiration for family cooking – my creativity is sucked dry this time of year. I hope to try out some ideas during my holidays in Ohio so I can share back here.
In the meantime, here are some of my holiday-season standbys:
- Gingerbread cake [post] [printable]
- 90-minute cinnamon rolls [post] [printable]
- Egg, cheese and sausage strata (breakfast casserole) [post] [printable]
- Roasted cauliflower with parmesan and olives [post] [printable]
- Roasted potatoes with garlic and lemon [post] [printable]
- Shredded kale and brussels sprout salad [post] [printable]
- Green beans with feta and balsamic vinegar [post] [printable]
- Creamy chicken and rice soup [post] [printable]
Spiced Mexican Wedding Cookies
This buttery nugget, cushioned in a melt-in-your-mouth layer of powdered sugar, is a favorite around the world, also known by the names Italian wedding cookie, Russian tea cake or snowball. This sweetly spiced version is adapted from The Pollan Family Table.
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened at room temperature
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (omit if using salted butter)
- 1 cup finely chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts and almonds are all great)
Powdered sugar coating
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Put softened butter and 1/2 cup powdered sugar in a mixing bowl. Beat until light and fluffy, mixing in vanilla and salt. Add flour in batches, mixing well. Stir in the nuts by hand.
- Form spoonfuls of dough into a small ball and flatten slightly (use enough dough to form a chubby disk that is about 1 inch across when flattened). Place on ungreased baking sheet about 1 inch apart (the cookies do not spread much as they bake).
- Bake until the cookies are set but not at all browned, 12-14 minutes. The cookies will be more tender if they are not overbaked. You can break one open to check doneness – a fully baked cookie will have crumbs without dense doughiness inside. With no egg in the dough, you don’t have to worry about any health risks with underbaking.
- While the cookies bake, mix in a small bowl 1 cup of powdered sugar with the cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.
- While the cookies are still warm (they only take a few minutes to cool enough), take a few at a time and gently turn them in the spiced powdered sugar.
- For a more perfect-looking finish, you can run them through the powdered sugar one more time when the cookies are fully cooled.
Makes about 4 dozen cookies.
- You can really use any type of nut you like here; just make sure they are chopped finely, or the dough may not hold together as well.
- If your ambient room temperature is warm enough that the dough is inconveniently sticky to handle, refrigerate it for 20 minutes (or more) for easier handling. Make sure the dough is covered in the refrigerator so it doesn’t dry out.
Here’s the link to a printable version.
My boys’ school just had their annual holiday cookie exchange and chocolate crinkle cookies seemed to be the most popular!
hi tamara – chocolate crinkle are so pretty too! thanks for sharing.
My holiday cookie go-to is Heidi Swanson’s Sparkling Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookie: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/sparkling-ginger-chip-cookies-recipe.html. I decrease the chocolate a bit to 4 oz. and double the fresh ginger to 3 Tbsp. I often double (or triple) the recipe, roll the raw cookie spheres in large-grain sugar, then freeze them to bake off as needed: delicious, pretty, and convenient! 🙂
hi daphne – i must try those! thanks for the awesome recommendation.
Chewy ginger cookies with molasses! They actually have a really good one at Starbucks around the holidays. Less temptation than a full batch of cookies sitting around if you are a single person.
hi rae – i love soft ginger cookies with molasses too! the classic taste of the holidays. =) and i hear you on quantity – there’s only so much temptation you want to keep around the house!
Love the miniature pecan tarts at Christmas. They can be a hassle but they are so delicious.
Hope you and your family have a lovely holiday. Thanks for the new take on Mexican Wedding Cookies.
yes lee – pecan tarts any size, any time! me too please.
Mexican wedding cookies are my favorite, hands down. Can’t wait to try the spiced version.
hi linda – yay, another mexican wedding cookie lover! hope you like the bit of spice. =)
Thanks for the spice addition to one of my favorite cookies! Another great and easy holiday (or anytime) cookie with some spice is:
The cayenne (I use a bit less than the recipe calls for) gives the chocolate a fun kick to it!
PS – I bake a batch of cookies each weekend from Thanksgiving to Christmas. I freeze at least half the batch, gift some and eat some. Then we have an assortment of cookies to share on Christmas.
hi jan – the mexican hot chocolate cookie sounds amazing! and i am so impressed with your advance planning/freezing. thanks for sharing the great ideas!
the guilty pleasure of a peanut butter blossom while the hershey’s kiss is still slightly warm and soft from the oven. a family friend served then every christmas eve and now we do too!
hi susan – oh, you made me so hungry with that peanut butter-melting kiss image…thanks for sharing!
My favorite cookie around Christmas is a snickerdoodle or a plain un-frosted sugar cookie. I like just about any cookie though. Before Thanksgiving I sent my husband to the store to get powdered sugar, he brought home 4 lbs! I’ve been trying to figure out what to make to use up some of it and now, I’ve found the perfect recipe. Thanks for sharing!
haha lyndy, hope you succeeded in making a dent in that powdered sugar! thanks for sharing back here.
I love these cookies! Thanks for adding another item to the baking list. : )
We make a pork loin with bacon and cherries last year with your roasted potatoes with garlic and lemon and a salad and it was so good that we are going to do it again this year. Here’s the link http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/bacon-wrapped-pork-loin-cherries
Peanut butter blossoms are always a hit at our house (we use Dove dark chocolate squares instead of kisses) but this year we tried a red velvet blossom with a Dove peppermint bark dark chocolate promise…delicious! Here’s the link : http://www.cuisinerecipes.com/2011/08/18/red-velvet-blossoms/
brooke – you are too great for sharing these ideas! thank you, yum!!
a really good gingersnap, but I think I’ll try these, too.
hi sarah – i love gingersnaps too! pretty much ginger anything. =)
I love the anise-flavored cutout cookies we used to get at a bakery where I grew up (Rochester, NY). I’ve never tried to make them at home, though–for a while my mom would ship them to me and I’d frost them at home. Yum.
hi torie – i’ve never had anise cutout cookies! only anise biscotti, which are very good – very italian. love the idea, thanks for sharing!
Raspberry lemon thumbprints, soft molasses cookies and double chocolate peppermint cookies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
hi janet – yum, i need to try your faves! thanks for sharing!
Hungarian Cream Cheese cookies – kieflies (SP????) Too tired to look it up – lol
hi gail – oooh, those sound so good. thanks for sharing!
My favourite is shortbread which I make from our family recipe. So simple and really delicious.
hi anne – i think shortbread was my first love. the best!!
Love all the comments! Rae, that ginger cookie sounds awesome. Lyndy, 4 pounds of powdered sugar sounds just right to me. 😉 Brooke, can I join your family for dinner? That pork loin sounds fantastic. I love all holiday cookies especially if they are warm and come with a cold glass of milk. Thanks for another great year CG!
Come on over BK! Would love to have ALL of you visit in Boulder. Merry Christmas and safe travels. Hugs.
My favorite is the Russian Tea Cake – the cookie you featured in your post. My mother-in-law called them nut cakes. My grandmother made them every year for Christmas, and then my grandfather baked them every year as he aged into his late eighties. This same grandmother was born and raised in German Village (Columbus, Ohio) and we always had the traditional German cookies. We especially liked springerles because they were hard as a rock and had to be dunked into your milk or coffee. We also liked peppernuts.
hi becky – love the memories, thanks so much for sharing! german village is still such a charming place.
For a long time, I never knew these cookies were called Mexican wedding cookies… I only knew them as our college friend Joanna’s grandmother’s Christmas cookies. I haven’t made them in awhile, but had been planning on making them this year with my 4 year old… I thought she would have an especially good time rolling the cookies in powdered sugar. Now, I think I might have to try this spiced version!
hi lily – yes, joanna’s another fan! =) good memories! xoxo
Those peppermint flavored candy canes……..apiece of white cookie dough and a piece of pink cookie dough – braid them together and bend over the top to look like a candy cane then bake.
hi carol l – such a cute idea! thanks for sharing back.
Carol at Wild Goose Tea
Normally I don’t push my website. BUT a couple of weeks ago I posted a recipe for this and I wrote a little Xmas fairy tale story to go with it. You might enjoy it. It’s a great cookie. Sounds like a keen cookbook too.
hi carol – thanks so much for sharing back! we are on the same cookie wavelength. =)
Chocolate chip is still a favorite warm from the oven
hi christinaw – amen to that!
Starlight mint surprise cookies are my favorite.
hi erika p – i had to look those up…yum! thanks for the tip! =)
Just discovered your blog while researching Chinese sponge cake recipes. 😉 My favorite holiday cookie is definitely the good ol’ chocolate chip!
hi jeanne – so glad you found me. can’t go wrong with chocolate chip, also one of my enduring favorites! =)
These look amazing!
My favourite holiday cookie is a classic shortbread. I learned the recipe from my grandma.
hi nicole – i adore shortbread! can’t go wrong with butter and sugar. =)
My mother called these cookies Snowballs, and they melted in your mouth! Love your variation on an old favorite–
Many thanks for your blog–full of great, practical recipes and tips!
hi susan – yes snowballs, such a cute name for a great cookie. thanks for commenting!