Toasted Almond Russian Tea Cakes (aka Mexican Wedding Cookies) are a variation on tradition using toasted almonds. These easy shortbread drop cookies with their snowy sugar coating are required eating during the holidays! I’ve designed special tags to go along with this recipe to make them super giftable.
These classic cookies go back generations, and they define the holidays for many of us ~ you might know them as Mexican Wedding Cookies, Italian Wedding Cookies, Butterballs, or Snowball Cookies. What distinguishes these simple shortbread drop cookies is the large proportion of ground nuts in the batter, and the snowy coating of powdered sugar. They’re traditionally made with pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, or, as I’ve done here, with almonds. They’re simple, rich, and so beautiful to serve or give. The texture is melting and crunchy at the same time. The thick coating of powdered sugar gives you a burst of sweetness that can’t be beat.
What distinguishes my cookies is that I’ve deeply toasted my almonds before grinding them. If you’ve seen my Toasted Almond Bark, my Toasted Almond Truffles, or my Toasted Almond Milkshake posts, you know I have a thing for toasted almonds. The flavor has haunted me ever since I was a kid and used to get toasted almond ice cream bars from the Good Humor man.
The first thing that hits you upon biting into one of these little cookies is the fiercely sweet powdery sugar coating. Confectioner’s sugar gives a bold, almost chilly sweet sensation that I really like.
The next thing you’ll be aware of is the crumbly shortbread texture that will break apart at the slightest hint of a bite, and that will probably cause some amount of crumb action to tumble down your front. Don’t be shy about hunting and pecking for those dropped crumbs, they’re worth it :)
And finally, what lingers on the palate is that smokey aromatic flavor of the toasted nuts.
Why do I toast the almonds?
Toasting nuts is one of the most important techniques I employ in the kitchen. I love nuts, and toasting them brings out their flavor and crunch. The heat of a 350F oven causes something called a Maillard reaction to occur. The nuts brown and develop intense flavor and aromas. It’s the same reaction that happens when you make a roux out of butter and flour in a pan.
Toasting nuts also makes them more crunchy because they dry out in the oven, but you need to let them cool down first. Straight out of the oven they’ll actually be softer because their fats have melted.
Once toasted your nuts will stay flavorful and crunchy, so I like to batch toast my nuts and keep them around for topping salads and oatmeal. They make great healthy snacks, too, and are so much better than anything you can get out of a can or jar. The flavor is so awesome when you toast nuts that you won’t need added salts or oils.
Tips for making the perfect Toasted Almond Russian Tea Cakes
- Your butter should be softened but not melty. When I’m in a hurry I do this: I put the two wrapped sticks of cold butter in the microwave. I microwave on high for 5 seconds. I turn both sticks over to the next side, then heat 5 seconds more, doing the same for each of the last 2 sides for a total of 20 seconds. I get perfect butter that’s not too soft. (My microwave
- Toast whole raw almonds (skins on) on a bare baking sheet in a preheated 350F oven for 15 minutes, giving the sheet a toss a couple of times during cooking. Let cool before grinding.
- Pulse the nuts repeatedly in a food processor to grind them to an evenly sandy texture. You don’t want any larger chunks of nuts in the mix but don’t take it too far or you’ll get almond butter!
- When you blend the dough, make sure you incorporate all the butter into the flour. Do the last part with your hands and make sure there are no dry bits.
- Use a small cookie scoop to portion out even cookies. Aim for balls that are about 1″.
- Don’t be tempted to roll the cookies in the powdered sugar while they are hot, the sugar will get sticky. Wait until they are just slightly warm and then roll. Then after you’ve done all the cookies, roll them again. Don’t be shy about packing on the sugar, that super sweet coating is part of the appeal of these cookies. (You almost can’t overdo it.)
- If I’m serving the cookies I’ll give them one last shower of sugar, it makes them look like little snowballs.
This type of cookie does well packed in boxes or tins, but I would avoid plastic or cellophane bags which can trap in moisture and make the sugar coating on these cookies slightly tacky. In the photo at the top I’ve packed them in one of my Weck canning jars.
Download these customized tags to include with all your gifts … just punch a hole or two at the top of the tags to thread a ribbon through and tie around your cookies. Holiday gifting done simple!
You can print them on a home computer, or, even better, have them printed on glossy card stock by an office store like Kinkos, FedEx, or Staples. You can do everything easily online and pick them up at your local store, they’ll even cut them for you. If you’re giving this to everyone on your list, that’s a smart way to go.
Delicate shortbread cookies made with toasted almonds and coated with powdered sugar.
- 2 sticks unsalted butter (1 cup, 16 Tbsp, 8 ounces, or 227g) at room temperature
- 6 Tbsp confectioner's sugar (plus more for rolling)
- 1 tsp almond extract
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 cup ground toasted almonds, measured after grinding (instructions for toasting below)
- Preheat oven to 350F
- To toast the almonds, put a cup of raw almonds (skins on) on a baking sheet and toast for 15 minutes in the preheated oven, giving the pan a shake a couple of times during cooking. Let cool, then pulse in a food processor until they become evenly ground with no larger nut chunks left. Important: measure out 1 cup of the ground nuts for this recipe (you will probably have slightly more than that.)
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the almond extract. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the mixer to make sure you've got all the butter incorporated.
- Whisk the flour and salt together and add them, slowly to bowl with the mixer on low. Add in the nuts as well and mix until the dough starts to come together. Finish mixing with a large spoon, and then bring the dough together with your hands. Make sure there are no dry spots.
- Use a small cookie scoop to portion out even amounts and roll in your hands to form a round ball, about 1 inch. Place on an un-greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart and bake for about 10-11 minutes. The cookies will still be pale. Let cool until just slightly warm on a cooling rack. Roll the warm cookies in a small bowl of sifted powdered sugar and put back on the rack.
- When the cookies are completely cooled, roll them again in the sugar.
Cookies will keep up to a week. To freeze these Russian tea cakes, put the completely cooled cookies in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze until firm, at least an hour. Then carefully transfer the cookies to an airtight plastic or glass container with a flat bottom. Put parchment paper between each layer of cookies. After defrosting coat the cookies a final time in powdered sugar.
Make these Toasted Almond Russian Tea Cakes your own ~
In place of almonds you can use walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, or even pistachios. Toast them the same way first (pecans and pistachios won’t take as long to toast in the oven.)
You can add spice to the sugar you use to coat the cookies, try 1 tsp cardamom or allspice for an exotic flavor.
You can use vanilla extract in place of the almond extract, and if you love vanilla, try adding the seeds of a whole vanilla pod to the batter.