This basic cookie is known by many different names, including butterballs, sand tarts, almond crescents, and Russian tea cakes. According to an online food history timeline, during the 1950s the recipe started to appear in American cookbooks as Mexican Wedding Cakes, and there is some speculation that the new name was a response to Cold War fears of anything connected with Soviet Russia. I’ve been to quite a few Mexican weddings and eaten more than one cookie at the festivities, but instead of polvorones they were usually anise-flavored bizcochos (good if you like anise, but it’s not my favorite). My hunch is that some cookbook writer knew of bizcochos as a traditional wedding cookie and thought polvorones were the same thing, and that’s how polvorones came to be known as Mexican Wedding Cakes.
Whatever you call them, polvorones are amazingly good. The recipe is a simple ratio I learned from a woman named Gracie that I worked with a number of years ago, with a couple of additional tricks I’ve picked up over the years. The first secret is to lightly toast the flour ahead of time (in the oven) – I got that one from my dad, who learned it from one of his neighbors – it imparts a nice “golden” flavor clear into the center of the cookies without having to bake them so long that they become hard.
The other secret will be no surprise to Janessa and Kara, because they know how much their dad loves buttered popcorn, and he has a flavor trick of his own that he came up with way before all the cool cooks started using it: browned butter. Somehow Jerry seems to have a knack for making popcorn right when I’m about to start cooking something (funny, he says it’s the other way around). There is usually some butter left when the popcorn is perfectly buttered, and once I had the idea of mixing the still-liquid browned butter with the sugar as I was making cookies. The result was delicious, and now I almost always brown the butter for any kind of cookie, letting the sugar and browned-butter mixture solidify before creaming it like normal.
Gracie, the source of the original recipe, insisted on butter and told me to stay away from shortening or lard, which was what her mother-in-law used. Last summer when we were back home, I bought some polvorones from a Mexican bakery that were made with lard. Those cookies had a great texture and were actually more traditional (they tasted exactly like the ones I’ve had in Mexico), but Gracie is right, the butter version is much better.
Traditionally the dough for polvorones is rolled thick (½ inch) and cut into hearts, circles, or diamonds, but I like to keep it simple so I form the dough into a 2-inch log, wrap it in plastic and chill it. Then it’s a simple and non-messy slice-and-bake operation that makes the finished cookies perfectly tender since the dough isn’t absorbing extra flour during rolling.
By the way, polvo means dust or powder in Spanish, so the name refers to the delicate crumbly texture and the dusting of sugar on the cookies.
- 1 1/2 cups unsalted butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup almond meal
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Powdered sugar to dust over the top (or granulated sugar mixed with cinnamon)
To brown the butter, melt it in a medium saucepan and stir frequently until it is bubbling steadily. Continue cooking and stirring until the milk solids in the butter start to turn brown. There is a very fine line between perfectly browned and burned, so watch it closely and take it off the burner as soon as it looks and smells brown. Blend in the sugar and chill until the mixture until it is somewhat solid (half hour or so, or you can let it sit at room temperature for several hours).
To toast the flour, spread it evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven (325 F.) for about 25 minutes, pulling it out to stir it up and re-level every five minutes. Sometimes it takes a little less time, depending on the humidity level of the flour – the flour won’t actually turn brown, but it will have a golden-brown smell and might be a little bit darker (more so if you are using unbleached flour). Let the flour cool while the butter-sugar mixture is solidifying.
When the butter mixture is solid, transfer it to a mixing bowl and cream with an electric mixer until it is light-colored and fluffy. Add the vanilla, then mix in the toasted flour and the almond meal. If you are using unsalted butter you can also add a pinch of salt, but if you have salted butter you probably won’t need more salt.
Shape the dough into several logs about 2 ½ inches thick. Wrap in plastic and chill for an hour or more (the dough will keep in the refrigerator for a week since it contains no eggs, and it can be frozen for months). When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 F. Slice the dough ½ inch thick and place one inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until light golden, about 10 minutes.
The cookies are very delicate, and it is helpful to carefully slide the cookies, baker’s parchment and all, off the baking sheet to cool. Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar and let the cookies cool for an hour or more before you move them to a serving plate (of course, you can always eat them straight off the paper). As I mentioned, the dough freezes well. I’m an experimenter when it comes to desserts, and as we all know, you win some and you lose some. This cookie dough is a nice last-minute addition to have on hand any time of year in case another dessert doesn’t turn out – polvorones are the perfect accompaniment to fresh berries or a dish of sherbet in summer, and they are also a very good addition to a Christmas cookie tray.