I usually try not to make sweeping value judgments when writing about recipes, but in this case, I’m afraid I can’t hold back: this is probably the best cookie recipe ever conceived. In these crumbly delights, you’ll experience a delicacy of texture and flavor unparalleled in the world of confections. Forget those stale, round balls that some people call cookies—the ones with a mouth-parching excess of powdered sugar that your aunt sends you at Christmastime —and say hello to a new kind of Russian tea cookie: a nuttier, flakier alternative with a butter content that would make Paula Deen blush.
Many know these cookies as a traditional Christmas confection (often appropriately called “snowballs”), but a handful of cultures across the globe bake their own secular equivalents. In fact, there is some debate among culinary historians as to whether the cookies even existed in traditional Russian cuisine. Some know Russian tea cookies as “Mexican wedding cakes,” allegedly introduced to Mexican cuisine by immigrant Spanish nuns. To me, this last theory seems a touch ironic, as these buttery delights are about as sinful as food gets.
This recipe is generally foolproof, and I have only two words of warning. First, it is extremely easy to burn the pecans while toasting them. Being absentminded, I’ve done this countless times. Once the nuts start to toast, they go fast, so keep careful watch. (It pays to be a perfectionist; any ashy overtones will prove disastrous.) Second, the dough must always be kept cold, so avoid handling it excessively. The cookies’ fragile texture depends on it. If each bite of cookie crumbles into a nutty powder, you’ll know you’ve pulled it off just right.
Russian Tea Cookies
(Adapted from James Peterson’s book “What’s a Cook to Do?”)
3/4 cup toasted pecans
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter
confectioners’ sugar (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread out pecan halves on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for about 15 minutes (they will smell toasty and look a darker brown when they are done). Leave the oven on.
2. Let pecans cool and grind them in a food processor for several minutes until they turn into a fine powder. Remove the food processor bowl and leave it in the freezer for 15 minutes.
3. Retrieve bowl from freezer and add sugar, salt, vanilla, and flour. Pulse the food processor to combine the mixture, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.
4. Put the bowl with mixture into the freezer for another 15 minutes. Retrieve it and then add the butter, cut up into small pieces.
5. Process the whole mixture until a ragged dough forms. Once again, chill the dough in the freezer for 15 minutes.
6. Roll the dough into balls one inch in diameter. Arrange balls on a cookie sheet roughly two inches apart. Bake for 25 minutes or until cookies just begin to brown.
7. Let cool for five minutes (they will fall apart if touched before then). Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving if desired.