Baking certain cookies signals the beginning of the Christmas season. For me, it’s Nut Butter Balls, otherwise known as Mexican Wedding Cookies, Nut Crescents or Russian Tea Cakes. Lots of butter, powdered sugar, ground nuts, flour and vanilla, rolled into marble-sized balls, baked and tossed in snowy white powdered sugar. That’s always the best part—dropping the cookies into the sugar while they’re hot, and rolling them around quickly—and gently—so that the sugar melts onto them in sweet, powdery layers.
Variations of the recipe can be found everywhere—Betty Crocker, Fanny Farmer and in the holiday baking magazines that show up on newsstands each year (see magazine rant below). They aren’t difficult to make or cutting-edge, but made with good quality butter and fresh toasted nuts they are heaven. They’re versatile too—looking as pretty on the red plastic Santa tray as they do piled high on Grandma Emma’s finest china.
This year, I turned to Gourmet magazine’s Mexican Tea Cakes recipe, which uses chopped pecans, and they are better than ever. Originally published in 1989, the recipe was reprinted in Gourmet’s December 2001 feature on Holiday Cookie Classics. That issue collected the best of the magazine’s Christmas cookie recipes from past years. I have a splattered, dog-eared clipping, but you can find Mexican Tea Cakes and all of the Gourmet classic cookie recipes on Epicurious:
- Anise-Scented Fig and Date Swirls (I’m chilling these right now, and can’t wait to bake them tonight).
- Turtle Brownies (Bonnie often serves these at Winter Solstice Parties. Jack and I made them one Christmas, including the homemade caramel topping. Outrageously rich and delicious.)
- Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti
- Brown Sugar Crisps
Maybe I’ll be a little better organized next year, and will bake them all! (There’s still time left this year to make the brownies.)
Warning: Foodie Magazine Rant
The Scrooges at Conde Nast pulled the plug on Gourmet last year in favor of its other food magazine, Bon Appetit, consolidating and cutting their losses. (Just when I was looking forward to their Christmas issue). Conde Nast, in an effort to salvage the Gourmet “brand” published a special issue last year that, while beautiful, was nothing more than a tired rehash of past recipes. Seen it all before, and felt cheated after shelling out the $8. Now they’re working on introducing a Gourmet Live App. Publishing is hard, especially in this environment, and I do sympathize. But killing Gourmet—the magazine—was just knuckleheaded. Gourmet is not Bon Appetit. (The formerly wonderful Bon Appetit rarely seems knows what Bon Appetit is anymore). Bon Appetit is not Gourmet. And now we’re left with magazine racks filled with Food Network stars. (Clearly, Food Network is much savvier at navigating the new world of publishing than old media.) I miss Gourmet. But if the App is just repackaging old recipes, without no real editors or food writers, then Conde Nast is underestimating Gourmet readers.