December 3 is National Cookie Day, so why not dedicate a blog to everyone’s favorite sweet treat and a fabulous Russian tea cake cookie recipe? The word “cookie” originally comes from the Dutch word “koekje,” meaning cake. Of course, much of the English-speaking world calls them “biscuits,” but that just shows how influential Dutch immigrants were on the development of American English.
Cookies were originally made as a way to test oven temperature. Bakers could use a small bit of dough or batter to make sure the temperature was correct, rather than risk the whole recipe. Remember–oven thermometers are a rather recent invention, only coming into use with the advent of gas and electric ovens in the Nineteenth Century!
Types of Cookies
Cookies, of course, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from giant chocolate-filled, to airy meringues. But while each part of the world has its own particular cookie traditions, there can be a lot of overlap.
One case in point is a simple butter cookie made with butter, powdered sugar (or sometimes caster or cane sugar), flour, and (sometimes) nuts, then coated in powdered sugar. These have various names: Russian Tea Cakes and Mexican Wedding Cakes are two of them, and their recipes are almost identical. But there are similar cookies throughout the world. Kourabiethes from Greece are a bit more elaborate, using also egg and a leavener, as well as well as citrus zest, but they are extremely similar in texture, taste, and appearance. Ditto for the Qurabiya cookies, the version found throughout the Arab world.
There is a crescent-shaped version called Venillekipferl found in Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Switzerland. They are traditionally made a Christmas What distinguishes these is that the powdered sugar with which they are dusted is vanilla-flavored.
Growing up, we called these cookies “snowball cookies” for their white, round appearance, and we made them at Christmas time. We have also heard them called Russian butter cookies, Russian tea ball butter cookies, or Russian tea cookies.
Russian Tea Cake Cookie Recipe (“Snowball Cookies”)
Serves: 48 cookies
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Cook method: Bake
- 1 cup butter
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus 1 cup for rolling
- 2 1/4 cups flour
- pinch of salt
- 3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
2. Cream the butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar, and the vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the salt, sifted flour, and nuts, and mix until just incorporated.
2. Portion the cookies using a 1-inch ice cream scoop, then roll the dough into balls.
3. Place an inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes (do not let them brown).
4. Transfer immediately to a wire rack, and let them cool for a few minutes.
5. Roll the cookies while still quite warm in a bowl of powdered sugar. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes, then roll in powdered sugar again.
Cook’s note: If you want to try an alternate recipe, you can substitute the walnuts for almonds and the vanilla extract for almond extract.
By Peg Kern
Sign up to receive our newsletter, which includes travel tips, recipes, promotions, and information on our best cooking vacations.