Our favorite holiday cookie recipes, pt. 4: Russian tea cakes

Illustration for article titled Our favorite holiday cookie recipes, pt. 4: Russian tea cakes
Photo: Allison Shoemaker

I find baking very soothing—for the most part. Like 90 percent soothing. Maybe 75 percent. Still, mostly soothing. First and foremost in the pro column, in the winter at least, is basically everything having to do with the oven. The gorgeous aroma! The waves of warmth! Nostalgia! All that. Wonderful. I love doing something that involves lots of chopping and smooshing and stirring and blending and measuring. Great way to turn your brain off. I like that at the end, if you just pay attention to all the details, something goo-like transforms into something delicious and solid that can be dunked into coffee. It’s like a magic trick. All great stuff.


The 10 to 25 percent I don’t like consists of two things. The first: The potential that you’re just going to absolutely fail, and what does that say about your life choices, Allison? The second: Making decisions. When to stop mixing. When to stop chilling the dough. When to take something out of the oven. What kind of chocolate chips to use, which variation to take and which to pass, how big things should be, what pie crust recipe to use and whether or not you can pull off a lattice crust, you get the idea. So when it occurred to me that I could attempt to my favorite childhood holiday cookie without choosing between things, I got very excited, and I am delighted to inform you that the results are no joke.

Russian tea cakes—which depending on who you ask are either also called or related to Mexican wedding cakes, Italian wedding cookies, and snowball cookies—are made with butter, confectioners sugar, vanilla, and nuts. What kind of nuts, you ask? Well, it depends on the recipe. Some recipes basically say, “yeah, just pick one of these six kinds of nuts, all right?” and I love these cookies, but that is a nightmare for someone indecisive like me. So when setting out to make them again this year, I decided to choose less. Two kinds of nuts. Add cinnamon, but only for some of them. What the hell, dip some of them in chocolate. I’m a grown-ass adult and if I don’t want to choose between pecans and hazelnuts, I don’t have to.

Reader, I am very pleased with this decision. The combination of nostalgia and mistress-of-my-destiny, I-do-what-I-want thinking made for an experience even more soothing than usual. All that, and they taste great, too.

Russian tea cakes, indecisive-style

Adapted from Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who adapted from Epicurious

Makes 4 dozen cookies

  • 1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups of powdered/confectioners sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. cinnamon

For chocolate sauce (optional, sorry to do that to you)

  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 2 oz. cream

Toast the pecans and hazelnuts in the oven (350 degrees Fahrenheit for roughly 12 minutes, stir every four minutes, remove when they start to smell amazing and/or are a little browned). Separate hazelnuts while still warm and roll in a dishtowel to remove most of the skins. Let cool to room temperature. Do a number on the nuts in a food processor or other grinding tool by pulsing until fine, making sure to occasionally scrape the sides of the bowl. Set aside.

Beat butter with electric mixer until fluffy. Separate 1/2 cup powdered sugar and add to butter along with vanilla. Set remaining powdered sugar aside. Beat until blended. Add flour, beat until blended; add nuts, beat until blended. Split dough into two balls, wrap each in plastic and chill for 30 minutes to an hour.

Preheat to 350 degrees. Put remaining powdered sugar in a large bowl. Take half the chilled dough and roll into balls in roughly two-teaspoon increments. Space balls 1/2 inch apart on large baking sheet. Bake about 18 minutes until the cookies are lightly golden on top. Cool on cookie sheet for five minutes, then toss in powdered sugar. Cool on cooling rack.


Whisk cinnamon into powdered sugar. Repeat process wth second ball of dough.

When cookies are cool, melt chocolate chips and stir in cream (I used the microwave, but however you like). Dip one side of however many of the cookies you please in the chocolate. Let cool. Enjoy being drunk with power.


Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!



*files claws, rolls eyes*

As it’s nearly That Time Of Year When I Wish Merry Hellfire On Small Children Everywhere, I present to you...Granny Vinegar’s legendary ginger loaf. It freezes well, so with a bit of forward planning and a hefty shopping bag, it makes an ideal food-based weapon...

You’ll need…

100g of unsalted butter, softened.

175g of treacle. Or molasses or whatever satanic substance you Yanks use.

50g of golden syrup. You can use a golden-syrup substitute, but please, do try and get the real deal. Plus, you can use golden syrup for a whole shitting tonne of excellent British baking snacks. Plus, it’s fucking amazing on ice cream. Trust me on this. It’s literally orgasmic.

100g of soft brown sugar. It can be any dark brown sugar you want – I recommend muscavado or Demerara. Wee tip for you lot - if you do have brown sugar, but it’s all clumped together and dried out, try putting it into a bowl, cover the bowl with a dampened paper towel and microwave for ten seconds at a time until soft and crumbly. Don’t say I’m not nice to you.

6 tablespoons of full-fat milk.

2 large eggs, beaten like the little bitches they are.

225g of plain flour.

¼ teaspoon of salt.

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon.

To make…

First, get a loaf tin, and line with greaseproof paper. Britain has a fucking amazing baking emporium called Lakeland where you can actually buy loaf-tin liners. If you can’t be fucked peeling off greaseproof paper, I highly recommend these. They look good and everyone won’t think you’re that drunken floozy who drunk-phoned her boss on New Years Day and told him he has a massive...anyway.

Now, put the butter, treacle, syrup and sugar into a pan and gently heat over a low heat until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved, stirring constantly. Turn the heat off, leave to cool for a couple of minutes and then stir in the milk and eggs. Put to one side.

Sift all the dry ingredients together into a large bowl, and then gradually pour in the melted mixture, beating constantly until smooth.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, and bake on the middle shelf at 160 degrees Celsius/325 Fahrenheit/Gas Mark 3 for at least an hour or until a skewer stabbed into the bread comes out clean. Once cooked, remove from the oven but leave in the tin for ten minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

I should point out that this goes delightfully well with a good cup of coffee and it’s insanely popular at my workplace when iced. To ice, simply roll out some fondant icing (what the hell do you mean, “I can’t make fondant!”? Learn, you slattern and remember: sugar burns are not painful but merely a reminder of your lacklustre upbringing and a lasting memorial to your parents’ clearly lacking culinary skills...) The icing should ideally be around a centimetre thick (so you can listen to Gargantuor, aka Fat Dave From Admin, whine about his diabetes for the zillionth time. Yes, we have a death pool at work and yes, we have him copping it from a lack of Snickers in March 2019. Its okay - he’s a cunt and no one really likes him anyway and we’re this close to figuring out a way into tricking the fat bell-end into eating salad to test our theory that lettuce will kill him...) 

Now, here’s a wee trick I picked up a few years ago from watching the Queen of Baking, aka, Mary Berry (think Martha Stewart, but British, better dress sense, less of a total patronising cunt and minus the criminal record) - when icing something like a ginger loaf, the crust that’ll form on the loaf will be literally waterproof. To get round this - and to make sure that your icing sticks - simply melt one tablespoon of apricot jam or jelly in one tablespoon of boiling water (again, burn marks are a learning experience and just how the holiest of fucking hells can you not boil water safely, Becky?)

Mix until the jam is all gooey and melty and then brush quickly over the top of the loaf and drape your fondant icing over. To serve, simply slice it up into however many slices you want (I usually cut the loaf into one-inch thick slabs and then cut the loaf lengthwises, that way I don’t need to listen to the Weightwatcher Failure Club in my office whine about their Neverending Battle With Snacks. Joseph, Ginger Brian, and Fat Dave - it’s not the jeans that make you look fat. It’s the fat in your arses that make you look fat. Self-control. Exercise it.)

After all that - this cake’s a major hit with kids. I recommend cutting a slice into two portions (it can be a wee bit rich for some wee hobgoblins, so you can always give them one piece and then save another piece for after their dinner) And the wee devils I know love to have this with proper custard - just an FYI in case for some bizarre reason you have any leftovers.

I take zero responsibility for any work-related maimings you could be blamed for as a result of following my advice.  If so, just get a staplegun and let loose with it...