Whimsical Winter Baking: Russian Tea Cake Snowmen

Russian Tea Cakes… those dense little snowy bundles of sweet confectionary sugar, butter, flour, and nuts is a classic Christmas cookie that has been a staple in our holiday baking since I was a little kid. One of the most simple of cookies to make, it has other aliases as well…Mexican Wedding Cakes, Rolling in the Snow, Holy Rollers and the plain Jane, practical name… Pecan Balls.

The history behind these guys is muddy but a popular theory is that they originated in Europe as a tea time snack (hence their name Russian Tea Cakes) and migrated to Mexico with European nuns where they became a popular cookie served at weddings (Mexican Wedding Cakes!).  A friend who grew up in Canada knew them as Rolling in the Snow cookies (how very fun!) and at a church-sponsored flea market in the South, I once saw them advertised as Holy Rollers on the food and beverage table. That could have been someone’s clever name made up just for that day, so I’m not sure if this one has actual traction, but it does pay homage to the nun theory anyway.  And of course, for all the literal lovers out there, the Pecan Ball needs no explanation as to how that name came about since indeed these cookies are ball-shaped and can contain pecans.

Traditionally they look something like this…

and can contain any nuts you like – pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, macademia, etc. My mom always used walnuts and favored the recipe from the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book printed in 1950…

so that became my family tradition as an adult too. Some other recipes include additional ingredients of cinnamon or loose tea, lavender or lemon zest but Betty Crocker’s version is the one we like best.

Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus additional following baking)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/4 cups sifted flour (Betty recommended Gold Medal flour back in the day)

1/4 tsp. sal

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Mix butter sugar and vanilla together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sift flour and salt together and mix into butter. Stir in nuts and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from fridge and roll into 1″ inch balls* using your hands. Place 2.5 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until set but not brown (between 10-12 minutes).**  While still warm roll in confectioner’s sugar. Cool and then roll in sugar once again.

* To make snowmen: You will need to form three balls per snowman ranging in size from big (base) medium (middle) small (head). Roll each ball in your hand to shape it into a typical snowball shape and then flatten the big and medium balls on the top and bottom with your hand so that that they will sit on top of each other without rolling off. The smallest ball (the head) should only be flattened on the bottom (so that your snowman will have a round head on top). The snowmen pictured here are three inches in height, so use your judgment when shaping as far as ball sizing. If you want to make bigger snowmen, baking times will need to be extended.

** If you are making snowmen –  Bake all the big bottom base snowballs together on one sheet and then the medium and small balls on another sheet since the smaller balls usually take 1-2 minutes less baking time then the big balls. Your snowball sizes will look something like this…

After you’ve baked and sugared all your cookies, now you are ready for the fun part of decorating. This is what I had on hand in the “props” department…

Orange rinds for the scarf and nose, black peppercorns for the eyes and rosemary branches for the arms. To make the scarf and nose just take a vegetable peeler and peel about 3 inches of rind in one long continues piece. Trim with a sharp paring knife to your desired scarf thickness and curl the rind around your fingers to shape it like a scarf (once the rind dries out it will hold the shape perfectly). Wedge the scarf into the section where the head meets the body.

Press the peppercorns into the head gently. They will stick on their own (this step might take a couple of attempts!).

Cut a thin long triangle out of your excess orange rind (to mimic the shape of a carrot)  and gently press into the head where the nose should be. The orange rind will stick to the cookie on its own but might take a couple of attempts too.

Cut rosemary branches to size and poke into each side of the middle ball.

And now your snowman has come to life! Just like the ones you make in your yard, each one will have his own little personality depending on how you style it. The sky is the limit when it comes to decorating your guy so feel free to get creative if you want to make a hat, a jacket or a corncob pipe. Additional mounds of powdered sugar help set the stage for a little wintertime scene, day or night…

Hope this project adds a little fun to your day! Cheers to a winter wonderland from the sweetest little snowmen in the Vintage Kitchen!

Our Favorites: Five Wonderfully Whimsical Things about Julia Child (And A Recipe!)

Her old cookbooks teach us new tricks. Her methodical approach to food never fails us. Her infectious joie de vivre still inspires us. She may have passed away 13 years ago but the spirit of Julia Child is still very much alive and well here in the Vintage Kitchen.  Yesterday marked Julia Child’s 105th birthday.  In celebration, we’ve compiled a list of five whimsical things that we absolutely adore about this great lady.

1. The Photograph – December 1968, France

This is my most favorite picture of Julia Child. It was taken in December 1968 while she was staying at her summer house, La Pitchoune, in Plascassier, France. I love that she is laughing so hard she’s practically tumbling off the counter. I wonder what the situation was at the moment this image was captured. Was her husband, Paul, standing just out of frame telling a joke? Or maybe one of those crab claws just reached up and started playing tug-of-war with her fork. Or maybe it was Julia herself just hamming it up for the camera. Spontineanity ran wild in Julia’s kitchen and I have feeling there were many days in many kitchens around the world that witnessed a moment like this with the engaging lady laugher.

2. The TV Appearance – David Letterman

On December 22, 1986 Julia Child was scheduled to demonstrate how to cook with a blowtorch on the Late Night with David Letterman show. The segment starts out as planned but quickly goes awry and both Julia and David wring all the humor they can out of this unexpected situation. It’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants funny piece – both of them cleverly improvising with the comedy at hand.  Julia is famous for saying “No matter what happens in the kitchen, – never apologize.” You can see her sticking to that advice with aplomb here.

3. The Decorating Choice – La Oubliette

In Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, she describes moving into a French apartment that was already furnished.  It was full of old antiques that were musty, broken down and too small for her tall stature.  The shabby scene depressed her so much that she rounded up everything that she disliked in the apartment,  put them into a closet, and shut the door tight, never to encounter that stuff again. She named that closet La Oubliette or the Forgettery. Anything that displeased her from that point forward for the duration of the time that she and Paul lived there went into that closet.  Out of sight, out of mind.

After reading that passage years ago and falling in love with that idea, I established my own Forgettery in whatever place we’ve lived in. Not all of our spaces have had the luxury of spare closets, but a cupboard or a drawer or a hidden shelf works just fine too.  Sometimes we use it not only for physical objects but also for words. There is something very gratifying about walking into your own Oubliette, saying out loud whatever injustice happened to you that day, and then walking out, shutting the door and leaving all that negativity and all those bad vibes closed in there instead of in you. Julia. She was a cook and a therapist all in one!

4. The Random Cambridge, MA Kitchen Comforts

This past May, we had the exciting experience of visiting Julia Child’s kitchen at the Museum of American History. I had seen pictures of it online before so I knew that I’d see the yellow tablecloth and her big restaurant stove and the pots and pans hanging from the pegboard, but what I didn’t realize I’d see was a host of everyday items that had nothing to do with the kitchen.

You know, those other errant household objects of daily life that just seem to migrate their way into the kitchen but have nothing to do with food or cooking? Things like keys, wallets, shoes, books, tape, paint cans, bags, notebooks, etc.? Julia’s kitchen was full of that sort of stuff too. A Rubix cube, a pile of papers, jars of pens and pencils, a calculator, some sort of glowing orb-like light, bird identification books, a signal mirror from World War II.   Julia was all about keeping things close by that she loved. She even had a junk drawer packed full of odds and ends. And a slew of giant, oversized cooking tool props that appeared in funny stories on her cooking show.  She wasn’t into staged or professionally decorated or aesthetically styled perfection. She was into comfort and function and fun entertaining in a casual environment. Even though Julia and Paul hired architect Robert Woods Kennedy to redesign the kitchen after they purchased the house,  all the decorating of their most favorite room was left up to them.  And it shows in the eclectic menagerie of items they collected and colors they loved.

5. The Book – Jessie Hartland

I recently discovered this fantastic children’s book Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, at a local book sale. Written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland and published in 2012 it is technically considered a children’s book but really anyone of any age could easily appreciate and enjoy it. Jessie tells Julia’s life story in a vivacious arrangement of words and pictures that is so enchanting you’ll want to read it out-loud while imitating Julia’s voice.  It is such a sweet, good-natured and fun-loving approach to the life of this extraordinary culinary icon, you’ll feel like you’ve met Julia Child herself by the end of it.

On the last page of the book, Jessie shares her own adaptation of French crepes inspired by Julia’s recipe. Since it is Julia’s birthday week, and she shouldn’t be cooking for her own celebrations, we made Jessie’s version instead which turned out to be delicious. Julia would definitely approve.

The only ingredient differences in Jessie’s vs. Julia’s recipe is salt and water. Julia’s has a little of both and Jessie’s has none. And to be totally honest we like Jessie’s version better.

One of the things that Julia Child liked most about French cooking was that it was “careful cooking” meaning that you had to spend time with it and keep a thoughtful eye on the procedure of it. She treated all her recipes at first like mountains that needed to be climbed and then, once conquered, like friends that needed to be nurtured and shared and appreciated.  If you have never made crepes before, it may sound a little scary when it comes to flipping these thin style pancakes, but once you’ve conquered it, you’ve mastered this multi-functional breakfast/lunch/ dinner and dessert appropriate food like a champion.

The ingredients are very simple and straight forward. I used free range organic farm eggs, organic whole milk and organic butter in this recipe. Like Julia Child always says – the better quality your ingredients, the better your food will taste.  And if you store your eggs in the refrigerator let them warm up to room temperature before you use them.

Jessie’s Crepes

(makes 5-6 crepes, each about 6.5″ inches in diameter)

3 eggs

1 cup milk

3/4 cup flour

butter (about 1/8th cup)

In a medium sized bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Add the milk and whisk again. Add the flour and whisk one more time. Next Jessie recommends pouring the batter through a fine strainer into a glass measuring cup. I don’t have a strainer so I poured the mixture through cheese cloth wrapped around the fine side of a cheese grater. That worked just fine.

This step removes any large flour lumps and makes the batter silky smooth.  If you don’t have a glass measuring cup you can just strain the batter into a mixing bowl and scoop it with a soup ladle.

Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in a frying pan until it is hot (medium high temp) but not smoking. Whisk the batter one more time and then pour about 1/4 cup into the frying pan. Holding the handle twist and rotate the pan to make sure the batter evenly coats the entire bottom of the pan. Wait about 30 seconds (there should be no more loose or runny batter on the top of the crepe – if there still is cook it a little longer) and then, if you are feeling brave flip the crepe in the pan to cook the other side for about 15 seconds.

There are a couple of other options regarding flipping if you don’t want to toss your crepe up in the air.

Option #1: Carefully slide a spatula underneath the crepe and flip it to the other side.

Option #2:  My personal favorite –  use a cake frosting knife, and slide it under the pancake and quickly flip it.  The goal of all this cooking and flipping is two fold… don’t wait too long to flip it so that the bottom burns and don’t tear the crepe in the process of flipping. The first one might not make the table – and that’s okay – if it burns, or tears or winds up on the floor just start again with more butter and a new scoop of batter. Practice makes perfect. And one general rule of thumb – more butter is better than less butter when it comes to making sure the crepes don’t stick, so when in doubt add more not less. This is what your crepes should look like once they are ready…

Repeat this step until you have made all your crepes. You can keep them warm by placing each one on top of the other, stack-stile, on a plate covered with aluminum foil as each one comes out of the pan. Or covered in a dish in the oven on the lowest temperature setting.

Crepes are a foundation piece that can be served in a number of different ways for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. When we make ours for breakfast, we sprinkle powdered sugar on a warm crepe, roll it up and then top it with a mixture of seasonal fruit in the summer or a warm fruit compote in the fall and winter. But you can just about add anything you like to a crepe and it will be delicious.

One thing to keep in mind when serving crepes is that they contain no sugar so if you like them sweet don’t forget to add sugar or honey, maple syrup, chocolate sauce, whip cream or your own fruit medley.

French Crepes ala Jessie via Julia!

And of course, the very best companion for this festive French dish is a good book like Bon Appetit, which you can find here.

If you are a big fan of Julia, like us, please share your favorite things about her in the comment section below. We’d love to learn more about how she inspires you!

In the meantime cheers to the lady who keeps inspiring us to find the fun in the food! Happy Birthday Julia!