“What’s in a name? A cookie, by any other name, would taste just as sweet.”
–with apologies to William Shakespeare
Are you familiar with these cookies? They have a crumbly, sandy texture, a rich cinnamon-pecan flavor, and a snowy white coating of powdered sugar. Describing them is easy…but deciding on a name is not. I grew up calling them Mexican Wedding Cakes or Mexican Wedding Cookies. Some people call them Russian Tea Cakes. Others know them as Butterballs, Snowdrops, Swedish Tea Cakes, Snowballs, or Italian Butter Nuts.
So what’s the real story? Are they cakes or cookies? Do they hail from Mexico, Russia, or Italy? Should you enjoy them at a wedding, or during afternoon tea?
I can’t answer all of these questions, but I can tell you that they are most definitely cookies, not cakes. And in answer to the final query, you should enjoy them ALL the time! They’re delicious! They’re also a perfect way to showcase fresh, sweet pecans. So grab a bag of your favorite pecan halves, and let’s make cookies…or cakes…or whatever you want to call them!
Mexican Wedding Cakes
yield: about 40 cookies
- 8 oz (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
- 2 cups powdered sugar, divided use
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1-1/2 cup pecan halves
You may notice that there aren’t too many ingredients in these cookies, and most of them are your standard butter-flour-sugar variety. The mildness of the other ingredients means that the pecans really shine in this recipe, and are responsible for all of the flavor and the great crumbly texture of the cookies. So let’s make sure our pecans are really amazing.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pecan halves on a baking sheet and bake them until they’re toasted and deep brown, about 10-15 minutes. Stir them every 3-4 minutes so they don’t burn, but don’t pull them out too early. They should be very fragrant and a deep mahogany color! A well-toasted pecan is a flavorful pecan, as my grandpappy always used to say.*
*Okay, he never actually said that. But he did own a grove of pecan trees. True story.
Let the pecans cool completely, then place them in a food processor (preferably) or a high-speed blender (not optimal, but you can make it work.) Pulse them in two-second bursts until the pecans are in tiny pieces. Don’t run the processor too long, or you run the risk of making pecan butter instead of chopped pecans.
Time to mix our cookies! Place the softened butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Alternately, you can use a hand mixer and just mix everything in a large bowl. Beat the butter until it is smooth and light and creamy, for about 2 minutes.
Stop the mixer and add 1/2 cup of powdered sugar to the bowl. This is important! Most of your powdered sugar will be used to cover the cookies once they’re baked, so don’t go throwing it all in at once. Just 1/2 cup will do for now. Beat the butter and sugar together for another 2 minutes until light and fluffy.
After the sugar’s mixed in, add the vanilla and beat for another minute, until it’s well-incorporated.
Now stop the mixer and add the flour, the salt, and the cinnamon. Mix the dough on low just until the streaks of flour disappear.
Finally, for our finishing touch…the ground, toasted pecans. Add them to the dough and mix it again on low, until the pecans are well-distributed throughout. Scrape down the bottom and the sides and give it a few more good stirs to make sure everything’s well-mixed.
Divide the dough in half and wrap each half tightly in cling wrap. Refrigerate the dough until it’s cold, for about 45-60 minutes. It should be firm but not rock-hard, because you want to be able to shape and roll it.
After the chilling time, preheat your oven once again to 350 degrees. Use a cookie scoop or a tablespoon to roll the cookies into balls about 1-inch in diameter. You should get between 3-4 dozen cookies out of this batch. Place them on parchment-lined baking sheets, and since they don’t spread much, you can put them about an inch apart.
Bake the cookies at 350 for 16-18 minutes, until they feel set in the middle and are golden brown on the bottom. Depending on how cold your dough was when you baked them, they should keep their round shape fairly well. Let them rest on the baking sheet for just 5 minutes.
While the cookies are still quite warm, toss them in the remaining powdered sugar until they are coated. The warmth of the cookies will cause the powdered sugar to stick to the outside and form a smooth, sweet layer. If you’ve waited too long to roll them in sugar and they’re no longer warm, place the cookies back in the oven just for a minute or two, then roll the warmed cookies in the sugar.
Let the cookies cool completely on a wire rack. Before you serve them, dust them with a little more powdered sugar to fill any holes and give them a snowy white appearance.
These delicate, sophisticated little cookies are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of afternoon tea, or a mug of after-dinner coffee. Mexican Wedding Cakes can be kept for up to a week at room temperature in an airtight container. If you’re storing them for a period of several days, sprinkle them with another dusting of powdered sugar to freshen them up before serving them.
All text and images (c) Elizabeth LaBau