Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Jumbled Together (Russian Tea Cakes)

Russian Tea Cakes may be my very favorite variety of cookie. Also known as Italian wedding cakes, Mexican wedding cakes, Flexicans, polvorones, butterballs, and snowballs, you may know them best just as those buttery little spheres coated in powdered sugar, studded with finely ground nuts, and flavored with a variety of subtle seasonings. With their snowy white coats and elegant proportions, they make the perfect cookie to serve throughout the winter, arrayed on plates with doilies or tucked into gift bags. They're innocently sweet, utterly inoffensive, and melt on the tongue beautifully. Russian tea cakes, as the name suggests,  are the ideal pairing for strong tea served with lemon or cream and sugar. Less traditionally, but just as deliciously, I encourage the adoption of the "Russian coffee cake" and also offering coffee or cappuccino as accompaniment.

Cake: it's what's for dinner
The reason for the 'Russian' appellation is disputed, noted in the LA Times as being perhaps through an association between Russia and tea, with the little white cookies making a pleasant picture alongside a hissing samovar in the public mindset. The basic recipe used to produce the cookies, however, is reminiscent of the jumble, a dense cookie of sugar, butter, flour and nuts dating from the Middle Ages and originating in either Italy, with a cookie called the cimabetta, or the Middle East. The "jumble" of the name comes from the Latin gemel, for "twin," as the cookies were traditionally arranged as elaborate knots or loops. Rather than the common usage meaning "a (often disorganized) combination of things;" jumble is perhaps itself an origin for that term. Jumbles have the useful property of being made from ingredients that are all relatively stable at room temperature and can thus keep for up to a year without going stale, which is valuable to this day when considering what to pack for shipping distant friends and family.

Have cookies, will travel
The popularity of this variety of cookie throughout Europe resulted in its importation to the Americas, as it was often carried by traveler's due to its stability. They were also made by missionaries, which is how the Mexican wedding cake origin emerges. The unique difference is the availability of the ingredients on hand - this means that the European tea cake is more likely to be made with almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts, whereas the Mexican variety is most often made with pecans. The addition of ground cinnamon (Mexican cinnamon, if you can get it) to the sugar coating is also a signature of the Mexican wedding cake.

Hint of lemon
This resistance to staleness, however, only goes so far and I think Russian tea cakes are sometimes given a bad name by versions that are to dense, dry, or lacking in flavor. A vestigial remnant from the cookie's medieval origins is the lack of leavening, as there was no baking powder or baking soda at the time, so it becomes a delicate balance to pack the cookies tightly enough so that the don't crumble immediately without giving them the density of a supermassive black hole. Using a lot of butter in the recipe helps with this, ensuring that they crumble, but in a way that's delightfully saturated with melting fat rather than dry powder. I also recommend using cake flour, to give them a finer, lighter texture. I use the nuts blanched but un-toasted for a purer flavor and color. A triple dose of vanilla gives them full, round, golden notes and a hint of lemon zest gives noticeable brightness without screaming its presence. It is the touch of lemon, in my opinion, which makes these cookies most partial to being served with tea.

Suggested serving size

Russian Tea Cakes

Be sure to pulse the nuts very finely, as this will help ensure a lighter texture in the finished cookies. For Mexican wedding cakes, use hazelnuts and add 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon to the powdered sugar coating. Makes about 80 cookies.

2 cups hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds

2 cups (4 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons vanilla paste or vanilla extract
1 lemon, zested
1 cup powdered sugar + 2 cups for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups cake flour

Preheat an oven to 400 F.

Pulse the nuts in a stand mixer until finely ground into small niblets. Hold in reserve.

Pictured: "niblets"
Use a stand mixer and paddle or electric mixer to cream the butter, vanilla, and lemon zest until light, fluffy, and slightly lightened in color.

Add 1 cup powdered sugar and beat until well blended.

Mix in flour until fully incorporated, then beat in the nuts.

Lots of dough
Turn the dough out into a large bowl, cover closely, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Remember to use gentle pressure. You want the balls to be firmly packed, but not dense
Roll the dough into small spheres, using roughly 1 tablespoon of dough per cookie. Place shaped cookies onto a heavy baking sheet lined with a silpat or parchment paper, spacing them about an inch apart. Bake 10-12 minutes, until very lightly golden but not browned and firm when gently touched.

This is the first coat (some people do up to 3). Heat and oil from the cookie transmogrify the powder into a glaze
Cool cookies 5 minutes on the baking sheet, then gently roll warm cookies in the remaining powdered sugar to coat completely.


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