In another installment of ‘Russian Recipe Sundays,’ I chose the internationally recognized and beloved dessert recipe ‘Русские чайные пирожные,’ or in English Russian Tea Cakes! This immensely delectable cookie recipe was not what I had originally intended to make, nor had I any conception of the recipe’s steps before waking this morning and deciding to bake ‘something Russian.’ This particular baked good has a two-fold texture, the exterior being of a firm and crumbly orientation while the interior molds to the teeth and gives way to the expectant mouth. Dusted with powdered sugar [сахарная пудра], of which I mixed chopped nuts too [конктрено грецкие/ specifically walnuts], this denser shortbread-esque confectionary treat has an odd historical lineage, as this recipe is technically not Russian and is, in fact, an American creation. According to Professor of Russian Dorrit Goldstein of Williams College, a knowledgeable Scholar on cuisine and Agricultural diplomacy, among other cross-cultural achievements and accolades, this recipe is absent from many Russian-language cookbooks of past and present. In 2009, when asked by LAT’s Regina Schrambling if this indeed was authentically Russian, Darra responded, “I just took a quick tour of my Russian-language cookbooks, including some old ones, and didn’t find anything that resembles the tea cakes.”
However, this hasn’t stopped the infiltration of the recipe into not only American culture but international waters as well, this recipe being equated with the Italian variant called ‘Italian wedding cookies,’ existing still a Mexican alternative, ‘Mexican wedding cookies,’ although these strains and counterstrains being more semantically different than any, concrete recipe-based differientations. How it entered America though is quite interesting to denote, as Schrambling notes that the predominate theory for its infiltration into American kitchens came from Mexico when Europeans nuns on missionary trips adopted the local polvorones recipe, the iconic ‘Mexican wedding cookie’ whose final constitution is only equivalent to the Russian tea cake except for the omission of the powdered sugar exterior dusting. Nick Malgieri, a New-York based, multi-medium based Cook, Educator and Author, regarded the recipe as emanating from Eastern Europe due to a similar recipe from the region which he calls a ‘pecan ball,’ itself a cousin of the Viennese almond crescents, a cookie with a ‘low-sugar, high-nut ratio.’ Malgieri went on, as quoted by Schrambling, to mention that European nuns, once arrived and settled in Mexico, began baking quite frequently and as such, this recipe, with all its variations and permutations, was the natural result of a recipe made public by some sort of private-social transfer.
And, quite frankly, that is where much of the scholarship ends on this historical ambiguous recipe whose roots can not really be accurately researched or delineated with 100% certainty, but there are a couple Russian recipes that could very well add fuel to the dubious culturological heritage to which this recipe currently belongs. If searching this recipe on Russian google using the search query, Русские чайные печение традиции / Russian tea cookies traditional, one is immediately greeted with an article from Пей.ву entitled, “Traditions of Russian tea drinking or how do they drink tea in Russia?” written around 2017. In this short статья [article], they talk about the traditional way tea was used a offering to new guests and to welcome visitors and dignitaries in the country and household. They do say that ‘guests smacked [their lips on] sugar, like a sweet candy, and later honey and jam were served with it, then various chocolates, pastries and other sweets were added,’ thus it is quite possible that a early rendition of this recipe was present in Tsarist traditions and Russian households. Upon further searching, because of the Americanized appeal of the recipe, when using Russian google, pretty much all that appears are recipes in one camp [searching up the name itself] or Russian tea practices [if adding the keyword ‘history’], thus finding sources that talk about the supposed Russian heritage of the recipe is tricky at best and non-existent and worst.
I managed to find only one article that looked promising, such article being sourced from Facebook via the account named Busy People Kitchen. In its article, they state that indeed this recipe has no relation to Russian culture and points to the illogical naming of the recipe with ‘cake’ instead of ‘cookie,’ “For some unknown reason, the English name uses an inappropriate word "cake" (cupcake, cake, cake), and not quite a logical "cookie" (cookies).” Still persistent in my efforts to find a Russian equivalent or perhaps a rational, confectionary corollary, I then decided to search using the keywords ‘Russian tea tort biscuit /Русский чайный бисквит,’ this leading me to a rather helpful website entitled ‘Innfinity.ru,’ in particular their article called ‘You must try these 20 types of cookies!’ From the selection of 20 cookies, ranging in bakery distinction from the fried, multi-shaped Khapse, the circular, ghee/almond Рот, the traditional, Buttermilk biscuit Пахта, to a ganache-covered cookie called Афганское печенье, the closet comparison [by picture alone] has to be the Russian shortbread recipe, Песочное печенье. So perhaps a direct mimetic of the American recipe doesn’t actually exist in Russia, but it sure seems like this recipe is somewhat related to the Shortbread recipe found throughout Russia, associated with the amicable pass-time of tea and confectionaries. Making this cookie takes no time at all and best of all, you really don’t have to wait until Christmas to condone baking this savory/sweet amalgam, despite what many a Food Blogger will tell you or ‘tradition’ might dictate. Using only seven ingredients, most of which many people already have in their home already, the Russian saying ‘а рубль го́лову стережёт’ / A ruble guards your head [A kopeck saves the rouble] fitting here quite nicely as a way to stress the point of ‘waste not want not.’
Interestingly enough, this money-savvy baked good didn’t start commercially appearing in American cookbooks until the 1950s, according to Russianteacake.com, the same era as the now memorably American phrase ‘In God We Trust’ was being cemented as the Nation’s catchphrase , the Soviet satellite Sputnik was being sent into orbit , and the polemic novel Catcher In The Rye was first published to American audiences . This is to say, the 1950s were a tumultuous time in American history, many of the most notable events not even mentioned here, and so by seeing recipes such as this one as potential gateways into understanding the byzantine integrality of cultures around the globe, the collective ‘we’ could very much be better off. A full stomach and a smile to boot.
The recipe I used was sourced from Sugar Spun Run’s Baker ‘Sam,’
and her recipe can be accessed here!