Guess what? I actually got off my arse and did some research for y’all this time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Place oats, barley flour, and walnuts in a food processor. Process for 30 seconds, or until everything is finely ground.
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.
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.
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