These buttery, nutty one-bite cookies go by many names. Maybe you know them as Russian Tea Cakes, Italian Wedding Cookies, or Snowball Cookies. Whatever you might call them, these Spiced Mexican Wedding cookies (their most popular name) are the perfect antidote — or addition — to the sugar-studded cookie plate. With just enough heat, salt, and nutty flavor, these cookies satisfy sweetly without being cloying. And they are just as easy to make as they are to eat.
What's in a Name?
Like anything good and simple, the backstory of this cookie is far more elusive and layered than the recipe itself. Some suggest these cookies have their roots in the simple desserts of Medieval-era Arabian treats and evolved as they traveled across the West, changing names but maintaining the concept of a cookie spun from sugar, fat, and nuts. In the U.S. they're most commonly known either as Mexican wedding cookies or Russian tea cakes — a distinction that may reflect America's changing relationship with Russia during the 1950s coupled with the surge of interest in Mexican cuisine.
Mexican Wedding Cookies by Any Other Name
Mexican Wedding Cookies are known by many other names: Snowballs, Moldy Mice, Italian Nut Balls, Russian Teacakes, Melting Moments, Mandulás kifli, Polvorones, Sand Tarts, Sandies, Butterballs, Almond Crescents, Finska kakor, Napoleon Hats, and even just plain ol' Wedding Cookies. How a simple cookie got so many nicknames is probably a direct result of the fact that they're easy to prepare and have been around for quite a long while.
Pick a Nut, Any Nut
Here is the beauty of this cookie: You can use almost any nut that you have on hand for making these. Pecans seem to fit the bill for most Mexican wedding cookies, while walnuts and pistachios are often used for Russian teacake recipes or Italian wedding cookies. These nut differences are only observed subtleties from cookie researching; using one nut or the other doesn't distinguish the two (or 10) different names, but does vary the color and flavor. Use any nut alone or in combination, including pecans, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, and cashews to create the flavor you desire. I've never tried them with peanuts, but I suspect they'd need just a bit more flour to stay round when baked.
Freezing Mexican Wedding Cookies
The dough for these cookies freezes incredibly well — just scoop and shape the rounds as you would for baking and freeze in a single layer on a baking sheet until solid. Once frozen, transfer the dough balls to a zip-top bag or other airtight container and freeze until you're ready to bake. Bake the frozen balls without thawing, baking an extra minute or two if needed for them to set.
You can also freeze the fully baked but uncoated cookies. The powdered sugar tends to melt as the cookies thaw, so it's better to freeze the cookies uncoated and coat after thawing right before serving.
How To Make Spiced Mexican Wedding Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
What You Need
1 1/2 cups
pecan halves (about 5 1/2 ounces), or equivalent weight in other nuts
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon
(8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups
powdered sugar, divided
Stand mixer or hand mixer
Toast the nuts: Toast the pecans or nuts in a large frying pan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a large plate and cool completely, about 20 minutes.
Finely chop the nuts: Finely chop the nuts or pulse in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment into a fine meal.
Combine the dry ingredients: Whisk the flour, chopped nuts, cinnamon, salt, and cayenne together in a medium bowl; set aside.
Cream the butter and powdered sugar: Place the butter and 1/2 cup of the powdered sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and a large bowl.) Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla. Stop the mixer and scrape down the paddle and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture: Return the mixer to low speed and gradually beat in the flour mixture until just combined.
Chill the dough: Transfer the dough to a piece of plastic wrap, form it into a 1-inch-thick disc, and wrap completely in the plastic. Refrigerate until firm but still soft enough to scoop, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Heat the oven and prepare the baking sheets: Meanwhile, arrange 2 racks to divide the oven into thirds and heat to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the remaining 1 cup of powdered sugar in a pie plate or large, shallow bowl.
Shape the dough: Form the dough into 1-tablespoon balls and place on the baking sheets, spacing them at least 1 1/4-inches apart (fit them all on the 2 baking sheets; they do not spread much).
Bake the cookies: Bake for 8 minutes. Rotate the baking sheets between racks and from front to back. Bake until the tops of the cookies are set, 7 to 8 minutes more.
Cool and coat the cookies twice: Place the baking sheets on wire racks and let the cookies cool on the sheets for 10 minutes. While still warm, gently coat each cookie completely in powdered sugar and place on the rack. Let cool completely, about 15 minutes more, then coat again in the powdered sugar.
Nut substitutions: You can substitute an equal weight (not volume) of almonds, walnuts, cashews, pine nuts, or pistachios for the pecans, or use any combination of these nuts.
Make ahead: The dough can be made, formed into balls, and frozen directly on the baking sheet. Store the frozen cookie dough balls in freezer zip-top bags or an airtight container for up to 2 months. Bake frozen, adding 1 to 2 minutes to the bake time, and continue with coating with powdered sugar. You can also freeze the fully baked cookies without powdered sugar; thaw completely before coating in powdered sugar.
Storage: The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.