Saturday, December 22, 2012

Russian Tea Cakes, Pan de Polvo, Butterballs ... whatever you call them, they're delicious

As a teacher on Houston's east side, working in a community largely made up of second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, I was lucky enough to experience the overwhelming  generosity of the neighborhood - especially around the holidays. My students and their families didn't have a lot of money, but each Christmas, I was showered with gifts and goodies. One of my favorite Christmas traditions was receiving cookies called  pan de polvo, which literally translates as "bread of dust." These nutty shortbread cookies, made with pecans and rolled in cinnamon and sugar, are traditionally served at Christmas and weddings, and at other events such as baby showers. I never could resist the delicious, buttery goodness.

Many of us of European heritage may be familiar with pan de polvo by another name - Russian tea cakes. These cookies are nearly the same, but Russian tea cakes are made with almonds instead of pecans, and rolled in powdered sugar instead of cinnamon sugar.

No matter what you call them, however, these cookies simply taste like Christmas - and they are easy to make. 

Ground pecans - if they get too sticky, just use a fork
to separate the granules.
The recipe below is one that has been passed down from my Russian great-grandmother. I've included instructions for both pan de polvo and Russian tea cakes. 

The recipes below call for ground nuts - they can be ground in a food processor or food mill. The nuts should be ground to a fine consistency - almost like corn meal. The pieces will be somewhat sticky due to the oil content of the nuts - you can use a fork to break up any large lumps.

These also call for sifted flour. Sifting flour aerates it, which means that one cup of sifted flour actually contains less flour than a cup of unsifted flour. When I was a little girl, I loved playing with the flour sifter. However, many of us don't have a flour sifter any more. So what to do? Just pour the flour into a bowl, and fluff it with a fork for a minute or two - it should become fluffier and more airy as you do so. Then measure the flour again, using a knife to level off the measuring cup. Don't pack the flour into the cup - remember, you want light and airy.

Pan de Polvo or Russian Tea Cakes

1 c. butter
1/2 c. powdered sugar
2 c. sifted flour
1 c. ground pecans (for pan de polvo) or ground almonds (for Russian tea cakes)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Cinnamon/sugar (about 2 tsp cinnamon to 1/4 c. granulated sugar for pan de polvo) or powdered sugar (for Russian tea cakes) for the outside of the cookies

Step 1: Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Step 2: Using a hand mixer, cream together the butter and powdered sugar. This will be granular at first. Keep mixing until it becomes creamy and smooth.

Step 3: Mix in the flour, nuts, and vanilla. Again, this will form small grains, which will become bigger as you mix. Keep mixing until the dough becomes smooth. (Added bonus: because this dough contains no eggs, you won't risk salmonella if you eat it raw!)

Step 4: Line a cookie sheet with wax paper or parchment. Form 1 rounded teaspoon of dough into a ball for each cookie, and put them on the cookie sheet, about 1 inch apart.

Step 5: Bake for 30-35 minutes. Don't let them get too brown on the bottom.

Step 6: Whichever sugar you are using, put this onto a plate. Don't be skimpy. While the cookies are still warm, roll them in the sugar, then put them on a wire rack to cool.

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