Around the Christmas holiday season, you may have eaten a delicious little treat called Snowballs. They are small round cookies coated in powdered sugar that resemble a tiny snowball. They are popular all around the United States and even have variations that other countries make, such as Mexican Wedding Cookies and the Greek Kourabiedes. My family lives in Texas, where we call them Pecan Sandies. No one way of making these cookies is better than the others. What is most important is that they all represent culture and tradition to those baking them.
One of the original versions of Snowballs is the Russian Tea Cookie. Originating in Russia, as the name suggests, this cookie was intended to be a dessert to accompany teatime, similar to the way the English enjoy tea with pastries. It is not credited to being invented by any particular person since the whole point of the cookies is that anybody can make them. It is a simple recipe, requiring only ingredients that any given household would have on hand. The original recipe in the late 1800s was more of a shortbread cake than a cookie and was made with eggs, butter, sugar, flour, and chopped Hazelnuts. The hazelnut is what makes the Russian Tea Cookie distinct from other cultures’ cookies. Hazelnuts are the most popular nut in Eastern Europe and can be seen in many other recipes as well.
The original cake-like recipe for Russian Tea Cookies required a large number of eggs. This was a problem because without refrigeration, the cake would go bad if not eaten quickly. In the early 1900s, this problem was remedied with butter. By dropping the eggs from the recipe and adding a little bit more butter as a binding agent, we now have the crumbly cookie that we see in modern times that can last for many days with no refrigeration necessary. This change in the recipe helped to spread the dessert throughout the whole of Eastern Europe, not just Russia.
From the beginning of the 1900s to now, not much has changed in the making of Russian Tea Cookies. They were already very simple to make, which made them popular. Modern adaptations of the cookie may include vanilla extract, but it is not required and only serves to enhance the flavors, not change them. In addition, they are oftentimes coated in powdered sugar to give it more visual appeal and holiday spirit. This is where the name Snowball comes from. Any kind of nut can be used when making these. The original recipe calls for hazelnut because it is most popular to the region the recipe comes from, but pecans, walnuts, and even almonds will do. It is up to the preference of the baker, which is highly influenced by the regional ingredient staples. This is how so many versions of this cookie have come about over time.
Russian Tea Cookies are popular all around the US now, but were originally only focused in the Midwest, where many Eastern Europeans immigrated to during WWI to escape the violence. They planned to take up newly created mining jobs in Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. After immigrating, they tended to assimilate quickly due to fear of prejudice and ended up creating many Eastern European settlements throughout the Midwest that grew over time. My family was a part of those settling into the Midwest during WWI. We hail from the tiny nation of Slovenia with a population of just 2 million. My ancestors made Russian Tea Cookies in Slovenia and brought their family recipe with them to the Unites States. My mom’s great-grandparents on her mom’s side immigrated to Cleveland in the 1910s due to WWI. They moved to West Virgina, just over the river from Ohio, so that my mom’s great-grandfather could take a mining job. They started a family and raised my mom’s grandfather there. He grew up and started his own family, raising my grandmother in West Virginia. They made Russian Tea Cookies around Christmas every year and on special occasions.
Around this time, the city of Cleveland had become a very popular place for Slovenians to immigrate to. Many Slovenian settlements had been established in the area since WWI. Cleveland became the city with the highest Slovenian population outside of Slovenia, with a Slovenian population of 50,000 at the time. That number has since grown to over 80,000. Eventually, wanting to reconnect to their Slovenian past, my great-grandparents decided to move back to Cleveland, moving into the Euclid settlement. They passed on the family recipe for Russian Tea Cookies when my grandmother got married and started a family of her own, raising my mom and her siblings surrounded by Slovenian culture. My grandmother’s grandfather on her dad’s side was from Germany, so she was inspired by him to try making Russian Tea Cookies with walnuts instead of hazelnuts since walnuts are popular in German desserts. She tweaked the family recipe and made them this way for my mom and her siblings every Christmas. So, while the recipe is Eastern European, our family’s recipe is also German inspired.
My grandmother died when I was just a year old, so she never got to make these cookies for me. Luckily, my mom found her handwritten recipe after she died and then handwrit copies for her siblings and their families to have as well. This means that all copies are at least 17 years old and are only handwritten. They have never been digitized. My mom changed the recipe to using pecans when she moved to Texas because those are more popular down here. That’s the way I grew up eating them, and now, that is the way I have learned to make them. I think it’s incredible that our recipe has changed so little over time, only using different nuts that can actually be traced back to different regions of the world and show where our family is from and where it has been since the recipe was passed down through generations. You can trace our family’s presence in the world solely through this recipe.
I made these cookies recently and they did not disappoint. They came together well thanks to the help of my mom, who learned how to make them from her mom. Due to the small amount of binding agent used to make these, the cookie dough is dryer than other cookie doughs and can be hard to form. I learned that this can easily be fixed by adding a tiny amount of milk or water to help keep the dough from falling out of its ball shape. Another tip is to refrigerate the dough before forming it so that they keep the ball shape and do not crumble while baking or being handled. The cookies are fun to eat and very cute because they really do look like tiny snowballs. They melt in your mouth and have a satisfying crunch from the nuts. Eastern Europe has a lot of dishes that infamously do not agree with American tastebuds, so I am very thankful that my family passed down such a delicious recipe. I feel very connected to my ancestry by being able to take part in this more than century old family tradition.
-a verbal account of our family history courtesy of my mom