There is no doubt that the holidays are about memories. I am among those lucky people who have great memories of the holidays except, of course, for my Mother running herself ragged making absolutely perfect bite-sized fancy cookies. She and my Dad had a medical practice that didn’t stop for the holidays and so the month of December had her up at 2 AM baking. I think she ultimately enjoyed it, but you could see the stress. In addition, every year she made these Santa head cookies with red sugar cheeks and hats, white coconut beards and white icing tassels. Making these took at least 5 steps using tiny paint brushes and paste food coloring with drying time in between-there were always several surfaces covered with beheaded cookie Santas during December-but I always had one Santa per kid in my class before school closed for the holidays. Each one a work of love and art. I wish I had a picture. I was so proud when at about age 10, my Mother trusted me enough to sprinkle the red sanding sugar on the hat part after she brushed the area with beaten egg white. I was now part of a tradition!
About the same time, I was allowed to roll my favorite cookie, A Russian Tea Cake, in confectionery sugar right out of the oven…and then I got to do it a second time when it cooled. I am sure I made a white snowy mess around the stool I was sitting on. I think my Mother knew how excited I was to help with this task-I was so careful-but I also think that it was a relief that she had help finally. My Dad, a wiz with a surgical needle and thread, would rather eat thorns than have anything to do with baking. How unmanly! Then there was the “packing”. EVERY possible surface in the dining room, including a huge dining room table was covered with boxes of cookies. You then took a tray and walking around the room, placed 1-2 cookies of each kind in little frilly cups until the tray was full. The full tray was placed in another room to be wrapped when all the trays were completed. Finally, the labeling and delivery-the most fun-when recipients of the cookie trays oohed and aahed over the cookies and I could proudly say I helped!
Craziness must be passed down, because I have continued the tradition. I still have my Mother’s Santa head cookie cutter-I may re-start the tradition when my grandson gets a little older-and I make a zillion cookies in December.
This cookie has many names. It is a form of jumble, a pastry common in England during the Middle Ages and is often called Mexican wedding cakes, Italian wedding cookies, butterballs, and occasionally snowball cookies for their powdery white spherical appearance when appearing around the winter holidays. But Mom called them Russian Tea Cakes, recalling her heritage, and Russian Tea Cakes they will remain in my household.These great memories were brought back to me when I found the Russian Tea Cake recipe in my Mother’s old-school cursive handwriting while organizing my cookie baking this year. The paper is yellowed and food-spattered but it is a legacy of my Mom and I cherish it.
Cecelia’s Russian Tea Cakes
- 1 C. butter (room temperature)
- ½ C. confectionery sugar (powdered sugar)
- 2 ¼ C. All-purpose flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. vanilla extract
- ¾ C. finely chopped nuts (I use pecans and walnuts)
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Line two baking sheets with parchment and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
And the nuts and mix just until incorporated. The dough should be soft, but not sticky. If it is too sticky to roll into balls, refrigerate a ½ hour.
Roll a scant tablespoon of dough into a ball and place on the prepared baking sheet. Do the same with the remaining dough.
Bake about 14 minutes or until very light brown.
Meanwhile put a nice amount of confectionery sugar in a bowl and when the cookies come out of the oven, let them rest for a few minutes and roll them in the confectionery sugar.
The sugar will look sparse-the heat from the cookie is melting the sugar and forming a “crumb coat”.
Place them on a cooling rack.
When they are cool, roll them in sugar again.
Eat. And make your own traditions.
Eating a few for you, Mom! Love you. XXX