I see Trotsky, in his Mexican exile, sitting at a desk in front of a window, looking out on a semi-tropical garden so different from the gardens of his homeland, writing, contemplating (thinking of Frida, perhaps), but always waiting for the bullet that would eventually come.
Before that day came, however, what if someone had set before him a plate of “Mexican wedding cookies”? would he have fallen into a Proustian reverie, brought back to his childhood at the sight and taste of what were, for him, delicate, sugar-dusted “Russian tea cakes”?
These little cookies are known by many different names and belong to many different cultures. I grew up knowing them as Russian tea cakes, but I really have no idea whether anyone in Russia ever actually baked or ate them. Nevertheless, I’m sticking with the image of the old revolutionary, brought to nostalgic tears (and heaven knows Russians are good at that, revolution or no) by a humble pastry.
I love these cookies not only for their history but because they are so easy to make. Although most recipes call for a mixer, because the butter is at room temperature, it is absolutely possible to mix them with a large spoon alone. The dough can be made in just a few minutes. Do not skip the chilling of the dough before rolling, however, as it will be too soft otherwise. The prepared but unbaked cookies can be flash frozen on a tray with some parchment paper and then stored in plastic bags or other containers in the freezer. Add a few minutes extra baking time if baking directly from freezer.
I’ve tweaked the standard recipe here and provide two versions, one with wheat flour and using almonds and lemon zest, and one gluten free with walnuts and cardamom. Feel free to experiment with spices and nuts according to your liking.
I added a small tablespoon of apricot kernels to enhance the almond flavor as good quality almond extract is not available here. You can up this amount if you want a more pronounced flavor (similar to amaretti). But care should be taken as apricot kernels contain naturally occurring cyanide. Hmm, had the assassins known that, perhaps they might have preferred the mortar and pestle over the gun…
Note: I did not include any xanthan gum in the gluten free version, which flattened out as a result of lack of enough binder, so they’re more properly sandies than snowballs. I am still experimenting with gluten free flour mixes and will update this post if I change any quantities or make additions in future.
1 cup (2 sticks, 8 oz or 250 g) butter, room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar, plus more for rolling the cookies
2 tsp vanilla extract (can add up to 1 Tablespoon)
2 cups (250 g) white flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt (very scant ¼ tsp if using regular table salt
1 cup almonds, toasted and ground – note I had only roasted and lightly salted almonds available, so I reduced the salt to 1/8 tsp and did not need to toast them
Zest of one lemon
For gluten free variations – I used 1 cup brown rice flour, ½ cup tapioca starch and 1/4 cup white rice flour and 1/4 c oat flour, 1 cup walnuts (not toasted) and 1 tablespoon ground cardamom and no lemon zest – all other ingredients stayed the same
Beat the butter with a whisk or hand mixer till light. Add the vanilla extract and powdered sugar and beat again till mixed well and fluffy. Stir in the flour and then add the nuts. Scoop the dough into two portions and chill in the refrigerator for about 1 hour, till firm (I prepared the cookies the next day so allowed the dough to soften slightly for about 15 minutes before rolling).
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Using a small spoon or scoop, roll balls of dough about 1 inch in diameter. Set on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper (or lightly oiled and floured if you do not have parchment), at least 1 inch apart. Bake for about 18 minutes, till lightly colored.
Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then roll in powdered sugar and set on a rack to cool. I usually roll the cookies twice in the sugar.
Gluten free – same instructions as above, but space about 1 ½ to 2 inches apart as dough as written will spread. These cookies will be very friable, so let cool a bit longer before placing in powdered sugar. Instead of rolling, set the cookies one at a time in a wide dish containing the powdered sugar and scoop the sugar over the cookies to cover then shake lightly to remove excess.
Store in an air tight container.