Speaking of cookies with international pedigrees, one at least has done more than its share of traveling.
Russian teacakes are a favorite of many American households at the holidays. Alternatively and appropriately known as pecan snowballs, these little mounds of powdered sugar visually evoke winter while tasting of little but butter and nuts. If you’ve somehow never run across them at a holiday party, a word of warning: Do not inhale while eating (all that powdered sugar can be dangerous!) and avoid eating them while wearing black.
In my family, they’re known as Mexican wedding cakes, a recipe that appeared in cookbooks sometime in the 1950s. But food historians say they probably date to medieval Arab cuisine and even then were saved for celebrations and contained what would have been really expensive ingredients: butter, sugar and nuts.
Very apparent is their similarity to Moroccan Ghriba, a recipe included with this week’s cookie spread in A la Carte. While I’ve never been overwhelmed by my family’s Mexican wedding cakes, I was smitten with Ghriba, contributed by cooking instructor and Moroccan native Tiazza Rose. I found them less floury and more moist and nutty.
So the story goes, the sweets were brought by the Moors to Spain, where they are called polvorones (based on the Spanish word for dust, “polvo”), and like any good food they spread across Europe. They’re known as Kourabi’des in Greece and Rohlichky in the Ukraine. Eventually, they crossed the ocean, landed in Mexico and traveled across the New World, adapting to popular and indigenous ingredients.
Not surprisingly, they’re made with macadamia nuts in Hawaii. In the Philippines, where they’re known as PolvorOn, it’s cashews. Wherever in the world you are, it’s almost a certainty that these morsels only appear for special occasions.
So here’s the classic recipe from the 1963 “Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book.”
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1⁄2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for rolling
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1⁄4 cups flour
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
3⁄4 cup finely chopped pecans (may substitute almonds, hazelnuts or any other nut)
In a bowl with an electric mixer, thoroughly mix the butter, powdered sugar and vanilla. Stir the flour and salt together, then blend into butter mixture. Mix in the nuts. Chill dough.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheets (cookies do not spread) and bake in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until set but not brown.
While still warm, roll cookies in additional powdered sugar. Cool and roll in powdered sugar again. Store in an airtight container.
Makes about 4 dozen.