The Cookie with a Thousand Aliases December 23, 2020
Mexican Wedding Cookies. Russian Tea Cakes. Pecan Puffs. Kourabiedes. Snowballs. Sand Tarts. Meltaways. All of these names refer to one finger-lickingly-delicious confection. How? Come along on my search for cookie clarity.
This holiday season (which, according to my highly curated all-food social media, started the millisecond Thanksgiving ended—goodbye, pies, I’ll miss you!), my Instagram feed has been absolutely inundated with photos of holiday cookies, DIY cookie tins, and links-in-bios to holiday cookie round-ups. I suppose that because we can’t peruse our local bakeries or swap confections with family and friends as we normally would, these desserts now officially live in the virtual world.
As I scrolled, each cookie looked more over the top, intricately decorated, and (honestly) complicated than the next. And then there was this little cookie that made me stop my pointer finger. One unassuming, chubby cookie, dusted in powdered sugar and juuuust crumbling at the edges. I knew I had eaten one before, and began to recall how ridiculously delicious it was. I just…couldn’t remember what it was called.
I knew I needed to dive deep into the internet to investigate and satiate my hunger for cookie clarity. (Cookie research is my favorite kind of research, after all.) I Googled “crumbly nut powdered sugar cookie” and watched the results pour in. So. Many. Results. Similar to “toad in a hole”—aka egg in the hole, one-eyed jack, egg in a frame, moon over Miami, and so on—it seems that everyone knows this cookie by a different name, from “melting moments” to “moldy mice”. I scrolled through mentions of both “cakes” and “cookies”. Where did this mysterious baked good come from, and which is its true name? And, is it a cookie or a cake??
Names aside, this sweet treat is most definitely a cookie—technically speaking. (Picture me with red string, thumbtacks, and newspaper clippings, muttering, “What makes a cookie a cookie??!”) Across all of the recipes I studied, the ingredients remained consistent: ground nuts, flour, lots of butter, powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, and sometimes a dash of flavoring. Once baked, the result is kind of similar to a shortbread, but one that melts and disintegrates as you take a bite.
While the ingredients are dead simple, the name (or, names) is anything but. My research mostly yielded, “…although the true origin is unknown” or “this food historian’s best guess is…”. Even though I can’t tell you the cookie’s exact origin, I was able to uncover some fun and interesting tidbits. (And like, isn’t that all that we want right now?)
According to USA Today, “Food historians believe that [the cookie] has its origins in medieval Arab cookery; the Middle East has a long tradition of rich special-occasion pastries using butter, honey, sugar, spices and nuts.” To put it (very) simply, once trade routes opened up, these craveable cookies made their way to Europe, and eventually all around the world. Now that’s the power of a good recipe!
In the U.S., these festive confections typically pop up around the holidays, most commonly known as Snowballs, Meltaways, or Butterballs. I grew up calling them Mexican Wedding Cookies, which, oddly enough, also originated in the U.S. Apparently, recipes for Russian Wedding Cakes (or Russian Tea Cakes) first started appearing in cookbooks in the 1950’s. Very shortly after, they were renamed Mexican Wedding Cookies due to Cold War tensions—similar to French fries’ temporary rebranding as “freedom fries” in the early aughts—in conjunction with the emergence of, and fascination with, Tex-Mex food in America.
Mexican wedding cookies, known as Polvorones or Bizcochitos (an anise-flavored variety), have been a celebratory dessert in Mexico for over a century. They are a mainstay at any wedding reception’s dessert table and can also be found in bakeries across the country. Wondering how they ended up south of the border? According to the LA times, “Nick Malgieri, a cookbook author and history-obsessed baking teacher in New York, admitted to being puzzled about the back story. Eastern Europe was his guess on the homeland of what he calls a pecan ball, since Viennese almond crescents are very similar cookies, with a low-sugar, high-nut ratio for melting texture and taste. Noting that the cookies do have a Spanish name, polvorones, Malgieri speculated that they migrated to Mexico with European nuns. ‘Convents were places where they did a lot of baking in Mexico,’ he said. ‘These may be a convent sweet that went public.’”
Because of Malgieri’s speculation about (and USA Today’s mention of) European origins, I looked into the continent’s many varieties. In Greece, they’re called Kourabiedes. In Denmark, you’ll find them labeled Smør Bullar. In Spain, as Nick mentioned, they’re called Polvorones. (Fun fact: polvorones comes from the word “polvo”, which means “powder” or “dust”!) I’ve also seen them called Swedish Tea Cakes. Whew! It kind of feels like the whole world started playing recipe title telephone, passing around these cookies instead of whispering in each other’s ears, with a new name emerging each go-around.
So, while the cookie’s “true” birthplace is still unclear, researching its culinary roots has left me feeling invigorated—like I traveled around the world, all from the comfort of my laptop during stay-at-home orders. I peeked into a Greek bakery, attended a wedding in Mexico, went to a cookie swap in Texas, flipped through 1950’s cookbooks…
The one thing I am crystal clear on? These cookies are friggin’ delicious. After all my research, I simply needed to bake up a batch and…wow. They’re nutty, melty, crumbly, messy…but in the best, most festive way. A batch of these cookies didn’t even last 24 hours in my apartment. No matter where you grew up or what you call ’em, it’s impossible to resist these little balls of buttery joy.
Want to try these cookies for yourself? Here’s a festive version inspired by everyone’s favorite boozy winter bev: Eggnog! They’re spiked with fresh nutmeg (and bourbon) and they’re a total shoo-in to win any cookie swap. (Take that, boring-tasting piped-and-flooded sugar cookies!) And yes, we had to add another name to the pile.
makes about 40 cookies
1 cup raw walnuts
¾ cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for finishing
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons rum
2 teaspoons rum extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg, plus more for finishing
Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread walnuts onto a rimmed baking sheet and toast in oven until golden, 10-15 minutes. Set aside to cool. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Pulse toasted walnuts and 3/4 cup confectioners sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process until mixture resembles flour, about 1 minute. Add butter and process until smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape mixture with a rubber spatula, then add rum, rum extract, and vanilla extract; process until smooth.
Combine flour, salt, cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg; add to food processor. Process until dough forms a soft ball.
Roll teaspoonfuls of dough into 1-inch wide balls; place on prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or up to overnight.
When ready to bake, position oven racks in top and bottom thirds of oven; preheat to 350°F.
Bake, rotating halfway through, until cookies are firm to the touch, 18-24 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes.
Combine 1 cup powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg in a shallow bowl. Toss cookies in powdered sugar mixture. Let cool completely, then toss again in powdered sugar mixture.
*Cookies will keep in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Do you know these cookies by yet another name? Let us know!
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