It’s not often that one has a snowball fight in San Francisco, but that is precisely what’s been going down in my kitchen the past few Decembers. I’ve been trying to bake a great snowball that’s crumbly and delicate, not too sweet, with an addictive salty kick.
Also called Mexican wedding cakes, polvorones, and Russian tea cakes, I
have a soft spot for these buttery, bite-sized cookies made with loads
of toasty nuts and coated in powdered sugar. Jay’s mom makes the world’s most perfect snowballs. She gives us a tin every year at Christmas, and every year I ponder what makes them so delicate and addictive. Then I help myself to another. And another.
Luckily for me, Mary is not only generous with her cookies, but also
with her cookie recipes, and now I have the key to awesome snowballs,
all year round (cue thunder and mad scientist-type laughter). Thank you, Mary!
I’ve been experimenting with different spices, nuts and add-ins, and, next to the original, this is mine and Jay’s favorite version thus far.
I inherited a large bag of cacao nibs, and decided to make a dent in them. Last month at a tech rehearsal, my dance mate Steve reached into his bag for a snack, and came up with a sour expression on his face. He had been bamboozled by the bag’s advertisement of “superfood” and thought that raw, unsweetened cacao nibs would make a healthy snack. If you’ve never eaten a straight nib, it’s a bit like chewing on a coffee bean coated in unsweetened chocolate – bracingly bitter. Steve realized that noshing on nibs was a no-go, and handed me the
remains of the bag when I assured him that they’re better baked into cookies than
on their own.
I thought they’d be ideal in these sugar-coated cookies, which can run the risk of being overly sweet, so I paired them with nutty buckwheat flour (a combination inspired by Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert via Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks) and almonds for a twist on these classic winter holiday cookies.
After making them several times, I’ve learned a few key pointers for making great snowballs.
It’s the size that counts: Not just the size of the cookies (too big and they’re hard to eat, too small and the sugar-to-cookie ratio is all wrong), but also the size of nuts. Though it’s tempting to grind the nuts in a food processor, Mary always hand-chops hers, and this is key. Hand-chopping gives you a variety of sizes ranging from powder to 1/8″ chunks. When the nuts are too finely ground, they result in a dry, hard cookie, whereas a range of pieces leaves the cookie meltingly tender, like great shortbread.
All mixed up: I prefer using the so-called biscuit method (rubbing cold butter into the dry ingredients) to the creaming method (creaming softened butter with sugar). Rubbing in the butter, either with your fingertips or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (never a food processor, which can grind the nuts too fine, see above) coats the gluten strands with butter, keeping them short and weak, which leads to tender cookies.
Keep your cool: Starting with cold butter has another bonus: you don’t have to wait for the butter to soften, and you don’t need to chill a soft dough before forming the cookies. And that means cookies, sooner.
Handle with care: Be gentle with this dough when rolling, as rough handling will develop the glutens and make for tough cookies.
Rock n’ roll: Rolling the cookies in powdered sugar once before baking and again after results in cookies with the just the right amount of creamy coating.
These cookies are quite addictive; sophisticated, maybe not kid-friendly (which is fine by me as our only kid is a cat, and they don’t have sweet receptors on their tongues). Jay says they taste like Nutella (the cookies, not cats), and he’s right. Though there are no hazelnuts, buckwheat does have some hazelnutty notes which blend with the unprocessed chocolate beans. I love the robust and earthy flavors going on here. They make an ideal contrast with the sweet coating of powdered sugar, which turns to a creamy icing as it absorbs the moisture in the cookies. The ample measure of salt will keep you coming back for more, whether you like it or not.
I hope these inspire you to have a snowball fight of your own, though you may not want to throw (or give) any away.
Adapted from the mother of all snowball recipes by Mary Doane
I used sliced almonds here, because they’re easy to chop by hand, but I’d wager slivered or whole almonds would work just fine, too. If the rolled cookies lose their snowy looks after a day or two, just sift a little more powdered sugar over their tops. All ounce measurements are by weight.
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen 1″ round cookies
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 3/4 ounces) buckwheat flour
1/4 cup (2 ounces) organic granulated cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup (2 3/4 ounces) sliced almonds, fairly finely chopped into pieces no larger than 1/8″
1/4 cup cacao nibs, roughly chopped a little larger than the almonds
1 stick (4 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2″ dice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup (2 1/4 ounces) powdered sugar
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, stir together the flours, granulated sugar, salt, chopped almonds and cacao nibs. Add the butter pieces, sprinkle the vanilla over the top, and work in with either a pastry blender, your fingertips, or the paddle on low speed until there are no more visible butter chunks, and the mixture begins to clump together. This will take a few minutes.
Sift the powdered sugar into a medium-sized shallow bowl.
Form 1 tablespoon of dough into a 1″ ball (a #60 spring-loaded ice cream scoop works beautifully), and roll in powdered sugar, knocking any large clumps of sugar back into the bowl. Repeat with the rest of the dough, placing the dough balls at least 1 inch apart on the lined baking sheet.
Bake the cookies until they are cracked, slightly puffed, and light golden, 18 – 20 minutes. Let them cool completely on the baking sheet, then roll them a second time in the powdered sugar.
Store the cookies in an airtight container at room temperature. I’m guessing they will keep well for up to a week or two, though I’m not sure I can keep my hand out of the cookie jar long enough to find out…