Every year, after Thanksgiving, I start to check the mail more eagerly. I know that on some otherwise ordinary December evening, I will arrive home after work, meetings or rehearsals to find a cardboard box from my mother. Hurriedly, I’ll leap the stairs as fast as I can, burst through the door and use my keys to cut through the packing tape where a special gift awaits. After prying open the pretty poinsettia-patterned tin, irresistible smells of confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, butter, and chocolate will waft up. The wax paper layers will bear the same kinds of homemade cookies my mom has baked every year since I was little and that is the way I like it. A hug in a box.
My favorites are the round, buttery nut snowballs (a.k.a. “Russian tea cakes” or “Mexican wedding cakes” according to Betty Crocker.) Mom is a nurse, so she worked every other Christmas taking care of people too sick to be discharged to be home with their families. She’s never particularly enjoyed cooking in general, but baking is another story. Back then, the Tupperware containers she filled with homemade cookies baked during her nonexistent spare time were her way of celebrating and making sure she was a part of the day. As we grew up and moved away or served in the military, my brothers and I came to expect those care packages with each of our favorites and plenty more to share with friends. One difficult year in our relationship, I did not receive any cookies at all.
It didn’t really feel like Christmas then. Lights were up everywhere in the city, Rockefeller Center’s tree beckoned tourists for miles, but my mail was very, very empty. I looked in my recipe folder to find the one for snowballs, and on an abnormally warm December Sunday afternoon, I baked them. The cookies didn’t taste exactly as I remembered. After reinstatement to Mom’s cookie list, I made them again. The improvement was noticeable.
Snowballs are simple enough: you cream butter, flour, sugar, and ground nuts, and roll the dough between your palms. The butter will warm and coat your hands, and one at a time, you place the little globes on an ungreased cookie sheet. After baking to a golden brown, you remove them to a bag or large bowl filled with powdered sugar, and begin the sugar-layering process. Two trips through the sugar (and, importantly, plenty of cooling in between each application) yield sweet, crumbly, firm treats that go brilliantly with coffee, milk, hot chocolate, or a stronger adult beverage.
This year, I plan to share a batch of these with friends and coworkers, but I most look forward to the box from my mom announcing that the holidays are here.
(Read the actual recipe my mom uses!)