In the name of the cookie

My cousin, Katie, was married last weekend in Brooklyn.

The festivities began with a dinner at Frankies Spuntino that made me want to strap on an extra stomach for the evening. Alas, single-stomached creature that I am, I had no choice but to leave several lonely bites of gnocchi marinara and fresh ricotta slumping sadly on my plate. The wedding itself was the next day, at The Bell House, a 1920s warehouse that was converted into a performance venue a couple of years back. It’s a warm and welcoming space, dimly lit by crystal chandeliers that hang from wooden beams. Katie and her husband, Kit, who both work in theatre –that’s how they met– were married up on stage, under the glow of stage lights and paper lanterns. It was elegant and intimate, glamorous and simple at the same time.

A few months back, Katie asked me to bake for the reception. Obviously, I agreed. I flitted between cookbooks and paged through my recipe file, but nothing seemed quite right. I went from toffee, to almond tarts, to molasses cookies when, finally, about two weeks before the wedding, my genius of a step-mom, Amy, solved it. Our phone conversation went something like this:

Me: …and so noooow, I think I’m going to make those gingery molasses cookies. Katie likes the flavors; they’ll taste like fall. Plus, they travel well.
Amy: Sounds good. But have you thought about making those Mexican wedding cakes?
Me: [silence.] Oh my gosh, that’s brilliant. You’re brilliant. HOW did you think of that?
Amy: Uh, well, there is that word “wedding” in the name of the cookie…

Sometimes I am not very smart.

I ate my first Mexican wedding cake five years ago, not long after Eli and I were married. (Five years ago. Five years! As of yesterday, that’s how long we’ve been married. I’ll take another five now, please. And then another. And another, yep, and another, yes, yes. Until forever, please. Amen.) Amy made these cakes which, as you can see, are actually cookies, for a post-wedding party that she and my dad threw for us back in Ohio. I remember holding one between my index finger and thumb, tilting my head forward to keep from dusting my new satin blouse with powdered sugar, and cupping my other hand beneath the cookie to protect the floor. I was expecting something like a doughnut hole, cakey and soft (there is that word “cake” in the name of the cookie), but what I got was much better.

Mexican wedding cakes are made from an eggless, butter-rich dough, splashed with vanilla and speckled with toasted ground pecans. Genealogically speaking, they’re a relative of the shortbread cookie. But while most shortbread is dense and hard by design, Mexican wedding cakes are anything but. Smooth and tight on the outside, tender and loose within, they’re like tiny bombs of sandy, nut-flecked crumbs that half explode, half melt in your mouth. Instantly smitten, I scored the recipe from Amy, and made them a few weeks later for our first Chanukah party in our new home. Given that they’ve made an appearance every year since, and that they are, I think, my most-requested cookie recipe, it’s hard to believe that it has taken me so long to deposit them here. Thanks for the nudge, Katie and Kit, and for a beautiful and inspiring wedding weekend.

I'd like to end today with the poem by James Kavanaugh that Katie asked me to read during the ceremony. May we all get to live in this kind of love.

To Love is Not to Possess

To love is not to possess,
To own or imprison,
Nor to lose one's self in another.
Love is to join and separate,
To walk alone and together,
To find a laughing freedom
That lonely isolation does not permit.
It is finally to be able
To be who we really are
No longer clinging in childish dependency
Nor docilely living separate lives in silence,
It is to be perfectly one's self
And perfectly join in permanent commitment
To another—and to one's inner self.
Love only endures when it moves like waves,
Receding and returning gently or passionately,
Or moving lovingly like the tide
In the moon's own predictable harmony,
Because finally, despite a child's scars
Or an adult's deepest wounds,
They are openly free to be
Who they really are—and always secretly were,
In the very true core of their being
Where true and lasting love can alone abide.

Mexican Wedding Cakes
Adapted from Bon Appétit, May 2003

For the dough:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
½ cup powdered sugar
2 tsps. vanilla
2 cups flour
1 cup pecans, toasted, coarsely ground

For the sugar coating:
1½ cups powdered sugar
¼ tsp. cinnamon

Beat the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the ½ cup powdered sugar and vanilla, and blend well. Beat in the flour, and then the toasted, ground pecans. Divide the dough in half, form each half into a ball, and wrap separately in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes, or overnight. (If you chill the dough overnight, you’ll need to let it soften on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes before you scoop it. Don’t let it get too warm; it should be scoopable, but still cold.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Whisk together the 1½ cups powdered sugar and cinnamon in a pie dish or a large bowl, and set aside.

Remove half of the chilled dough from the fridge and, using one level tablespoonful of dough for each cookie, roll into balls between the palms of your hands. Arrange the dough balls about half an inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 15-17 minutes, until the cookies flush a shade darker on top, and are golden brown on the bottom. Cool the cookies for about five minutes on the baking sheet, and then gently toss them in the cinnamon sugar. Transfer the coated cookies to a rack and cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Hold onto any leftover cinnamon sugar for quick touch-ups before serving.

Store these cookies at room temperature in an airtight container, and they’ll keep well for several days. Possibly up to a week, though I’ve never seen them last that long.

Yield: About 40 cookies.


jacqui | happyjackeats said...

I really like that poem, Jess. I read it twice, then sent it to Murdo.

Congrats to your cousin, and Happy November!

linda said...

love the photo of you & eli…happy 5 years… wishing you both a lifetime of magical moments & warm, cozy times.

thank you for sharing so much of your being with us & this powerful, emotionally charged & "reflective" poem... it resonates.
wishing katie & kit a wonderful journey.

btw: i sooo remember your party maps & look forward to baking these cakes very soon.

Char said...

one of my favorite cookies ever

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Such a happy cookie for such a happy day. I love Katie's red shoes peeping out from her dress!

squirrelbread said...

Lovely post. My fiancée and I had an epiphany when deciding what dessert to make at our wedding as well. Hopefully it turns out!



Adrienne said...

Oh, lovely! First: love the colored shoes, your cousin has excellent taste! Second, congratulations on five years, and third, I want those cookies. YUM.

Anali said...

Such a beautiful post! And I love the red sandals. Happy 5 year anniversary! ; )

Jess said...

Hello, cookie lovers and shoe admirers!

I'm so glad you liked that poem, Jacqui. I've been thinking about you and Murdo, and I hope that your first weeks of marriage have been wonderful. Want to know a secret? It just gets better and better.

Thank you, Linda. Funny you should mention those party maps. I was just saying to Eli that I think our Chanukah party menu is due for an overhaul this year. Hmmmm, what to bake, what to bake...?

Me too, Char.

A Plum By Any Other Name - Yes! Aren't those shoes fabulous? She has such great taste.

Ooo, Heather, do tell. What have you decided?

She does, Adrienne. And thank you!

Thanks, Anali.

anya said...

Everything about this post is beautiful: the story, the poem, the cookies!!

Julie said...

This is a great story..and I love the red shoes too. But mostly, the fact that you had the pre-nuptial dinner at Frankie's Spuntino! Awesome choice. Good luck to the new couple.
24 years and counting....by the way

Amy said...

purty photos, Jess. I didn't say HAPPY ANNIVERSARY yesterday! Love Heaven!

Lisa said...

Jess. I didn't know what to call these small pieces of heaven until your chanukah party last year. But every time they used to appear in our house, my mom had to come up with sneaky ways of keeping me from eating them all by myself.

Also, this post is my favorite. I feel all mushy gushy inside. Weddings and poetry and pretty pictures. Wow.

Maddie said...

I bet that a wedding is at once the most stressful and the most rewarding event to bake for. But what a perfect way to honor your cousin and her new husband -- through cookies! I love it. :)

Jess said...

Thanks, Anya. It was a beautiful weekend, and it was my pleasure to get a little bit of it down here.

Julie, yes! That place rocked my world. Congratulations on 24 years. Keep counting!

Thanks, Amy. Ah yes, good old "love heaven." (That made me laugh out loud.) Love you.

Hi there, Miss Lisa! I love that you love these. And do you know what? The ones at the party last year were actually vegan, made with Earth Balance Buttery Sticks. I don't like them very much this way (which is why I didn't mention it in this post), but my vegan friends and family members are crazy for them -- and I guess non-vegans like you are, too! But seriously, I need to make you a batch with butter. You will melt. You're feeling "mushy gushy" inside, you say? Must be all of that soup you've been eating lately. (wink.)

Hi, Maddie. Since they were cookies, and not actual cakes, it was pretty stress-free! Some other people baked, too. There were brownies, macaroons, salted chocolate caramels, and apple pie. It was awesome.

Kim said...

I'm going to make these cookies on Thursday for a baby shower!!! I have always liked them but never baked them myself. Thank you for giving us the recipe! I'll let you know how mine turn out.

Jess said...

Hi, Kim. I love the idea of making these for a baby shower. They're so small and soft and round, just like the little bite your friend is expecting, some might say! Do report back, if you think of it. Happy baking!

squirrelbread said...

It was a flourless chocolate cake we each made while living on opposite sides of the country before ever meeting face to face. Our first cake 'together,' as corny as that may sound! We plan to make twenty-some for the wedding next Autumn. Fingers crossed.



redmenace said...

I absolutely love Mexican wedding cookies. They're so light and tasty....and not too sweet. Your sister is very lucky! xo

Rogue Unicorn said...

It sounds like you and your cousin have a very special relationship. I love it when our relatives are also our friends.
I absolutely love Katie's red shoes peeking out from under her gown. That's a great photo.
Also, happy anniversary.

Luisa said...

Oh my gah, that poem!! (I may have to steal it for, ahem, you know...next year.)

Jess said...

How perfect, Heather! I was doing some writing about salad last night, and I remembered that Eli and I actually had a salad, as in "our salad," when we were first dating. So no, having a "first cake" together - far more normal than having a salad, I think! - doesn't sound corny to me at all. It sounds dreamy.

Redmenace - Those are the very things that I enjoy about these cookies, too.

Hey, Rogue Unicorn. In the weeks leading up to her wedding, Katie and I were talking about how amazing it is that we're IN THE SAME FAMILY. Technically, Katie is my step-cousin. Her mother married my uncle when Katie and I (we're just two days apart in age!) were eight years old, and we hit it off right away. She is one of the most inspiring people I know in all kinds of ways. I'm really so grateful for her. (And thanks for the anniversary wishes. xo.)

Oh, Luisa! What can I say? "Love is to join and separate / To walk alone and together / To find a laughing freedom That lonely isolation does not permit / ... Love only endures when it moves like waves / Receding and returning gently or passionately / Or moving lovingly like the tide / In the moon's own predictable harmony" It really is perfect, isn't it? xoxo!!

Rosiecat said...

I think that poem is one of the best things I've read in a long, long time. It is so spot-on, so perfect. I think I've found that kind of love, and I thank my lucky stars for it.

Oh, and I'd like a cookie, please. (Of course!)

Beth said...

They sound sensational. Your cousin is very lucky!

Jess said...

I'm so happy to hear it, Rosiecat. There's nothing better than that kind of love. Well, except for that kind of love plus a cookie, of course.

Thanks, Beth. (I'm pretty sure I'm the lucky one.)

LimeCake said...

i don't think i've ever tried mexican wedding cookies. these look delicious!

Jess said...

I hope you'll give them a try, LimeCake. They're special cookies.

Katie said...

Love this. Love you. Amazing post - and you helped make it an amazing wedding (and we froze some of the extra cookies and they were a lovely and tasty reminder of our wedding after the honeymoon!!).

Jess said...

Katie! You're back! You made me so happy with this note. I will call you soon. xo.

Megan Gordon said...

First, what an amazing photo with the red shoes! Fabulous. Second, I love mexican wedding cookies and am always shocked when I make them how something with such simple (and few) ingredients comes together with such magic. Sounds like a lovely wedding (and I've always liked that poem).

Nithya said...

Hey Jess,
First, I know I'm incredibly late, but congratulations! I love how you announced your anniversary to us. I only hope I'll be able to say something like that myself, one day. You both are an inspiration.
As soon as I read your post and saw your photographs, I knew I had to try these cookies out. I did, and the house is smelling of cinnamon and my last batch is in the oven. These cookies are magical! I must admit, when I read your words, I wondered how crumbly and sandy could ever be better than soft and cakey. Now I know and I'm a convert.
My dog (who has great discretion in matters of taste, honest) has spent the past hour sitting hopefully at the kitchen entrance, watching my every move acutely. I gave in and fed him a cookie and I swear, he swooned for a second.
I substituted for pecans with walnuts; pecans are in short supply in Delhi. I also used salted butter instead of unsalted, because that was what I had on hand. I have scant experience of pecans, but I can vouch for walnuts. Once toasted, they gave off a gloriously nutty smell. I didn't add the vanilla, because I felt it would compete with the nuts. The cookies turned out incredible. I think the salt in the butter gave an added bit of complexity, but I could be wrong... guess I'll have to try them again to be sure!
I rolled my cookies slightly smaller than yours and found I made 53. I've baked most of them to choir practice tomorrow, where I don't doubt they will disappear very quickly. I've also stored about ten balls in the freezer, in anticipation of cookie cravings. I love that since these cookies don't have any sort of leavening agent, the dough keeps frozen for ages.
Thanks so much for sharing.

Nithya said...

Also, Jess, I blogged about the cookies here: http://nithya13.blogspot.com/2010/12/first-of-many.html
citing you as my inspiration. I thought perhaps you'd like to read about them. I've been asked for the recipe half a dozen times already. Thanks so much!

Kathleen (One Tree Past The Fence) said...

I know I should be commenting on your food.
I've been caught up in your writing as I go
from post to post.

James Kavanaugh.
Funny some weeks ago I wrote about love, it not
being a possession.

His books kept me company for years.
I don't remember ever reading this one,
and now I am going to have to go "the closet"
and look through every book to find the poem
I somehow missed.

your writing is good Jess.
It's deliberate. It pulls one in.

who knew doing a search for broccoli salad would have me remembering JK.

thank you.