I want to tell you that I'm roughly 25% Eastern European, but I know that will lead immediately to questions I can't answer - like "where in Eastern Europe?" The family that immigrated from this part of the world didn't communicate clearly where they originated from, the language they spoke was a geographically non-specific dialect, and the countries on the map at that time don't even exist anymore so it's very difficult to trace. Maybe Hungarian, maybe Slavic, maybe Ukranian, maybe an ethnic minority that existed across the region and claimed allegiance to no one outside their own clan. I have no idea and in all honesty I'm not too invested. I'm not trying to track down genetic markers or distant relatives. What I would like to do - and have finally started doing this holiday season - is to preserve the foods we ate at our Christmas table.
Part of the cultural heritage my mother's maternal family brought to American with them included their Eastern Orthodox religion, which runs on the Julian calendar (rather than our more common Gregorian calendar) and shifts holidays like Christmas and New Year's two weeks further into the year that the rest of American celebrates. To wit - "Russian" Christmas, as they called it, occurred on January 7 and popped up on the calendar every year as a bonus January holiday that we got to celebrate and no one else did. This is obviously awesome when you're in fourth grade and you're getting an entire round of presents that no one else is.
I have not adopted the religious proclivities, but I do have an enormous emotional soft spot for the foods we ate almost exclusively at these holiday celebrations. The stars were always the nut roll and the homemade pierogis - recipes for which will be coming as I get them tweaked. Having attempted to recreate many of these dishes this month, I fully understand why we only ate them once a year: it's because they are incredibly labor intensive and not at all practical for regular consumption.
However. The cookies. So much easier.
Sometimes the dessert trays were overflowing with cookies, breads, rolls and homemade candies, but there were always two kinds of cookies that I could eat by the handful. Both have delicate flavors and flaky textures and are so small that you feel comfortable eating six of them mindlessly while making family small talk, which is pretty much all you can ask of a holiday cookie.
Russian Wedding Cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Cream together (advising a stand mixer for this) the butter, sugar, egg yolk and vanilla until fully blended and fluffy.
Stir in the flour 1/2 cup at a time, either by hand or with a low setting on the mixer. Do not over blend.
Stir in your chopped nuts. You will notice that many cultures have a "wedding cookie" recipe that is nearly identical but just changes the nuts. I did roughly four seconds of research on this for you and found this article which is interesting and funny and offers excellent ingredient swapping tips but does not at all solve the mystery of which nationality actually came up with these cookies. First: make and eat the cookies and revel in the universal appeal of butter and sugar. Second: Let me know if you'd be interest in me trying to do a deeper dive on this mystery origins of this dessert.
Now that your dough is mixed, chill it for 2-3 hours. I chilled mine for 6 because I had errands to run and that was fine.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the dough from the fridge and let come back a little bit towards room temperature, depending on how cold your fridge is. You want the dough to be firm but malleable enough to roll into partially flattened balls.
To roll: scoop up 1 tsp - 1 tbsp of dough, depending on the size you're after (mine was in the middle - a little smaller than golf balls). Roll into a ball in the palm of your hand.
And here's my hot tip for how to get the partially flattened shape - would love to know how you are doing this yourself if you've got a better method: put the ball on the heal of your left hand and press down slightly with the curved palm of your right hand, using the left to create the flattened surface and the right to retain the curved mound.
I rolled my formed balls in some additional powdered sugar and baked on a parchment lined baking sheet. My handwritten directions from my grandmother indicated baking for 15 minutes but I overloaded my trays and put them both in the oven at the same time and the bake time pushed closer to 24 minutes. Keep your eye on this - you are looking for a toasty smell and a firm texture.
Dust with more powdered sugar before serving and try not to eat them all yourself. This recipe made me about 30 cookies.
2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 lb dried apricots
Clean out your stand mixer from making your Russian wedding cookies. Use it to mix the cream cheese and butter under soft and blended.
Add the flour in 1/2 cup increments, blending until each batch is fully incorporated.
Divide the dough into four sections, flatten to less than 1 inch, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
While your dough is chilling, cover your dried apricots in water in a saucepan. Boil until the apricots have softened, making sure you add water when needed so that it does not all evaporate from the pot. Once the apricots have started to soften, add 1 cup of sugar.
Process the apricots and sugar with an immersion blender. If you want to thicken it, keep it on the stove a bit longer to evaporate out more water.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Remove a dough disk from the fridge. Flour and sugar both sides to prevent sticking. Roll dough as thin as you can - at least 1/8 of an inch.
Cut your dough into approximately 16 squares.
Place a partial teaspoon of cooled apricot jam in the center of each dough square.
Grab two corners of your cookie dough and fold them over into a little envelope shape. Try to get the tips to overlap to seal the cookie, but don't stress if this doesn't work. They won't look as "perfect" but they'll still be delicious.
Use a spatula and your good luck to move the cookies over to a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle cookies with some additional sugar if you're feeling fancy.
Bake for 12-14 minutes and pull them out of the oven based on the smell of delicious butter and browning edges.
This recipe should make roughly 5 dozen cookies. If I remember correctly, these can be frozen and saved for the future as my grandmother used to do, but fat chance having any leftover.
You will also notice that this cream cheese dough is amazing. I fully encourage you to figure out other ways to put it to use.