Russian Tea Cakes

I love desserts. I always have. I love making desserts. Big batches of cookies, galettes, biscotti…you name it. Usually I’m even pretty good at making a big batch of sweets and then feeding them to OTHER people.

Big pans of brownies? No problem: take ’em to the office, or send them off with the boyfriend for lunch snacks.
Chocolate chip cookies? They can sit in a tupperware on the counter for weeks before I get through them.
Ice cream? Usually gets midnight-snacked by the roommate before I can finish the pint (fine by me; usually I only wanted one bowl anyway, but they don’t sell single-serving ice cream at the corner store).
Cakes, tarts, pies? I like making them better than I like eating them, truth be told (not that I don’t insist on having the first slice, naturally).
But Russian tea cakes…well, Russian tea cakes are another story.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed a lot of sugar. But every once in a while when my mom or dad had to stop at the little bakery/pastry shop by our house for a fresh loaf of bread or some bagels, they would let me pick out one thing from the display counter.

Sometimes I chose a cheese danish (still, to this day, one of my favorite tea-time sweets) or a bear claw (mostly for the sheer SIZE of dessert it afforded me, and also in keeping with my deep, abiding love for marzipan)…but often, despite its small and simple bearing, I would choose a Russian tea cake: a little ball of shortbread and nuts rolled in powdered sugar. The messiest cookie in the world, especially when a little 7 year old girl is trying to savor it in small bites.
I’m certain my parents chastised me regularly for the powdered sugar hand prints on the car seats and the inevitable sprinkling of sugar on my clothes, but how could I resist? They were SO GOOD.
As I grew older, my fondness for Russian tea cakes was unwavering. And, as evidenced by this recipe, my addiction to what we at the house now call “crack cookies” is alive and well. Something about the sweetness of the powdered sugar, the way it makes a thin crust of icing over the soft, nutty cookie…I just can’t resist. To this day, it is the ONLY coffee shop impulse buy that actually works on me.
I will preface the recipe by saying that I am no longer allowed to make these cookies in bulk unless they have a PRE-DETERMINED destination that is not “on the counter in the kitchen”. I have been informed that they are impossible to stop eating, and, truth be told, they are almost entirely made of butter. My new method is to make a double batch of dough and freeze it, baking about a half-batch (roughly 24 cookies, one sheet pan’s worth) at a time and leaving the rest of the dough for later use.

“Later” often meaning “tomorrow, when we’ve eaten all the ones you made today”.
Russian Tea Cakes
bakes about 48 cookies
1 c (2 sticks) butter, softened (but not melted)
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 Tbsp powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
2 c flour (I use 1 1/2 c unbleached white bread flour, and 1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour)
1 c chopped pecans or walnuts
1 c powdered sugar (for coating cookies after baking)

Cream together the butter, 6 Tbsp of sugar, and vanilla extract until there are no clumps of butter or powdered sugar (sometimes I sift the powdered sugar through a strainer or a flour sifter to break up any stubborn bits before adding it in). Gradually work in the flour to make a sticky dough (should hold together in a ball). Then add the chopped nuts, and stir or knead the dough until everything is thoroughly combined.
This is a messy process, and if you have access to a stand mixer, you’d be well served by using it. Not only will it keep your hands clean, but it will stop the body heat radiating out of your hands from unnecessarily melting the butter and making the dough even stickier.

Once everything’s incorporated, the dough can be frozen and stored for several months. Just roll the dough into a log (I wrap the dough in wax paper and then put it in a ziplock bag to keep any other freezer smells out of it), and put it into the freezer.
If you’re not freezing any dough, it’s a good idea to put the dough into the fridge for a while anyway to cool the butter and make the dough easier to roll into balls (as it warms up, it can be quite sticky).
Once the dough is firm, break off or cut small pieces from the log and roll them into balls. These balls can be anywhere between the size of a small marble (1-2 tsp of dough) and about 2″ in diameter (2 Tbsp of dough). Place these balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet with at least an inch of space between each one (I fit about 2 dozen on one standard-sized sheet: 6 rows of 4 cookies).

The cookies should bake at 350 degrees for anywhere between 8 and 15 minutes, depending on size. My cookies are about an inch in diameter and take between 10 and 12 minutes. Keep an eye out for the bottoms to just barely brown, and for the balls to be somewhat firm to the touch.
DO NOT overcook these cookies – they get crumbly and tasteless if they get too dry.
Once the cookies are out, let them cool completely before rolling them in the powdered sugar (if they are still warm, the grease from the butter will immediately turn the sugar into a sticky mess and pull right off the cookie). When they are cool, though, you can roll them in powdered sugar (I pour some sugar out in small batches onto a plate, and proceed to coat the cookies one by one, putting them back onto the parchment paper when they are coated).

I would tell you how long these cookies last (rumor has it that in an air-tight container they will keep up to 2 weeks), but we’ve never been able to make them last longer than about 48 hours before they’ve all been eaten.

Hence, the new rule: Jessa is not allowed to make Russian tea cakes unless she is making less than 2 dozen, or she is giving them away immediately.

Fortunately, it seems there are always plenty of people to bake for.

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