You know how some people in dual-language households speak Spanglish (English + Spanish) – and at this time of year, lots of families celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas because they’re lucky enough to have both under one roof?
In our house, our holidays are Traleo: half treats, half Paleo.
Particularly on Christmas, I take advantage of my year-long deposits in the good health bank, and make the original versions of my favorite family treats. It’s true to my philosophy that if I’m going to eat something that’s not paleo-compliant, it’s going to be the very best version of that thing on the planet.
With that in mind, here’s the story of Russian Teacakes, my favorite cookie of all time – and the one treat that I make every year to celebrate the magic of Christmas (in the form of butter and sugar rolled into little balls. [Heh, balls.])
Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book
Did any of you also have this book in your house when you were growing up? I can’t remember a time when this book wasn’t part of my life. It was originally published in 1963, and although I remember my mom and I also baked cookies from other sources – recipes torn from magazines or written on index cards in my mom’s perfectly-looped, precise cursive handwriting – our cookie baking list always started with the Cooky Book. And we always always always made Russian Teacakes because those are my dad’s favorite.
You can buy a new reproduction of this classic on Amazon. I found an original copy in a vintage store somewhere along the way, and its pages are now marked with hot pink, star-shaped post-it notes, pointers to recipes I’ve yet to try. Who knows if I’ll ever get to them? I bake cookies just once a year, and Russian Teacakes are a must. But I love the delight of considering the options: Lemon Snowdrops, Christmas Jewels, Dream Bars. (Who could resist something named “Dream Bar”?!) Almost every cookie has its own glamour shot, and the colors are a marvel of technicolor.
Over the years, we’ve added notes in the margins of well-loved (so, stained and torn) pages. My Russian Teacake recipe says, in my familiar scrawl (though I barely remember writing it), *make these smaller than you think you should. Yesterday, I asked Dave to add a note about baking time. He wrote, start checking at 8 m, followed by also: keep being awesome.
That’s the thing I love most about a beat-up, stained cookbook – telegrams from the past, love notes to the future, a light-up strand of memories that connects us to every version of ourselves and the people we love. We change, and we may be miles apart, but a little butter and sugar, mixed with love, brings us together in an instant. My family baked their Russian Teacakes yesterday, too, and I can imagine the powdered sugar cloud wafting in the air and the sweet smiles all around after that first bite.
From Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, with improved instructions from me because the original directions assume you make cookies all the time and know, inherently, how to do it. Makes about 4 dozen 1-inch cookies
2 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar + a few cups for rolling
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup pecans, finely chopped
1. In a medium bowl, mix the flour and salt with a fork; set aside.
2. With a standing mixer or hand mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla. Add the flour and blend until just combined. Add the nuts and blend until just combined. With your hands, pat the dough into a rectangular shape, about 6 inches long and 4 inches wide. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least an hour.
3. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F. Cover a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the fridge, and using a sharp knife, cut the block into 48 equal-sized pieces. Roll the dough cubes between your palms to make 1-inch balls (balls!) and place on the baking sheet. These cookies don’t spread, so they can be placed fairly close together. Bake 8-11 minutes, but pay attention! You do not want them to brown; these cookies should be set but still pale when taken from the oven.
4. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little, about 5-10 minutes. Pour the extra confectioner’s sugar in a large bowl, and when the cookies are firm enough to touch, but still warm, gently roll them a few at a time in the sugar, then set aside on a wire rack to cool completely. When the cookies are 100% cool – cooler than the members of Duran Duran, sipping vodka with supermodels in an ice hotel in Sweden – roll them in the confectioner’s sugar again. Store in a covered container and eat with abandon (once a year).
Update: My mom read this post, then added more to the story in the comments below. I liked what she wrote so much, I’ve added it here so you don’t miss it. Enjoy!
I was delighted and a wee bit emotional to read your tale of Russian Teacakes today. My memories took me back to Christmases past. Here is my Russian Teacake tale for you and your readers.
The first time I had these melt in your mouth goodies was in the late 50s, pre Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book. My 21-year-old sister – your Aunt Polly – introduced Russian Teacakes to us. She lived in Philadelphia and had gotten the recipe from one of her “big city” friends. In those days, our Mother lovingly filled large tins with chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal raisin cookies for Christmas. Back then at our house, sweet treats were only enjoyed on special occasions. Christmas cookies were something my family really looked forward to at the holidays. When my older sister came home with her own cookie tin filled with tiny snow balls, they quickly became my favorite. After I married your Dad, Polly shared the recipe with me and they quickly became his favorite, too.
On your second Christmas (when we had a tree so big it didn’t fit in the living room, and your Dad had to take it outside to saw off a section of the lower trunk) Dad bought me my first copy of Betty’s Cooky Book. I was thrilled to see the recipe for Russian Teacakes inside those glossy pages. We had a low shelf in our kitchen on Mifflin Street where the cookie book took its place next to Fannie Farmer. One day Dancer (No, not the Reindeer, but our St. Bernard dog) decided that Cooky Book looked good enough to eat. Needless to say, the book was ruined. That was pre Amazon (Prime) days (Dave!) so it took some time before I found a replacement. Over the years, I have tried a few of the cookie recipes in this book, but none compares to the deliciousness, or the heartwarming special memories, of the Russian Teacakes.
Aunt Polly would be so very proud of you and your own cook book, WELL FED. Merry Christmas, Honey, with Teacake love!
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