Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags… some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds. ~ Genesis 43:11
For a long long time, pistachio nuts have been some of the best stuff on earth. And, today, within the U.S., you’ll find these treasures growing in California’s Central Valley, Arizona, and Southern New Mexico.
In fact, Otero County in Southeast New Mexico is the state’s largest producer of pistachios. You could say the hills of Alamogordo, its county seat, are alive with pistachio groves.
This city of 30,000 lays some 60 miles northeast of Las Cruces (LC). (So, after driving the 50 miles from LC to the White Sands National Monument, stay on the road 10 minutes more and you’re there.)
Alamogordo’s climate is similar to Las Cruces, dry with hot summers and mild winters, yet its higher altitude of over 4300 feet makes it cooler ~ more comfortable for people and especially pistachio trees.
Pistachio-rich dishes, snacks, and other products greet you at restaurants and shops all over the city.
Pistachio Mexican Wedding Cakes ~ Mexican Wedding Cakes made with New Mexico pistachios ~ are among them.
What is a “Mexican Wedding Cake?”
It’s a buttery crumbly confection popular throughout the Southwest that melts in your mouth after the first crunch.
The standard ingredients are sugar, butter, flour, and ground nuts. Now, depending on where you go in the Southwest, this can mean walnuts, pecans, or almonds.
So, in Alamogordo, of course, we’re talking pistachios.
In Las Cruces and southward to West Texas, pecans are the thing.
But you’ll get a better idea of what Mexican wedding cakes are once you understand…
WHAT MEXICAN WEDDING CAKES ARE NOT
First of all,
- They’re not cakes, but buttery shortbread cookies. (The butterier, the better.)
To that end, some people call them “Mexican wedding cookies.” But then again…
- They’re not specifically for weddings, but for celebrating special occasions throughout the year, especially Christmas.
That’s why many people call them “Christmas tea cookies.”
Finally, Mexican wedding cakes are…
- Not entirely Mexican . . . since variations of this cookie are found in several other countries, some in Europe.
As you may have guessed by now, this cookie of many names has a colorful past. It’s like this . . .
THE ORIGINS OF THE MEXICAN WEDDING CAKE
The happy combining of nuts with sweets was a tradition the Arabs brought to the Spaniards. The Spaniards, in turn, brought the tradition to New Spain, known today as Mexico.
Over time, the Mexicans started to add their very own vanilla to the mix. Plus, bunches of butter.
And they called their shortbread-like cookies “polverones de nuez (nut dustballs).” Or “polverones,” for short.
Why do they call these cookies “polverones” or “dustballs?”
Well, for one thing, they’re round and wear white coats of powdered sugar. So they look like dustballs.
The prettiest and cleanest of dustballs, of course.
But, what’s more, Mexican wedding cakes have a crumbly texture that seems to explode into dust ~ and melt in your mouth! ~ when you bite into them.
Like a clod of fresh winter snow, these cookies are round, white, and break apart upon impact.
No wonder so many people, including Southern New Mexicans, prefer calling them “snowballs.”
Oh, yeah, these snow-white wonders go by lots of names.
Folks in Arizona call them “Russian tea cakes.”
Uh oh, there goes that “cake” thing again . . . but more on that later.
The bottom line is that polverones, in one form or another, have been around for centuries.
However, the term “Mexican wedding cakes” didn’t appear on the scene until the 1950s.
How does that work?
Enter the Cold War: Russia becomes unpopular with the U.S. Yet, attending Russian teas and eating the cute teacakes that go with them remains fashionable.
It was then that Americans began to call the nutty round shortbread cookies from south of the border, “Mexican wedding cakes.”
After all, they came from Mexico, were covered with a festive wedding-white sugar. And besides that,
Mexican Wedding Cakes are Terrific with Tea
You can add flavors of lemon, cinnamon, orange, vanilla to taste, to suit whichever tea or other hot beverage you’re pairing it with.
No matter the variation, Mexican wedding cakes are cookies your friends and family won’t be able to keep their hands off of!
Now . . . what more encouragement do you need start making your first batch?
1) Make your own delectable Mexican Wedding Cakes, Cookies, or whatever you decide to call them with this easy recipe.
2) Are you in the Mesilla Valley wanting to try snowballs baked by someone who knows how? Stop by Orange Peel Pastries, Cakes & More in El Paso and Pastry Chef Julie Adauto will hook you up.
Featured image, Pistachio Tree by ennira; Tea Cakes by dreambigphotos; Polverón de Estepa by Marianne Perdomo