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.