Cooking with a Pinch of History: Mexican Wedding Cookies

by Brittany Avila

After cooking multiple side and entrée dishes, my sweet tooth has finally set in and mandated that I make a dessert for this post. Since we are in the midst of wedding season, I thought what better than to prepare a traditional Mexican wedding dish to go along with this season of many matrimonies.  Mexican wedding cookies were introduced by the Spanish, as they originated in Europe and still exist in many other countries today.  The cookies were prepared at many California rancho weddings in the 1800s. Because this is a simpler recipe than some I’ve done in the past, I thought I would attempt to prepare nearly every ingredient from scratch, and essentially the way early California settlers would have. So you may choose to go the “old school” route with me by preparing your own whole wheat flour and powdered sugar, or use store bought items.

Ingredients

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 cup pecans, lightly toasted

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, slightly softened but still cool

½ cup powdered sugar

½ teaspoon almond extract

1 ½ cups powdered sugar, for coating

Colored tissue paper, cut into 6-inch squares (optional)

Ingredients for Whole Wheat Flour

1 ½ cup dried white Sonoran wheat grains

Wheat grinder

Ingredients for Powdered Sugar

1 ¾ cup white granulated sugar

¼ cup whole wheat flour

Food processor

Harvesting White Sonoran wheat from the Presidio Heritage gardens. Photo by Michael Imwalle.
Harvesting white Sonoran wheat from the Presidio Heritage gardens. Photo by Michael Imwalle.

If you’re going the old school route and making the whole wheat flour from scratch, you’ll want to begin with this part first as it will take the longest and is an essential ingredient for the rest of the recipe. The white Sonoran wheat I used was harvested from our very own Presidio Heritage Gardens! Assuming you, a friend or kind neighbor have a stock of white Sonoran wheat grains, you will begin with the process of removing the shells from the grain by “winnowing”. Please see a previous blog post on this process here.

 

Once the shells have successfully been removed, you will pull out your handy grinder, pour the grains in and begin what I am doing my best not to call a tedious process. I suggest you put on some good tunes or TV show because this might take a while. Amidst my complaints, it is very rewarding to say you’ve made your own flour!

Preparing to chop pecans. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Preparing to chop pecans. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Now that you have your flour, switch gears to your pecans. You’ll want to chop these up as fine or chunky as you would like them in your cookie. A food processor would make this easier, but if you’re going the old school route you still get the simple luxuries of a knife and cutting board.Pecans are native to North America, and grow primarily in the south-central regions. Although we do not have evidence of them being cultivated in California, we can assume that they may have been brought over from neighboring territories where they were grown.

Toasting the pecans.
Toasting the pecans. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Begin to preheat the oven and allow the nuts to sit in the oven while preheating to lightly toast them.  Their color won’t change dramatically once toasted, just a bit more golden-brown.

Mix the flour and pecans together in a mixing bowl, and being to add your softened butter, working it all with a large spoon. Contemporary appliances like a mixer would make this easier, but if you’re still passionate about doing this early California style you’ll stick with the spoon.

Ingredients for making your own powdered sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Ingredients for making your own powdered sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Before we can add the rest of our ingredients, we must make our own powdered sugar, since pre-made powdered sugar was not available in early California. Don’t worry, this is much simpler than making your own flour. Simply take your white sugar and some whole wheat flour (whether it be extra from your homemade batch, or I just used a store bought one) and mix the two in a food processor, pulsing it. I have a preference towards the highly advertised Magic Bullet, but any will do. Cane sugar was not grown in California, and we do not have evidence that sugar was sold or shipped here already powdered. What we do know though is that in the early 1800s there were two shipments of white sugar shipped to the Santa Barbara Presidio from San Blas, Mexico, and this can be finely ground in combination with flour to make powdered sugar.

Mixing the dough. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Mixing the dough. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Now that you have your powdered sugar, add this and your almond extract to the mixing bowl. Work this dough now with your hands, and then place in the fridge for 30 minutes to cool down. Almonds were brought to the Caribbean colonies and Cortes raised them on his mainland plantations, but they were not cultivated as much in New Spain as orchard fruits. Nonetheless, if they were being cultivated in nearby territories, we can assume they may have been brought to California. Once cool, take the cookies out and begin rolling into walnut sized balls on an UNGREASED pan (put your butter away, these will not stick to the pan!). Place in the oven for 14 minutes. Although they started out brown, take them out only once they have turned golden-brown, and no darker.

Coating the cookies in powdered sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.
Coating the cookies in powdered sugar. Photo by Brittany Avila.

The cookies are not cooked as long as other cookie recipes in order to retain moisture for the powdered sugar topping to stick. Once they have cooled about 2 minutes, roll each ball in the rest of your powdered sugar and set aside on a plate. I allowed these to cool down on the plate about 15 more minutes until finally testing them on my palate.  Don’t be afraid to completely lather each ball up in with a thick coat of sugar, since some will fall off.

The finished product! Photo by Brittany Avila.
The finished product! Photo by Brittany Avila.

At this point, you have the option of placing each ball onto the center of a square of tissue paper, wrapping each square up and twisting it to make them truly authentic Mexican wedding cookies, and add a little flare to their aesthetics. Unfortunately, even a thin piece of tissue paper was too much of a barrier between the cookie and our staff’s mouths, so I left it out. Needless to say, everyone at SBTHP gave high points to this delectable desert!

Bibliography

Hardwick, Michael. Changes in Landscape: The Beginning of Horticulture in the                                    California Missions.  Orange, CA: Paragon Agency Publishers, 2005: 3-4.

de Packman, Anna BeGue. Early California Hospitality. Glendale, CA: The Arthur H.  Clark Company, 1938.

Perissinotto, Giorgio ed. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: TheSanta Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara, CA:Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998: p.353-363.

Dunmire, William. Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004: 143-295.

Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying  pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s