Monday, January 16, 2012

6. russia: russian tea cakes [and a conversation]

A few months ago when I was interning with a university Spanish professor, I remember a particular conversation I had with one of my students at the camp. I'm not so sure why I still remember it, but the memory has stuck with me since then, quite vividly. We were practicing Spanish by ourselves, by which I mean I was having her repeat "how old are you?" and "I am but a little munchkin" over and over until she would, somehow, remember the phrases.

Well, I wasn't quite as successful as I would have hoped. But nevertheless, with some helpful hints in English, she was able to figure out what was going on. The conversation was going pretty smoothly...

"How old are you?"
"I'm six years old. And you?"
"I'm 19."

...until I told her how old I was. I remember her eyes going wide as saucers as she gaped at me as though I were something rather unpleasant on the bottom of her shoe.

"You're 19?!" she asked me in English, leaving the Spanish behind in favor of a language through which she could more easily chastise me.

"Err...yes." I responded. Admittedly, it came out more like a question, with an oddly placed inflection on the 'yes', but I was a bit taken aback at this point.

"Oh, but that's so old!"

At this I had to stop - "now wait a minute" - though I'm not so sure why I was getting so defensive about my age. I mean, I was 19. A little girl's astonishment at my seeming-decrepitude shouldn't have thrown me as much as it did, seeing as how she herself was only six. But the amount of horror that clouded her vision as she stared at me was unnerving, to say the least.

"But the other girls are 20 and 21! And senora is way older than we are! Besides, I'm only 13 years older than you."

"Yes, but it took you so long to get there!"

You know how people say that children are the best sources of truth? Well, I understand the sentiment. Having volunteered with kids for years and years now, I have to say, some of the most profound things I've ever heard have come from people much younger than me. Ironic, I think, since it's the adults who are supposed to be giving me valuable life lessons.

[I've realized that when a 13-year-old girl asks you why you want to be a doctor "because I don't think you'd be very happy as a doctor," you're probably not making the right life choice.]

But in a way, that little girl was right. Nineteen really isn't that old, at all. But at the same time, that's 19 years of growing up, experiencing new things, meeting new people, and becoming yourself. 19 years of traveling to Pakistan, Canada, Spain, Italy. 19 years of going to school and stressing about grades and classes. 19 years of worrying about the future, and reminiscing about the past.

And suddenly, 19 seems like the oldest thing in the world.

Russian Tea Cakes
Adapted from Allrecipes
Yields about 36 cookies

You'll need:

  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup finely chopped nuts [I prefer pecans, but walnuts and pistachios work just as wonderfully]
  • 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar, for coating

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream butter and vanilla until smooth, 3 minutes. Stir flour and sugar into the butter mixture until just blended. Mix in the nuts.

Roll balls of dough, about 1-inch in diameter, and place them 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Press the tops of the cookies down very lightly with the back of a spoon to flatten a bit. Bake for 12 minutes and allow cookies to cool completely.

Once cookies are cooled, coat them in confectioner's sugar before serving.

I'm 20 now, but 19 feels so far away. In a way, it's because it is. I've only been 20 for three and a half months, but I've done so much since then that it feels much longer. Nothing hugely significant or worldly, but that's three and a half months of getting to know myself that I didn't have when I was 19.

As old as I am, though, I revel in the fact that I'm almost a year younger than most of my peers. [The beauty of starting school young.] My darling friend Kevin, for example, celebrates his 21st birthday today.

For the occasion, I shipped him a box of goodies, some of which were these little things. Russian tea cakes. They did originate in Russia, I've learned, though also go by the name of "Mexican wedding cookies" here in the States. These cookies appeared in the 18th century as a confection in tea ceremonies, but since the 20th century have been commonly eaten around Christmastime. I love them because they're rather mild in sweetness and have a wonderful melt-in-your mouth quality about them. And as the name suggests, they pair wonderfully with black tea (and a hint of cream) or coffee.

As much as that little, 6-year old girl was astonished by my age, I can't imagine being 21 already - eight and a half months of things I haven't experienced yet and the possibilities are endless. But during these next eight and a half months, I hope you, Kevin, fill yours with amazing experiences to look back on when you turn 22. Time flies, after all. Happy birthday, my dear friend.


  1. Lovely photos!
    A question: how were you able to ship these? I've made them twice and they've been so soft and crumbly after baking. I want to ship these to a friend but I'm afraid they would turn out a mess.
    Thank you!

  2. @Jo An: Thanks for the lovely words, and my apologies on the late reply!
    I bake the cookies until they're quite firm, possibly to an over-bake by about a minute or so. I'm also sure to coat them twice (sometimes three times!) in the powdered sugar, as I think it helps them adhere a bit better. I pack them tightly in a tin box lined with paper and foil, and then I cover the top with foil and essentially 'tuck them in' to the tin box. It helped that I had brownies packed on the bottom half of the tin, so there was really very little space between the tops of the cookies and the lid of the box. So just make sure the cookies are pretty firm to begin with, and then make sure there aren't any spaces between them once they've been packed. Good luck!


Thanks so much for reading!
I'd love to hear your thoughts :)