Spiced Cocoa Polvorones {Gluten-Free}

Snowball cookies, Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding cakes – call them what you like. These are essentially nutty balls of gluten-free shortbread rolled in frosting-esque powdered sugar, kissed with a Mexican chocolate-inspired mixture of cocoa powder, cinnamon, and a little cayenne for kick.

When Karen of Honestly Yum asked me to take part in a virtual cookie swap with some of my blogging idols, the answer was an emphatic yes! Check out their lovely cookies by clicking the images below. 


I wish I could get more excited about the holidays. So far, the most festive thing I’ve done was to attend a holiday-themed burlesque show that featured a stripping Santa, a Grinch-green Marilyn Monroe in diamond pasties, and can-can dancing reindeer.

You might say, “why, a virtual cookie exchange seems pretty festive!” And indeed, it would have been… had I not put off the recipe testing and shooting until the last minute. Sunday saw me frantically bandying butter and sugar around the kitchen, wishing I were at Hog Island eating oysters and drinking champers with my friends.

Earlier that day, I’d visited the co-op for ingredients and saw a Santa-clad homeless man waltz in saying “Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!” Also potentially festive… until I turned the corner and found him embroiled in a shouting match with a cheese monger. Santa left in a rage.

Laden with bags of sugar and flour, I hiked home, dodging the paths of psychotic drivers who seemed to be under the influence of the “holicraze” as I’m now calling this time of year. (Is it just me or does “the holicraze” sound suspiciously like another unfortunate historical event?)

Back at home, I had a much needed glass of wine (let’s face it, daytime drinking is really the best thing the holidays have going for them) and got down to baking. My first two tries were less than stellar and I wasn’t sure how to fix either one of them. Luckily, Sarah kindly interrupted her dissertation writing to answer my frantic texts and talk me down. (Oh, you should check out her awesome cookies, too. And this gift guide. Yeah, she pretty much rocks at this holiday thing.) Thanks to her advice, I switched tracks. When I pulled this batch out of the oven, they were the clear winner.

Gently spiced and deeply chocolatey, these little cookies feature a frosting-like coating of powdered sugar that gives way to buttery shortbread kissed with toasty pecans and plenty of salt. Molassey muscobado sugar and vanilla add depth, and cinnamon and cayenne slowly emerge in the finish, leaving a warmth in the back of your throat. I replaced the wheat flour typically used here with almond flour and a bit of tapioca starch, which makes these cookies extra-tender.

They’re just the thing to have with afternoon tea, or for dessert, or, because it’s the holicraze, for breakfast! With whiskey!

Ok, maybe hold off on the whiskey until noon.

Polvorones (a.k.a. Snowballs / Mexican Wedding Cakes / Russian Tea Cakes) are my favorite holiday cookie. Jay’s mom makes the best ones – hand-chopped walnuts barely held together in a matrix of buttery, not-too-sweet dough. I made a gluten-full version a couple of years ago featuring buckwheat flour, cacao nibs and almonds, complete with tips and tricks on how to get the best snowballs.

This gluten-free version is a favorite iteration, and their gluten-freeness makes them extra melty-in-your-mouthy. Though nothing really compares to Mary’s originals. I’ll be greatly looking forward to getting a box of those in a few weeks when we have our annual Dungeness crab and wine feast on the deck where I’ll be in good company regarding my lack of holiday cheer.

On the evening following the frenetic cookie-making, a few friends from out of town (two of whom happen to be award-winning bakers) came by for dinner. I laid out a cookie platter with the three different tester cookies and some of these which I’d made for a mini bakesale over the weekend. Sipping whiskey with old friends as we munched our way through cookies, sharing baking techniques and recipes, I felt a bit of holiday cheer creeping into my cold (albeit drunk) heart.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better have another drink.

And another cookie.

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Me want cookie!:
Buckwheat Cacao Nib Snowballs
GF Rugelach with Cranberry Port Jam, Chocolate, and Walnuts
GF Ginger Molasses Cookies
GF+ Vegan Chocolate Chip Almond Butter Cookies
Soft and Chewy GF Chocolate Chip Cookies with Brown Butter and Flaky Salt

One year ago:
Baked Almond Pulp Brownies

Two years ago:
Gluten-Free Ginger Molasses Cookies
French Lentil and Spinach Soup

Three years ago:
Persimmon Galettes

Four years ago:
Persimmon Pudding

Five years ago:
Sourdough Pizza with Chanterelles, Shallots and Chèvre

Spiced Cocoa Polvorones {Gluten-Free}

Adapted liberally from Jay’s mom Mary’s awesome snowball cookie recipe

Since these cookies are a tad fussy, be sure to use the dip and sweep method if measuring by volume, or, better yet, use the weight measurements if you’ve got a kitchen scale. All ounce measurements are by weight.

Makes about 32 (1.5-inch) cookies

For the cookies:

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (3.5 ounces / 100 grams) blanched almond flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill)
1/2 cup (1.75 ounces / 50 grams) cocoa powder (I used dutch-process by Valrhona, but any unsweetened cocoa should work)
2 tablespoons (.5 ounces / 15 grams) tapioca starch
6 tablespoons (2 ounces / 60 grams) unrefined muscobado sugar (I used Alter Eco brand, but any unrefined or brown sugar should work)
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (or more for spicier cookies)
1 cup (4 ounces / 115 grams) raw pecan halves, chopped semi-fine (1/8-1/4″ pieces)
1 stick (4 ounces / 115 grams) unsalted, cold butter, in 1/2″ pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
~3/4 cup (3 ounces / 90 grams) powdered sugar

Let’s make cookies!:

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350ºF. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (or grease lightly).

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the almond flour, cocoa powder, tapioca starch, sugar, cinnamon, salt and cayenne. Add the pecans, scatter the butter pieces over the top, and sprinkle over the vanilla. Mix on low until the butter is incorporated and the dough forms large clumps, 1-2 minutes. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, use a pastry cutter to blend the butter into the dough.) Cover the dough and chill for 30 minutes (or up to several days).

Sift the powdered sugar into a shallow bowl. Form tablespoon-sized 1″ balls of dough and roll them in the powdered sugar, knocking off any large clumps, and place the balls on the baking sheet an inch or two apart (I was able to fit all of mine on one sheet).

Bake the cookies until puffed and cracked, 18-22 minutes. It’s a bit hard to tell when these are done so I recommend setting a timer and using an oven thermometer if you’ve got one. The cookies will be soft at first but should crisp up when cool. (If they’re still soft when cool, return them to the oven to bake them a bit longer).

Let the cookies cool, then roll each one a second time in the powdered sugar. I like these best the first day of baking when the spices are bright and the cookies are crisp, but they can be layered with parchment paper and stored airtight for up to several days. If they start looking bald, give them another coat of powdered sugar.

45 thoughts on “Spiced Cocoa Polvorones {Gluten-Free}”

  1. Alanna, these polvorones are gorgeous and I'm so glad you were able to maneuver around the scroogie obstacles to find a little holiday cheer (alcohol always helps).

  2. I am floored. These cookies are SPECTACULAR, Alanna! That last photo!!! I'd never ever guess you weren't head-over-heels for the holidays :) these are incredible! Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. These cookies are even more amazing than any of the nonsensical ideas I threw your way. The kick of cayenne with the cocoa powder makes these traditional cookies into something extra unique! Last year we tried our hand at gluten-free snowballs (albeit with a store-bought flour blend), and this year my mom was texting to remember how we made them (neither of us have any memory of what we did, except that they turned out extra melty-in-your-mouth). I'm going to send her your recipe for this year – I love the extra nuttiness of the almond flour and the simplicity of only using two gluten-free flours. Even though you consider yourself on the grinch-scale, you inspire me with your holiday-esque cookies! These cookies, and these photos, are so so incredible that they can count as all of your holiday cheer this year.

  4. cookies, day time drinking, a holiday-themed burlesque show that featured a stripping Santa – yes…. these look wonderful. if you are in need of snow or cold air to feel a little more holiday-esque, my Minnesota door is open :)

  5. I never realized these cookies were CHOCOLATE under all that powdered sugar! Maybe I should have been eating them for the past 30 years. :) I also remain fairly scroogey, but I can always get behind cookies. And whiskey. the whiskey will definitely happen at our house.

  6. I never would have guessed that this recipe was a last-minute production! These cookies sound marvelous. I'm with you on the holicraze. My birthday's on Christmas so I usually get all bah-humbug and refuse to put up decorations!

    1. Oh my goodness Kate, how awful!! My birthday's tomorrow, a week away from Christmas, a fact that fuels the fire; I can't imagine how crappy being born on Christmas must be. I wrote a song about having a holiday birthday that I'll hope to play for you someday. :)

  7. "Awesome" is the word that pops into my mind as I first saw and then read this post. I love absolutely everything about these Christmas treats! So happy you eventually nailed the recipe :)

  8. What an interesting and full day you had. Best of all, the episodes leading up to sharing your cookies turned out good. Mission accomplished and shared with friends. The best. I'm hopeful you'll run into a more cheerful Santa the next time you see him :) . Thank you for your inspiration, Alanna.

  9. This just my be my favorite of all your posts. Love the dark holiday humor, and the dark chocolate cookie photos. For some reason, this post takes me back to the many Christmases I spent in San Francisco, albeit without the holiday burlesque (unfortunately!). God, I miss being there this time of year. Wishing you a very Merry and a happy Happy!

  10. As usual, I'm completely drawn to your gorgeous photographs! Everything looks fantastic! My grandmother used to make polvorones and I'm sure she'd be so happy if I surprised her with a batch of this gf version. On the holiday cheer part of things: it's weird, but I keep feeling like I'm "waiting" to actually get into things (shopping/baking/decorating/etc) as time is flying by and I've already been to 2 Christmas events. And the world has gone nuts (I saw a man dressed as an elf being arrested the other day). That burlesque show sounds like it would have been really fun and funny :)

  11. These look totally fabs!! Who cares about stripping Santas (?!) the whole holiday spirit is right here, in these beautiful cookies! Must make them too!! :-) Oh, and these pictures are beautiful much! :-)

    1. I don't know, there sure was a lot of holiday spirit in that stripping Santa. ;) Thanks so much for the kind words, though. Please let me know if you give these cookies a go!

  12. I have never craved cookies more than I am right now!! What an awesome group of bloggers and a delicious round up of cookies! I've been listening to Christmas music non-stop lately (I'm kind of a dork like that!) but I still can't believe that Christmas is just days away, especially since I have done zero Christmas shopping! I think that I need to get in the kitchen and start baking all these cookies so I can give them out as presents!

    1. Aw, thanks Izzy! I've been listening to Christmas music too — though only every version of All I Want for Christmas Is You. I'm all for edible gifts, so happy baking… and send one to me! ;)

  13. these look so great i'm almost sorry that i'm already done with this year's holiday baking. a quick question about the tapioca starch: i don't have any on hand and doubt i'd ever use up an entire package. i wonder if cornstarch or arrowroot would work. any thoughts?

    1. I've heard the arrowroot is similar to tapioca so I should think it would work, but you may want to google the substitution since I haven't tried it and don't know for sure.

  14. just tested 1/2 recipe subbing cornstarch for the tapioca flour. this one is in the rotation for next (2015) christmas cookie rotation!

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