Russian Tea Cakes (Mexican Wedding Cookies)

Russian Tea Cakes (Mexican wedding cakes) packed in a holiday tin

It is a slight mystery why these are called Russian tea cakes and not cookies, but no matter the name, they are delicious. How can you go wrong with toasted pecans, brown butter and sugar? The texture is like a shortbread cookie that is taken to new heights by the richness of the nuts. They are typically served at the holidays, maybe because they look like little snow balls, and at special occasions, like weddings, as the name suggests. This holiday my aunt Kristin, who is my pastry muse, requested them. It is ridiculous that my house isn’t stocked with them all year round. The recipe is so simple and the results so incredible. Thanks to Kristin my cookie jar is now full. They make a great gift because they pack up well and actually improve with a bit of time, which can’t be said for many cookies.

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Rugelach – Raspberry, Nuts and Chocolate wrapped in Cream Cheese Dough

Raspberry, Nut and Chocolate filled Rugelach

My maternal great great grandmother, Shirley Sierra (the name given to her at Ellis Island), had a bakery in Kiev, Russia (now part of Ukraine). She moved to Brooklyn, NY at the turn of the 20th century and continued her “bakery” there. It wasn’t a shop as we imagine now, it was just her, baking in her apartment. According to my 92 year old grandmother, Sarah Berkowitz, her Bubbe would make rugelach, challah, strudel and all kinds of Jewish baked goods for her family and neighbors. She described their small apartment kitchen as stacked high with goodies, which in the depression must have been a welcome sight.

This morning when I told my grandmother that I was baking rugelach with raspberry preserves and chocolate, she said that was “way too modern for her tastes.” She prefers hers stuffed with chopped prunes and raisins. None of Bubbe Shirley’s recipes exist today, no one even remembers if they were written down way back when. Until recently I got a steady supply of rugelach from a bakery in town, but when they shut their doors I was determined to create my own recipe. After several attempts, all of which were tasty, but not quite ready for prime time, I landed on this recipe. The dough is soft and tender, with just a slight zip from the cream cheese and zest, which is a perfect compliment to the sweet fillings. Eating them brings back great memories. 

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Linzer Torte – (aka Jam Biscuits in honor of the Royal Wedding!)

Linzer torte | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

A layer of raspberry jam is spread between a rich, buttery, hazelnut cookie dough. The crisscrossed lattice top is the signature design of what may be the oldest recorded pastry; the Linzer Torte. It was developed in Linz, Austria around the year 1650 and has been made much the same way ever since. Why fix it, if it is perfect just as it is. However, I can rarely leave things as they are, so I made them in bite sized portions.

There is a version of this same dessert in England and they call them Jam Biscuits. Today, after watching the Royal Wedding I think it fitting that we bake something British, even if they originated elsewhere. Check out the Linzer Cookie I made for the Cooking Channel blog, same ingredients, different look!

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Minty Macarons for St. Patrick’s Day!

minty macarons recipe for St. Patrick's day | photo by Zoë François

Everything about a macaron says France. They are sophisticated, gorgeous, delicious and have a romance to them; a certain je ne sais quoi? (That was gratuitous, but I couldn’t help throwing in one of the few French phrases I can actually pronounce.) But, it is true, they have a mystique to them that is both alluring and intimidating, like a really gorgeous woman; think Catherine Deneuve and Brigit Bardot. When you bite into them they are just as beautiful on the inside, and inviting, even seductive. I can eat my entire body weight in these nut-meringue cookies and still want for more. What on Earth does all of this have to do with St. Patrick’s day you might ask? I admit it is a stretch, but I really wanted to make them and they are adorable in green. I added a bit of mint to the ganache and voila, you have minty macarons for St. Patrick’s day! Read More

Ultra Peanut Butter Cookies with Peanut Flour

Ultra Peanut Butter Cookies (gluten free) made with peanut flour | photo by Zoë François

I have made a discovery. It is peanut flour. Maybe you already know about this richly flavored, silky smooth, gluten-free, low-fat, protein packed ingredient? I just found it recently. Actually, the Peanut Board in Georgia sent me some to play with and I went gaga over it. Then, I was perusing the aisles at Trader Joe’s, as I am apt to do, and there it was in their minuscule baking section. Which means I am NOT the first to know about this.

Unlike other nut flours this one is defatted, which means they remove a portion of the fat, so the peanuts can be milled to a powder. The result is an amazingly smooth texture, with lots of healthy protein and very little fat. These peanut butter cookies seemed an obvious recipe to start playing with the flour. I wasn’t expecting the flavor to be enhanced as much as I was looking for a gluten-free alternative to the classic cookie. Boy was I wrong, the flavor was more intense and the texture is smoother and more tender than my old recipe. I’d never thought to do a peanut butter cookie post before, because honestly it just didn’t excite me enough. Now I can say I am all atwitter about these cookies! The trick to their success is slightly under baking them so the center is a bit soft and the outside is crisp. I also used a chunky peanut butter for even more peanut taste and texture.

See my pastry movie recommendation at the bottom of this post.

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Valentine Cookies

Valentine cookies decorated with royal icing

Did you know that Saint Valentine’s Day dates back to Pope Gelasius in 500 AD, not the Hallmark Cards of 1910? The original holiday was a religious one, with nothing to do with romance, flowers, chocolate or red royal icing. The modern Valentine’s Day must have been recreated by a pastry chef. It is an excuse to make sweet, pretty, heart-shaped treats like this Valentine cookies. There really isn’t another time of the year when heart-shaped desserts are permissible. It’s a shame really, but Valentine’s Day owns the shape, so we must take advantage of the opportunity.

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