When she was still with us, my grandmother baked Mexican wedding cookies every Christmas eve. Today, these nutty, ping-pong ball shaped, powdered sugar-coated cookies take me back to her little house in San Fernando where the sun shone on most Southern Californian Christmases and I sensed that they were her way of giving us snow for Christmas. She had a heavy hand with the powdered sugar, and though I loved the nutty confections, I'd have a coughing fit with each bite as I inhaled — literally — the sweet dusty exterior. And then I'd take another.
Though our family, with its way-back Mexican roots, called them Mexican Wedding (and Christmas) Cookies, it seems they are an international treat, known by names like Russian Tea Cakes and Italian Nut Balls. The association with Mexico comes from a theory that the recipe originally came from Arab people occupying Spain, and then by Spaniards to Mexico.
Usually a light, buttery shortbread that's not too sweet on the inside, the cookie dough is formed into a ball and rolled in confectioners' sugar. My version has more spices and gives an almond extract option to bump up the nutty flavors. As for the sugar coating, I dust lightly, but you may dust as you please.
My favorite way to eat these is at breakfast, dipped sneakily into a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.
Spiced Mexican Wedding Cookies
Makes 2 1/2 dozen
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon pure vanilla or almond extract
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 cup ground almonds, pecans or walnuts
Using a food processor, stand mixer, or hand blender, cream the butter and 1 cup powdered sugar until smooth. Beat in the vanilla and the egg. Gradually stir the flour, ground cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and salt. Add the ground nuts and stir. The mixture should be tacky, but not too wet, as pictured below.
Form the dough into a disk, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until firm, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350° F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or a baking mat.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and quickly roll into bite-sized balls (about 1-inch in diameter) taking care not to overwork the dough (your hands will be greasy from melting the butter in the dough).
Place them on the baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 15 minutes or until just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and set on cooling rack until cool enough to handle, but still warm. Using a small sieve, dust the tops with the powdered sugar, as conservatively or liberally as you like.
Cookies will keep in an air-tight container for 2 to 3 days.
(Image credits: Sara Kate Gillingham)