Classic, old-fashioned Christmas cookies! Also called "Snowball Cookies," these little round Russian Tea Cakes are delicate and tender, nutty, buttery balls of shortbread dough rolled in a festive blizzard of powdered sugar. A holiday dessert tray just wouldn't be the same without them!
Russian Tea Cake Recipe
One of our family's absolute favorite homemade cookie recipes, these festive Russian Tea Cakes couldn't be easier to make. There's no need to wait until the holidays, either -- the simple shortbread cookies are delicious at any time of year! You'll love the buttery dough that's studded with tiny bits of walnuts, giving the classic cookies a slightly nutty, toasted flavor. The cookies themselves aren't very sweet, so they are a perfect contrast to the powdered sugar exterior.
Why are they called Russian Tea Cakes?
Old-fashioned Russian Tea Cakes are a form of "jumble" (a pastry common in England during the Middle Ages). While the tea cakes have become a popular Christmas cookie in the United States (thanks to their festive snowball-like appearance), similar varieties are also known as Mexican wedding cookies (or cakes), Italian wedding cookies, Kourabiedes, or Greek wedding cookies, butterballs, and snowball cookies.
The origin of the name "Russian Tea Cake" is unknown, and there's certainly no direct connection to Russia itself. Some suggest that the cookie recipe either derived from other Eastern European shortbread cookies, may have migrated to Mexico with European nuns, or may have originally been served in Russian tea ceremonies as early as the 18th century (source). By the 20th century, these little treats had become a fixture at wedding, Christmas and Easter celebrations in America, known by their popular names -- Russian Tea Cakes or Mexican Wedding Cakes.
What kind of nuts are in Russian Tea Cakes?
Traditional recipes call for either walnuts or pecans, but you can make Russian tea cakes with almost any kind of nuts that you like. Hazelnuts, almonds or pistachios would all work, too. The key is to finely-chop or grind the nuts into very tiny pieces. You can do this by hand with a good knife, but it's much easier with a food processor. I use my mini food processor since the recipe only requires ¾ cup of nuts. The ground nuts blend into the shortbread cookie dough so that their texture is almost undetectable -- while giving the cookies a rich, nutty flavor.
Are Russian Tea Cakes supposed to be dry?
Yes, these cookies are supposed to have a dry, somewhat crumbly texture. There are no eggs in the classic shortbread dough, and they don't become soft, fluffy, or puffy in the oven. While the cookies should be fairly dry, they should not be as hard as a rock! When you bite into the Russian Tea Cakes, they will have a crumbly, tender, buttery crunch to them...and will practically melt in your mouth!
How to Make Russian Tea Cakes
These easy cookies come together so quickly -- you don't even need to chill the dough!
Ingredients for Russian Tea Cake Cookies
- Vanilla extract
- Almond flavor
- All-purpose flour
- Baking soda
- Walnuts (or pecans)
- Powdered sugar
Step 1: Make Dough
Use a stand mixer to cream together the butter, vanilla, almond flavor and sugar. Mix in the sifted dry ingredients until a thick, firm dough comes together. It will look crumbly at first (kind of like pie crust), but just keep mixing until it really looks like cookie dough.
Add the nuts and mix just until they're nicely incorporated.
Step 2: Shape into Balls
Roll the dough into balls and place on parchment or silicone-lined baking sheets. You can space them about 1-inch apart, because the dough will not spread much in the oven.
Step 3: Bake
Bake the cookies in a 400 degree F oven for about 10-12 minutes -- just until set, but not browned.
Step 4: Roll in Powdered Sugar
While the cookies are still warm, roll them in a shallow dish of powdered sugar (or gently shake them around in a tupperware container).
Step 5: Cool
Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.
Step 6: Roll in Powdered Sugar Again
Once the cookies are cool, roll them in a second coating of powdered sugar and enjoy!
Storage Tips for Russian Tea Cake Cookie Recipe
The cookies will stay fresh in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-4 days or in the refrigerator for at least 1 week. They do not need to be refrigerated; however, I find that if the house is really humid, the powdered sugar stays dry best when stored in the refrigerator.
Can Russian Tea Cakes be frozen?
Yes! These cookies freeze really well! Just package in airtight containers and store in the freezer for up to 3 months. When thawed, you will probably need to re-roll the balls in powdered sugar.
Can you refrigerate Russian Tea Cake dough?
Yes, you can. You do not need to refrigerate this cookie dough before baking, because the balls will not spread in the oven. That said, if it's more convenient to prep the dough in advance, you can store it in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours. The dough will become very hard in the fridge, so you will likely need to let it sit on the counter for a little while to soften before you can easily scoop and roll it into balls.
- I use a cookie dough scoop to make about 26 golf ball-sized tea cakes. These are very rich, buttery cookies, so a little bit goes a long way. If you prefer smaller bite-sized tea cakes, use a smaller scoop and decrease the baking time by a minute or two.
- Mix up the nuts -- almonds, pecans, hazelnuts or pistachios will all work just as well as the walnuts.
- There's just a hint of almond flavor in these cookies, which we adore. If you don't have almond flavor, you can just omit that ingredient and use the vanilla extract alone.
- Add other flavors to the shortbread cookies, such as miniature chocolate chips, toffee bits, rosemary, thyme or lavender. Get creative with the basic recipe!
- The small amount of baking soda in this recipe helps tenderize and lift the dough for a slightly more puffy, lighter cookie. Many Russian Tea Cake recipes do not include any baking soda or baking powder at all. If you prefer, you can omit the baking soda and the recipe will still work.
Tips for the Best Russian Tea Cakes Ever
- Chop or process the nuts into very fine pieces. This will help the dough hold together.
- Use an electric stand mixer to mix the dough. It's very thick and stiff, so a hand mixer won't do the job.
- Do not overbake the cookies. They will not turn a golden brown like other cookies -- just bake them until slightly firm and set. This will keep them tender on the inside.
- Coat in powdered sugar at least twice (maybe three times)! The first coating of powdered sugar goes on while the cookies are warm from the oven. The heat of the cookie practically melts the sugar, coating them in a tender layer of sweetness. Once the cookies are completely cool, roll them in powdered sugar again -- this time it will really "stick" and give the treats that "snowball-like" appearance. If you're storing the Russian Tea Cakes in the freezer, you may need to roll in powdered sugar a third time (after they are thawed) just before serving.
- Don't worry if the powdered sugar is somewhat clumpy on the outside of the cookies. That's how it's supposed to be, and the exterior will firm up and dry as the cookies cool.
More Cookie Recipes that You'll Love
- Old-Fashioned Williamsburg Gingerbread Cookies
- Snickerdoodle Cookies
- Soft and Chewy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Old-Fashioned Chewy Molasses Cookies
- Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
- Cranberry White Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Peanut Butter Blossoms
Russian Tea Cakes
- 1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon almond flavor
- ½ cup sugar
- 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup finely chopped walnuts
- Powdered sugar, to coat (about ½ cup)
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream together butter, vanilla, almond flavoring and sugar.
- In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix to combine. It will look crumbly at first, but keep mixing until it comes together in a thick dough. Mix in walnuts.
- Shape dough into balls (about the size of golf balls). Place about 1 inch apart on parchment or silicone-lined baking sheets.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or just until set and firm to the touch (but not browned). Allow the cookies to cool for a few minutes, then roll the warm cookies in powdered sugar. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Once cool, roll the cookies in powdered sugar again.