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.
INGREDIENTS FOR MAKING THE BEST RUSSIAN TEA CAKES RECIPE
We updated the traditional recipe to give the cookies more flavor and to make this a sustainable recipe that a baker who is worried about climate change can feel good about. 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.
Use thebest ingredients. We have listed thebrands for some of the ingredientsbecause ingredients are everything. We have found that these brands give superior results. And by using brands like Horizon dairy products and organic sugarwe cut our carbon footprint in halfand are helping to control climate change.
THE SCIENCE OF MAKING GREAT COOKIES
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THE SCIENCE BEHIND 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.
INGREDIENTS FOR MAKING GREAT COOKIES
USE THE BEST INGREDIENTS – The brands we have listed will let you make great cookies every time. They not only taste better but production of each is 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.
Gold Medal Unbleached All Purpose Flourhas 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.
King Arthur Flour– 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. King Arthur unbleached all purpose flour– 11.7 percent protein – is good for baking cookies that are a little more hearty and need some substance, which the higher protein provides.
We use Wholesome organic sugar, because it is 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 rain forest. 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, but mostly we use it because it is a sustainable choice. 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. Instead of buying brown sugar, we add some molasses or sorghum syrup to a recipe, since brown sugar is just sugar with molasses added. This saves money, since brown sugar is more expensive than white sugar, and it saves storage. Instead of buying super fine sugar, we make it ourselves and save money. We put the wholesale organic sugar in the food processor and grind it fine, which takes about a minute. We make up a large batch and store it in jars in the pantry.
Heilala producesthebest 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 can add back some of the liquid that was removed when browning the butter.
Using a high quality chocolate makes a really big difference. We useValrhona chocolate, because of the quality and because it’s an ethical choice.
We like the quality ofDiamond Kosher saltand don’t want the 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.
We useHorizon Organicbutter, because we think Horizon products taste better than any other dairy products we have tried. This is probably because the products are organic and from family farming partners. Just as important, Horizon is acertified B corporationthat has committed to becomingcarbon positive across their entire supply chain by 2025. Sometimes we make browned butter, or buerre noistte as it is known in France, which adds a huge amount of flavor to baked goods.
METHOD FOR MAKING COOKIES
UNDERSTAND THE METHOD – Most cookies are made with one of four methods
- Creating a batter by creaming butter and sugar, then adding eggs and then flour. This is easiest and works best in a stand mixer. Creaming the sugar and butter adds air to the batter, giving the cookies a lift. The key is to cream the butter and sugar for several minutes to make sure they are light and fluffy, but not so long that the butter starts melting. This will take about 5 to 8 minutes in a stand mixer. Do not let the mixture exceed 68 degrees F. This could be done in a food processor, but trying to cream the batter with a hand mixer or stirring by hand would take much longer.
- Creating a dough by mixing flour and sugar, then adding butter and then eggs. This method is similar to making a pie crust. It is important not to overwork the dough. This is easiest and works best in a food processor. The food processor does an excellent job of cutting cold or room temperature butter into the flour quickly, without heating it up. It can also be done with a stand mixer or even a hand mixer or stirring by hand.
- Creating a meringue with egg whites and sugar, sometimes with a flour made of ground nuts. The cookies made this way are 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.
- 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, pizzlle maker, or Krumkake iron.
USE A SCALE AND MEASURE IN GRAMS – Use a scale to measure all 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 either. But measuring by weight is the same every time. Measuring by weight 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 because it is a smaller, more precise measurement than an ounce or pound. 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 and to clean up. 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 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 OVERNIGHT – This allows the flour to absorb the liquid in the dough and hardens up the butter, making the cookies bake better. You can refrigerate the dough in the bowl covered with plastic wrap, but it is easier to measure out the dough as cookies for drop cookies or form it into a flat square for rolled cookies, and wrap in plastic before refrigerating it.
VACUUM PACK AND FREEZE EXTRA DOUGH -After refrigerating the dough overnight, freeze extra cookie dough as cookies in a vacuum packed container. Portioning out the dough and then vacuum sealing them keeps them fresher and makes it easy to take out just a few for baking.
USE AN OVEN THERMOMETER – Use an 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