Powdered Balls

When the Christmas cookie bake-off comes to my door, there’s no contest. My all-time favorite at home and abroad, the cookie with many different names, yet the same formula in every country is what we informally call “powdered balls.” To Greeks, they’re Kourabiathes; for Mexicans, Wedding Cakes; for Russians, Tea Cakes; for Spaniards, Polvorones. Here’s a basic butter shortbread cookie elegantly robed in confectioner’s sugar. To sample these cookies at their best, it’s wise to get on the go in early December. Pack them in a tight tin, hide them in a cool place and give them a week or two to develop flavor.

The first recipe I have, still penned in primary school cursive, came from a music teacher who called them Chinese Dreams. Though there’s nothing Asian about these sweet morsels, they introduced me to a long line of siblings.

I discovered the Greek version first when the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church put on a fundraising dinner in my grade school gymnasium. Years later I found the best example at a small bakery down an alley near the pier in the island town of Hydra. I can’t quite remember where I learned to add a tiny drop of anise oil to the cookies, but it’s a master trick of catalytic flavoring that works magic with any plain butter cookie. Anise oil is not anise flavoring and may be purchased from a pharmacy. A minuscule bottle will last for eons, producing enhanced butter cookie flavor. When you stick a toothpick in the bottle and lift out one drop, there’ll be no licorice overtones. For the melt-in-your-mouth Christmas cookie, bake now.

Powdered Balls

4 oz. softened unsalted butter (1 stick)

1 oz. powdered sugar (1/4 cup)

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 drop anise oil (optional)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 teaspoons brandy

4 oz. all-purpose flour (1 spooned in cup)

2 oz. chopped pecans or blanched roasted almonds (1/2 cup)

additional powdered sugar

Cream butter with sugar until white and fluffy. Beat in salt, anise, vanilla and brandy. Sift and stir in flour. Mix in nuts. Cover and allow dough to stand at least an hour or overnight at room temperature. This rest allows flour to absorb moisture. The dough is then ready to roll into balls.

Scrape dough onto lightly floured surface. Roll into thick 6-inch log; cut the log in half lengthwise and then in lengthwise quarters. Cut each quarter in half and each half in thirds. There will be 24 even pieces. Roll each piece into a large cherry-sized ball. Place on parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet.

Bake cookies in preheated 325°F oven for 18–20 minutes. Cookies will be pale, but they should be lightly browned on bottom. Line cookie tin or plastic box with sheet of waxed paper. Sift layer of powdered sugar over paper. When cookies are cool enough to handle, place in neat rows on top of sugar-dusted paper. Sift generous layer of powdered sugar over cookies. Layer cookies, placing a sheet of waxed paper between and covering each layer with generous dusting of powdered sugar. Store airtight.

(Note: After you finish cookies, save remnants of powdered sugar. It is buttery and perfumed and may be used in sweet tart pastry or next batch of cookies.)

To make 8 dozen: Use 1 lb. butter, 4 oz. powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 drops anise oil, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 2 tablespoons brandy, 1 lb. flour, 8 oz. nuts.

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