I can almost remember the moment that I learned that the recipe for my favorite cookies in the world (during that place and time) was not one that only my mother knew. It was during a Valentine’s Day party in my 2nd grade class and the teacher had brought “Mexican Wedding Cookies,” to share with the class and this little know-it-all insisted that they were “Snowballs,” and they were ONLY meant to be enjoyed while opening packages at Christmas.
Heartbroken, I returned home where my mother explained that the same cookies that were a true holiday tradition at our house were also “Sicilian Wedding Cookies” for her family, and that she got the recipe from her grandmother who brought it from Italy.
If I knew then, what I know now, my feelings wouldn’t have been hurt in the least for the history of this recipe is far more rich than the concept of my mother creating it on her own. My great-grandmother likely got it from her great-grandmother who’s great-grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother would have gotten the recipe when it was shared with Europe by the Moors. It turns out that these tiny, sugar-coated, call-them-what-you-like morsels are tied to Medieval Arab culinary traditions where the richest and most expensive ingredients (butter, sugar and nuts, back then) were saved for very special occasions. This tradition has reached all corners of the world via a little cookie called Kourabi des in Greece, Polvorones in Italy, Rohlichky in the Ukraine and Russian Tea Cakes, Sandies, and Snowballs here in the U.S. Next week, when we fly to Nicaragua for the holidays, I hope to find them as Biscochitos, BUT, so long as I am still in my own kitchen, I am going to take My Mother’s Recipe, and turn it into my own.
These snowball cookies were the first cookie recipe that my mother taught me to bake as a wee person, sitting on the counter in the kitchen – they are THAT easy. Her recipe had 5 ingredients (because when her great-grandmother was mixing them up, spices and nuts were still delicacies) – and we had everything we needed in our pantry. Being the rouge child that I am – interested in paying homage to the history of the cookie itself, and to creating a recipe that even my gluten-free, cookie loving Mom can enjoy – my version has a little Middle Eastern kick that comes from cardamom + cinnamon paired with buttery, bright pistachios straight outta Sicily, and a gluten-free, back-door option (that is partial to my Mom, and therefore, me.)
No matter which version you pick, the trick to making these cookies worthy of doing a little twirl as you take a bite is baking them just long enough for them to bake through, and then allowing them to cool on the pan for 7-10 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack – this allows them to toast a little bit as they cool. Then, when you take a bite, the crumb will just melt away leaving you with the most delightful mouthful, almost transcendent of space and time. (Almost.) Enjoy! – xo L
- 2 cups unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1/2 cup turbinado sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 4 cups sifted, unbleached white flour**
- 1 cup toasted pistachios, chopped
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, for finishing
- **To make the cookies gluten-free, mix together 1 1/2 cups of sorghum flour, 1 1/2 cups of potato starch, and 1 cup of tapioca flour to substitute for the 4 cups of wheat flour. Proceed with recipe below!
- Preheat the oven to 400°. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Sift the flour and spices together in a large bowl and set that aside too.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl fitted with your hand and a fork or pastry blender,) beat the sugar and butter until light and airy. Add the dry ingredients and the pistachios and mix until combined.