If the very thought of baking cutout cookies — the kind that stick to the dough board, rolling pin, and spatula and break before you can even decorate them — makes you anxious, here is a cookie that even children can make: those buttery little snowballs dusted with powdered sugar, also known as tea cakes.
I adore them for several reasons. When I was growing up, we ate dinner on a white tablecloth and were expected to tackle even fried chicken with a fork and knife. But we were allowed to eat this meltingly tender confection all in one big gratifying bite. There were fewer crumbs that way, of course.
Another memory that makes tea cakes my favorite cookie: My sister, brother, and I did our homework in a sparely furnished, chilly study, which nonetheless conveniently adjoined the pantry. There, in the weeks before Christmas, tins of beautifully decorated green tree cookies, stars with glittery sugar, and wreaths with red and green citron awaited the holiday.
My grandmother and mother oversaw these specialties, but we kids baked the brownies and tea cakes. This gave us the right, we decided, to pilfer as many as we could without being caught before the tins were ritually opened on Christmas Eve. My brother, Rick, favored the brownies. Linda, our sister, alternated between threatening to tell on us and sampling the tea cakes. I always went for the tea cakes.
To me, besides being delicious, they resembled tiny snowballs, suggesting the thrilling possibilities of snowfall and school closings. What more could you ask of a cookie? Fresh from the oven and sugared, they still give me a shiver of excitement — and I still eat them in one bite.
Often called Russian tea cakes, these cookies apparently originated in Eastern Europe and made their way to Italy and to Mexico (various sources suggest missionary nuns brought the recipe) as “wedding cookies.”
The simple butter, flour, and sugar dough can be embellished with chopped walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts. A dash of vanilla adds warmth, and after baking, the little round cakes are rolled in powdered sugar. This year, I experimented with adding bits of finely chopped fresh cranberry to the batter, which gives a subtle, tart zing to the rich, crumbly tenderness of the cookie. Next year, I’m going to use both nuts and cranberries.
Tip: Be sure to fluff the flour with a fork before measuring and do not pack it down. One of the most common baking mistakes — using too much flour — can cause a less tender result.
Makes about 24
1 cup soft butter
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted and divided
1 tsp. vanilla
2¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
¼ tsp. salt
¾ cup finely chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts) or ½ cup finely chopped fresh cranberries (or both for a total of ¾ cup)
- Heat the oven to 400°
- In a medium-size mixing bowl, cream together the butter and a half cup of the confectioners’ sugar, either with a fork or a mixer. Stir in the vanilla.
- Add the flour and salt to the butter mixture and mix well. The dough will look a bit crumbly. Stir in the nuts (or cranberries).
- Chill the dough for about 10 minutes before rolling small balls, about an inch in diameter, in the palms of your hands. Place the balls on a baking sheet an inch or so apart, preparing a second baking sheet if needed.
- Bake the cookies for about 10 to 12 minutes or until the bottoms turn light brown. Check by lifting one with a spatula. Let the cookies cool slightly before rolling them in the powdered sugar.