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December 14, 2009 in cookies, vegetarian11 comments

whole grain mexican wedding cakes

mexican wedding cakes, russian tea cakes, made with whole barley flour

Guess what? I actually got off my arse and did some research for y’all this time.

moops?

See, the cookie we call Mexican wedding cakes, or Russian tea cakes, or polvorones in Spain, or melting moments in Australia actually has a common descendent: the “sandie” type cookie first developed by the Moors in the Middle Ages, medieval Arabs being very fond of sweets.

mexican wedding cakes, russian tea cakes, made with whole barley flour - notice how they're a bit darker than those made with all-purpose flour

Most commonly known as Mexican wedding cakes or Russian tea cakes here in the U.S., they’re a buttery, not-too-sweet cookie made with finely chopped nuts. The cookie is shaped like a ball, and rolled twice in powdered sugar after baking. The first dusting of sugar is done while warm, which allows the sugar to absorb slightly into the cookie and keeps its crust from getting hard. Since the first sugar dusting usually melts into near-invisibility, a second coating of sugar is applied to make the cookies pretty.

ooh, dramatic!

It’s important to note that Mexican wedding cakes are never baked until browned (else they’d be dry and overdone), so one has to trust one’s recipe for the time and one’s nose for clues as to when they’re done. It’s amazing how many things, when cooking, are “done” when you begin to smell them.

betty crocker's cooky book, cover

I’ve never seen them in Mexico (someone can correct me if I’m wrong), and in fact the first recipe by this name began appearing in community cookbooks in the 1950s. My mom has it in the out-of-print and highly sought after Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, originally published in 1963.

the "russian tea cakes" recipe in betty crocker's cooky book

I’ve been making Mexican wedding cakes as a Christmas cookie for a few years now, after Mom dropped them from her repertoire. Unlike nutty crescents or miloste they’re not a longstanding family tradition, so I felt safe in trying the barley flour version in the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook.

damn, food photography used to be fugly - betty crocker's cooky book

I asked Mom if food photography was really this ugly back in the day, or whether I’m just being overly critical and the photos had faded over time. She said no, it was that way when new, too. Nice.

sexed up

lemon zest, for sexing up the mexican wedding cakes

This is a sexed up Mexican wedding cake cookie. The regular version is spiced only with vanilla. This one not only has a tablespoon of vanilla instead of a teaspoon, it adds almond extract and lemon zest. The two new flavorings broaden the spectrum of this delicate cookie, adding notes both deep and tangy. I like it, but if you prefer your MWC unsexified, leave out the almond extract and lemon zest and cut the vanilla in half.

barley flour, oats, and walnuts, before and after processing

This recipe calls for processing the nuts with the oats and barley flour to a very fine consistency. My taste tester, Dad, said he missed biting into walnut pieces. You could finely chop the walnuts separately instead of processing them into the flour.

mexican wedding cakes, russian tea cakes, made with whole barley flour, close-up view

However, I recommend trying them this way, since I found this version to be a reliable recipe, good-tasting, and close enough to the original that guests will simply think, “Wow, this is a really good cookie,” and not, “My gods, what have they done to this cookie!?”

Mexican wedding cakes, or Russian tea cakes cookies

This recipe is adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking, aka My Favorite Baking Cookbook Ever. Reprinted with permission.

prep: 30 minutes
bake: 15 minutes
servings: about 41 cookies
oven: 325 degrees
special equipment: food processor

    1-1/3 cups (4-5/8 ounces) old-fashioned rolled oats
    1 cup (4 ounces) whole barley flour
    2/3 cup (2-5/8 ounces) walnuts
    11 tablespoons (5-1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
    1/2 cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1 tablespoon vanilla extract
    1 teaspoon almond extract
    grated zest of 1 lemon, chopped finely
    1 cup confectioners’ sugar for coating

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Get out two baking sheets. Leave them naked. You may wear clothes if you like.

toasting walnuts on the stovetop

Optional: toast the walnuts before processing. Put the walnuts in a pan over medium heat, shaking occasionally. Heat several minutes, until you begin to smell walnuts. It’s better to remove the nuts from the heat sooner rather than later, because overheating the oils in the nuts results in a burnt flavor, while a nut that’s a bit undertoasted is much more minor, and still better than one that hasn’t been toasted at all.

oats, barley flour, and walnuts, before and after processing

Place oats, barley flour, and walnuts in a food processor. Process for 30 seconds, or until everything is finely ground.

weighing out the ingredients for mexican wedding cakes/russian tea cakes

Beat the butter, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Beat in vanilla extract, almond extract, and lemon zest. Mix in the processed oats, barley and walnuts.

Using your hands, roll bits of dough into teaspoon-size balls, no more than an inch around. Place the balls on your baking sheets, leaving about 1-1/2 inches between them. The original recipe says it yields 41 cookies; I got 51. Whichever end you tend towards, you will fill up two baking sheets.

oops! forgot to snap a pic before they went into the oven

Bake both pans at once, one on a top rack and one on a low rack, for 15 minutes. Switch the pans around midway through baking, to ensure evenness. They won’t have begun to brown, except perhaps very slightly around the bottom edge.

While the cookies are baking, spoon about 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar into a gallon-size plastic bag.

after their first dusting with powdered sugar

Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes. Place the warm cookies in the bag and shake gently to coat with sugar. Remove the cookies, allow them to cool completely, then shake them in the powdered sugar again, adding more sugar to the bag if necessary. Place the cookies on the rack once more, to allow time for the sugar to adhere, before serving or storing.

Nutrition information per cookie: 69 calories; 5g fat; 8mg cholesterol; 27mg sodium; 5g complex carbohydrate; 1g fiber; 2g sugars; 1g protein; 26RE vitamin A; 5mg calcium; 25mg phosphorus

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your comments

  1. Cool recipe! I so agree that food photography used to be really ugly. I mean come on, flat lighting and bad food styling that tries to hard makes everything look fake and unappetizing.
    These cookies are also made in Greece with chopped almonds and they are called Kourabiedes!

    • Amy says:

      The old cookbook photographs are so bad and bizarre they cross the line from horrid to good.

      Drat! Missed a nationality! I read they’re often made with pecans, too. In fact, I wonder if my family made them with pecans. I’m sure one of them will be here soon to correct me. :p

      Thanks for coming by!

  2. Carol says:

    As I was reading the title of this entry I thought “I wonder if these cookies are really served in Mexico. I wonder if they have any connection to weddings,” but I didn’t bother to open the Google window to find out, because I knew you’d tell us. I love your blog for the good eats, but even moreso because of the details and stories that accompany every recipe.

  3. They look very pretty…..I actually have seen other foodies baking these cookies, but never had a clue why they are called Wedding Cake….

    • Amy says:

      The site I referenced said that these became popular in the U.S. in the 1950s, the “Red Scare” era. They had been called Russian tea cakes here before then, and it’s posited that they were named Mexican wedding cakes in 1950s cookbooks in order to erase the link to those evil commies. I haven’t seen anything definitive on that though.

  4. Everytime I come back to this blog I am literally left salivating over your pics! As a matter of interest what camera are you using to take them?

    As a veggie, this time of year is great for treats and cakes and coming over here always gives me some inspiration.

    Hopefully we’ll see some more Xmas snacks and maybe even some new years treats!

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

    JD

    • Amy says:

      Thank you so much for the kind comments! I think I’m living proof that you don’t necessarily need a high-end camera to take decent photos — I use a Canon A75. It’s a point and shoot that offers full manual controls; however, I haven’t figured out how to use them. Yes, macro mode is our friend. That little camera is a workhorse.

      More Christmas cookies coming, yes, but I’ll be taking a breather for New Years’ — a few drinks on the menu though!

  5. bonsaiTwilight says:

    You just got a daily user

  6. These are by far one of my favorite cookie treats! Though in America they are a Christmas cookie, they did in fact get the name from their use as Mexican wedding cakes!

  7. jharana1976 says:

    This is an excellent article on Mexican wedding cakes, about which there is such a beautiful past and they are so popular in different countries by different names. The description, the recipe and pics are so palatable to naturally salivate. Thanks for the information.

  8. Xava says:

    Just wondering… what are those cookies in the lower right that look like they’re chocolate with a dusting of powdered sugar? They remind me very much of a cookie my aunt used to make, I never got the recipe :(

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