We created the best Russian Tea Cakes recipe made with browned butter, toasted pecans and maple syrup, and then double rolled in powdered sugar.
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RUSSIAN TEA CAKES
Russian tea cakes, also known as Mexican wedding cookies or snowballs, are a delicious and popular holiday treat. Made with butter, flour, sugar and chopped pecans or walnuts, they are rolled into balls and covered in powdered sugar before being served. The rich, nutty flavor of the Russian tea cakes pairs perfectly with the sweetness of the powdered sugar, making it a favorite for many around the holidays.
Russian tea cakes have a long history, rooted in the religious traditions of Eastern Europe. Russian tea cakes, now also known as snowball cookies, are buttery, tender, melt-in-your-mouth cookies that were brought to the United States from Europe in the early 20th century. The cookies originated in Russia and were brought to the United States by immigrants who settled in the Midwest. They first became popular after World War II, and were considered a special treat at holiday gatherings. To this day, Russian tea cakes remain a holiday tradition for many families. They have become popular around Christmas time, where their delicate flavor and festive appearance add to the joy of the season. People enjoy baking and decorating these classic treats with their family, taking part in the beloved tradition that has been passed down through generations. To this day, many families in Russia still enjoy this treat during important holidays and festive occasions such as Christmas and Easter. In addition, Russian tea cakes are often served after wedding ceremonies in Mexico, giving them the name “Mexican Wedding Cookies.” No matter what you call them, these cookies are sure to bring joy to any gathering.
THE FAMILY TRADITION OF MAKING RUSSIAN TEA CAKES
We have a family tradition of making Russian Tea Cakes for special occasions, except we call them Finnish cookies. There are a number of similar cookies, such as Snowballs, Mexican wedding cookies, and in our house Finnish cookies. Tony’s mother is half Finnish and she remembers her Finnish Grandmother making them when she was a child, so she has always called them Finnish cookies. Over the years we have made a few changes to her Grandmother’s version, though. This version is made with pecans and maple syrup, ingredients that are native to America, so we should probably call them American snowball cookies at this point, but we are not going to mess with tradition that much.
MAKING THE BEST RUSSIAN TEA CAKES
The key to making the best Russian tea cakes is to use the best ingredients and the best method. The ingredients and method are described below in the science section. Russian tea cakes are made using the batter method where the sugar and butter are first creamed together before the flour and other ingredients are added. All the information you need to make the best cookies is included in the recipe, but you can read through the science section to know why it works.
We made a number of changes to the traditional recipe. We wanted to give the cookies more flavor and better texture. The traditional family recipe made a cookie that was dry and crumbly inside and not very sweet. We fixed that by adding some moisture to activate the gluten in the flour, using ground nuts to add moisture and then rolling them in powdered sugar twice to make them sweeter.
The nuts were toasted, the butter was browned, the vanilla was doubled, maple syrup was added, and the sugar was homemade superfine sugar to give the cookies a sweetness without the pasty texture of powdered sugar. Each of these changes added a little more flavor. This recipe is much easier if the sugar is ground, the butter is browned (beurre noisette), and the nuts are toasted ahead of time. We do all of this ahead and have a supply on hand in the pantry or refrigerator.
These cookies are known for being crumbly because of the amount of nuts in them and because the only water in the recipe is from the butter. By browning the butter, we have removed the small amount of water that was in the butter. By adding the maple sugar, we are adding back some water. The maple sugar is added to the flour and the flour is allowed to sit for five minutes in order to activate the gluten in the flour so the cookies are not too crumbly. The maple sugar also adds some extra flavor and sweetness to the cookies.
THE SCIENCE OF MAKING GREAT COOKIES EVERY TIME
To make great cookies, it is important to understand a little of the science of making them. They are small, so there is less room for error, which is why measuring accurately is so necessary. And they have very few ingredients, so each ingredient has a key roll, and using the best of each ingredient will make a big difference.
CHOOSE THE BEST INGREDIENTS
Using the brands we have listed will ensure that you make great cookies every time. These brands not only taste better, but production of each is tightly controlled so the product is consistent. The size of the sugar crystal, the amount of protein in the flour, the shape of the salt – all these things will affect the way the cookies bake. Cookies are so small that little differences in the ingredients can lead to a big difference in the cookies. Some of these brands cost more than other available products, but it’s worth it. For some, we include a link to their official websites so you can buy direct and in bulk and often reduce the price.
Sunflower oil is a great substitute for butter. The flavor works well in cookies, and the oil gives the cookies a fudgy center and crisp edges. It is healthier and less expensive than butter, as well as better for the environment. Oil contains no water, and butter does, so a substitution would be about 3 parts oil for 4 parts butter. Cold pressed or expeller pressed means that chemicals and high heat were not used to produce the oil, so the health benefits of the oil are retained.
GOLD MEDAL UNBLEACHED ALL PURPOSE FLOUR – has a lower protein amount than some all purpose flours – 10.5 percent protein. This is a good flour for baking cookies, since it makes them more tender. In addition, the company ensures that the protein content is carefully calibrated, so you get consistent results. Also, it is important to use the unbleached flour, since bleaching can give cookies an off taste or have unpredictable results.
KING ARTHUR UNBLEACHED ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR – has a slightly higher protein amount than Gold Medal – 11.7 percent protein. It is good for baking cookies, especially those that are a little more hearty and need some substance. King Arthur is an employee-owned company that responsibly sources the wheat for their flours, and it pays off in the taste and quality. They have a “never bleached” guarantee, which means their flours don’t have an off taste or unpredictable results that can be caused by bleaching. They also carefully calibrate the protein content, which means the flour gives you the same results, every time you bake.
WHOLESOME ORGANIC SUGAR – produced from sugar cane fields that are green cut and are not burned or treated with herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. Burning sugar cane fields contributes to air pollution and climate change, and is a major cause of the destruction of the rainforest. Buying sugar from fields that are green cut helps prevent this destruction. The sugar also has a better taste because of how it is produced. It is more expensive than buying the standard brands, but the difference is only a few cents per recipe, so it’s worth it. We also save money by buying this in bulk direct from the company and storing it in jars in the pantry.
HOMEMADE BROWN SUGAR
If a recipe calls for brown sugar, we use white, granulated Wholesome Organic sugar and add a small amount of sorghum syrup instead. Brown sugar is just white, granulated sugar with molasses added. Sorghum syrup tastes very similar to molasses. We actually prefer the milder taste of the sorghum syrup. This saves money, since brown sugar is usually more expensive than white sugar, and it saves storage. We don’t make brown sugar by mixing the sorghum syrup and sugar because they don’t mix well, and the syrup is easy to add to a recipe. Also important, sorghum does not come from sugar cane. It is grown more sustainably in colder climates without burning and without cutting down tropical rain forests.
HOMEMADE SUPERFINE SUGAR
Superfine sugar, also known as caster sugar or baker’s sugar, is just white, granulated sugar that has been ground fine so that it dissolves quickly. It is often much more expensive than granulated sugar, so instead of buying super fine sugar, we make it ourselves and save money. We put the Wholesome organic sugar in the food processor and grind it fine, which takes about a minute, and store it in jars in the pantry.
Powdered sugar, or confectioner’s sugar is just white, granulated sugar ground to a fine powder with some cornstarch added to keep it from clumping. We tried to make it ourselves, but could not grind it fine enough or evenly, so we buy Wholesome Organic Powdered Sugar in bulk and store it in jars. Buying in bulk saves money and it stores well in a jar with a lid.
HEILALA VANILLA – the best tasting vanilla we have ever tried. Plus, it is ethically produced. We double the amount of vanilla usually called for to add extra flavor. Vanilla extract is usually half alcohol and half water, so the extra vanilla will add some liquid. Heilala makes an alcohol free vanilla that can be used in a recipe to make it halal.
VALRHONA CHOCOLATE – Using a high quality chocolate makes a really big difference. We use Valrhona because of the quality and because it’s an ethical choice. Most of Valrhona’s products are also gluten free and kosher.
DIAMOND CRYSTAL KOSHER SALT – pure salt without additives or iodine taste. The weight and structure of salt varies between brands so it is important to choose a salt and stick with it to be consistent.
USING THE BEST EQUIPMENT
- Oven Thermometer
- Instant read thermometer
- Accurate measuring spoons
- Medium to heavy-weight, light-colored aluminum cookie sheets – dark or thin sheets may burn the bottom of the cookies
- stand mixer
- food processor
- silicone baking mat – much less expensive than parchment paper in the long run
- silicone heat resistant spatula for scraping the bowl. All one piece is easier to clean and doesn’t come apart
- thin metal spatula for moving the hot cookies – the thin metal won’t break the cookies
- cooling rack with a gridded frame – the grid prevents the cookies from falli
- digital kitchen scale
- medium wire whisk
- microplane zester and grater
- cookie scoops with squeeze release handles
- fine mesh strainer for sifting
METHODS FOR MAKING COOKIES
UNDERSTAND THE METHOD – our cookie recipes are made with one of three methods:
- BATTER – used for drop, rolled, cut out or formed cookies. Create a batter by stirring the wet ingredients together (nut oil, sugar, eggs, flavorings), then adding the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda). This is easiest method for making cookies and works best in a bowl, stirring by hand.
- IRON – creating a thin batter that is stirred together and then fried or baked in an iron. This requires special equipment such as a waffle iron, rosette iron, pizzelle maker, or krumkake iron.
- MERINGUE – creating a meringue with egg whites and sugar, sometimes with a flour made of ground nuts. The cookies made this way are often gluten free. This is easiest and works best in a stand mixer, but a food processor is the easiest way to make the nut flour. It can also be done with a hand mixer or whisking by hand, but it would take much longer. There are three types of meringues – French, Italian, and Swiss.
- French meringue is the easiest and most common type of meringue and is often used in baked goods, since the egg whites are not cooked. It is made with egg whites and sugar that are whipped together until they form stiff peaks. The mixture is can be baked at a low temperature until it dries out and becomes crispy, or it can be mixed with other ingredients to make various types of cookies.
- Italian meringue is a more complex type of meringue that requires a bit more skill to make. It is made by whipping egg whites and adding a hot sugar syrup then whipping them together until they form a glossy, stable mixture. The hot sugar syrup cooks the egg whites, making the meringue safe to eat. Italian meringue is commonly used in recipes such as buttercream frosting and French macarons. It is denser than French meringue and has a slight sweetness to it.
- Swiss meringue is made by whisking egg whites and sugar together over a double boiler until the sugar dissolves. It is then whipped until stiff peaks form, resulting in a glossy, shiny meringue. Swiss meringue is often used in recipes such as mousses and buttercream frosting. It has a silky texture and a buttery flavor that is perfect for a variety of desserts. Swiss meringue is also more stable than French meringue, making it a great option for decorating cakes and pastries.
TIPS FOR MAKING COOKIES
USE A SCALE AND MEASURE IN GRAMS – Use a scale to measure most of the ingredients by weight. This is absolutely essential. The inaccuracies from using measuring cups can easily lead to failure when baking. Different brands of flour and sugar will be different when measured with measuring cups, and not all measuring cups are accurate. Measuring by weight is the same every time. It is also much easier – just put the mixing bowl on the scale, zero the scale, add an ingredient, zero the scale again, add the next ingredient, and so on. Measuring in grams is more accurate, and easier, than pounds and ounces. Since it is a smaller measurement, it is more precise. Also, grams are often easy numbers to remember, making it possible to make the cookies without looking at the written recipe and easy to compare recipes. Clean up is easier, since there will be fewer bowls and no measuring cups to wash. And cooking with children is easier because they quickly learn how to add ingredients until the scale reads the correct amount.
USE A SCALE TO MEASURE OUT EACH COOKIE – Use the scale to make sure the cookies are exactly the same size. Using a scoop for some cookies makes forming the cookies fast and easy and will also help maintain the same shape, but the scale will make them the same size.
REFRIGERATE THE DOUGH AT LEAST THREE HOURS OR OVERNIGHT – This allows the flour to absorb the liquid in the dough, making the cookies bake better. You can refrigerate the dough in the bowl covered with plastic wrap, measured out for drop cookies, as a flat square for rolled cookies, or as a log for sliced cookies.
VACUUM PACK AND FREEZE EXTRA DOUGH – After refrigerating the dough overnight, extra cookie dough can be frozen. Vacuum sealing keeps the dough fresher.
USE AN OVEN THERMOMETER – Use an accurate oven thermometer to check the oven temperature before putting the cookies in. The temperature of ovens vary, and may not be the temperature on the dial.
ALLOW THE COOKIES TO COOL ON A RACK – Allow the cookies to cool for a minute on the pan, then transfer them to a rack to keep them from getting too dark on the bottom. The cookies will become more crisp as they cool on the rack, though we realize allowing them to cool before eating them is almost impossible.
No Affiliates Statement
We call this our “no affiliates” statement because we accept no advertising, have no affiliates and accept no payment. We are not paid to mention brands – we just love buying the best, sharing that information and saving the planet at the same time. The effort put into writing and photographing the blog is solely based on our dedication to the cause.
HOW THE BEST RUSSIAN TEA CAKES RECIPE FITS IN WITH OUR PLAN TO EAT BETTER:
We chose ingredients that are produced sustainably and with a low carbon footprint. Instead of walnuts or almonds, we used pecans, a native nut that was grown in Texas with a low impact on the environment. The brand of sugar and butter were chosen for taste, but also for the companies efforts to combat climate change. We are making an effort to solve the climate crisis, one cookie at a time.
Photos by Tony Fitzgerald Photography