Tea has had a rich and varied history in Russia since 1638. Today, it is considered the de facto national beverage, one of the most popular beverages in the country. Tea is closely associated with traditional Russian culture and at the end of meals, served with sweets/desserts, such as tea cakes/cookies.
An important aspect of the Russian tea culture is the ubiquitous Russian tea brewing device known as a samovar, which has become a symbol of hospitality and comfort. (Adopted from the Russians, samovar is very cultural in surrounding countries, including in the Iranian homes as well.)
Around 1636, Russian Vassili Starkov was sent as envoy to the Mongolian Altyn Khan. As a gift to the Tsar, he was given 250 pounds of tea. Starkov at first refused, seeing no use for a load of dead leaves, but the Khan insisted. Thus was tea introduced to Russia. In 1679, Russia concluded a treaty on regular tea supplies from China via camel caravan in exchange for furs.The Chinese ambassador to Moscow made a gift of several chests of tea to Alexis I. The difficult trade route made the cost of tea extremely high. Therefore, the beverage became available only to royalty and the wealthiest Russians. In 1689, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed. It formalized Russia’s sovereignty over Siberia, and also marked the creation of the Tea Road that traders used between Russia and China.
The decline in Chinese tea in the mid 19th century meant that Russia began to import more tea from Odessa, and London. By the end of the 18th century, tea prices had moderately declined. In 1885, the first industrial tea plantation was established. The tea industry did not take off until World War I, and greatly expanded following World War II. However, by the mid 1990’s, tea production came to a standstill. Today, the main area in Russia for tea production is in the vicinity of Sochi (location of 2014 Winter Olympics), which has the world’s northernmost tea plantations.
Thought to have originated in Russia (may be evolved from pryaniki), these cookies are called Russian tea cakes (with hazelnuts, almonds, or walnuts), Mexican wedding cookies (with pecans), also Italian, Swedish wedding cookies, Austrian kipferin, butterballs, and occasionally, snowball cookies. This is because of their powdery white, spherical appearance when seen during winter holidays and at weddings. These cookies have ingredients in common, are covered in confectioner’s sugar, crispy outside, crumbly/nutty inside and have a very unique delicious texture and taste!
Russian Tea Cake
Recipe by: Fae’s Twist & Tango (fae-magazine.com)
• 113 g (½ cup or 8 Tbsp) unsalted butter at room temperature, soft
• 32 g (¼ cup) confectioner’s sugar
• ½ tsp pure vanilla extract
• 1/8 tsp salt
• 145 g (1 cups+2 Tbsp) all-purpose unbleached flour (no self-rising flour)
• 50 g (1/3 cup) roasted/unsalted/finely chopped, hazelnuts (skinned), almonds (blanched), walnuts, pecans, macadamia, even pine nuts!
For coating the cookies
• 100 g (¾ cup) confectioner’s sugar
◊ Prepare a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
◊ Position rack in middle of oven and preheat to 200°C/400°F.
◊ By hand, using silicon spatula: In a medium~large bowl, smash butter with sugar and salt, add vanilla and incorporate them well. Add flour a couple of Tbsp at a time and continue to mash them to incorporate well until crumbled in small segments. Add finely chopped nuts, at this point use your hands and make a thick dough.
◊ Shape dough into 2.5cm/1″ balls. Note: For well rounded, evenly ball-shaped finish, form the dough-balls into an evenly oblong shape as seen in the photo. Place oblong balls vertically, about 3cm/1¼” apart on the lined baking sheet.
◊ Bake for 9 minutes, until set but not brown (over baking dries and hardens the cookies). Out of oven, immediately transfer them to a wire rack to cool slightly for 1~2 minutes.
◊ Sift the confectioner’s sugar into a bowl. Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar and return them to the wire rack to cool completely. Once cooled, roll the cookies in powdered sugar again.
◊ Store in an airtight container, at room temperature for up to 4 days. If refrigerated (I refrigerate everything to last longer), let them return to room temperature before serving.
~ Bon Appétit! ~
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