These days a typical office, or family, is full of people on restricted or specific diets. Low-sugar or salt-restricted, vegetarian or vegan, low-carb or gluten-free – it can make holiday potlucks or family dinners a challenge. While there are more pre-made treats available now at stores and bakeries, sometimes you just want to make something yourself that everyone can enjoy.
For the second week of the Cookie Corner I decided to test two gluten-free versions of a cookie already beloved by many people. Mexican wedding cakes, also known as Russian tea cakes, are little balls of flour and butter and nuts, baked until barely brown and then double-rolled in powdered sugar.
The first recipe, which I dubbed Recipe A for tasters, came from the Los Angeles Times’ annual cookie recipe contest. Recipe B was one I found in a new Betty Crocker cookbook, “Betty Crocker Christmas Cookies” (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, 208 pages paperback, also available as an e-book).
These recipes are ideal for the baker who doesn’t already have a gluten-free kitchen: Both use shortcut mixes, so they don’t require purchasing several alternative flours to blend. (However, if you do want to make your own blend, the combination is included in the first recipe.)
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Both cookies found fans among the newsroom testers, with Recipe A drawing slightly more favorable reviews than Recipe B.
Gluten-free Mexican wedding cakes (Recipe A)
Prep time: 45 minutes plus cooling time for cookies. Chilling time is optional.
Cook time: 30 minutes per batch
Makes about 42 cookies
This recipe is adapted by Kathy Morrison from one by Lida Frankel of Porter Ranch, who was among the 10 finalists in the 2012 Los Angeles Times holiday cookie contest.
Note: Xanthan gum is available at health food stores, select well-stocked markets, and cooking and baking supply stores.
To make your own gluten-free flour mix, combine 1/2 cup brown rice flour, 1/2 cup sweet rice flour, 2/3 cup potato starch and 1/3 cup tapioca flour or starch (this makes about 2 cups flour, more than is needed for the recipe; the gluten-free flour will keep, tightly covered in a cool, dry place, up to 1 month). If you use this blend in the following recipe, increase xanthan gum to 1 teaspoon.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus extra for rolling
2 teaspoons gluten-free vanilla extract
1 cup raw, unsalted pecans or walnuts, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups Pamela’s Gluten-Free Artisan Flour Blend (blue bag)
3/8 teaspoon xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets or line them with parchment. (I used insulated sheets lined with parchment.)
In the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and powdered sugar until well-blended. Beat in the vanilla and nuts to combine.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour blend, xanthan gum and salt. Add this to the butter mixture and beat just until incorporated and a dough is formed.
Scoop about 1 teaspoon of dough and roll into a small ball. Place the dough on a prepared cookie sheet, and repeat with the remaining dough, spacing the cookies about 1 to 11/2 inches apart.
Bake the cookies until set and a light golden-brown on the bottom, 30 to 35 minutes. Set the cookies aside to rest for 5 minutes, then roll in powdered sugar to coat completely. Once they are cooled, roll the cookies again in sugar to cover.
The cookies are best made one day in advance.
Per cookie: 82 calories; 1 gram protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 6 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 12 mg cholesterol; 2 grams sugar; 26 mg sodium
Testing and tasting
• The two recipes are similar, but the differences are significant: Recipe A has double the vanilla extract, but no egg, and is baked at a much lower temperature. Recipe B has fewer nuts.
• I used untoasted, unsalted walnuts in both recipes.
• I checked each ingredient to make sure it was gluten-free, since not all extracts or powdered sugars are. Spice Islands vanilla says gluten-free right on the package. On powdered sugar, make sure the ingredients include cornstarch, not wheat starch.
• Also, I wiped down my mixer ahead of time, to make sure no wheat flour was clinging to it, and made sure to use tools that were clean straight out of the dishwasher. The tins I packed the cookies in were new, not recycled from last year.
• The Pamela’s flour blend includes guar gum, but I added a little xanthan gum to the dough just to be sure the cookies would hold together. The gluten-free Bisquick in Recipe B includes xanthan gum.
• Insulated baking sheets lined with parchment paper definitely are the way to go with these cookies. Cookies in Recipe B especially are in danger of burning otherwise, since the temperature is so high.
• After baking one pan of the Recipe A dough, I chilled the rest and liked how the resulting cookies baked. It’s optional, however.
• Handle the freshly baked cookies carefully – they are prone to shatter. Using a salad fork to roll the cookies in powdered sugar works best.
• The newsroom folks who I know are on gluten-free diets liked both cookies, with Recipe B reminding them a little more of cookies baked by relatives. Among the general newsroom, Recipe A got slightly more positive comments. It comes off a bit more moist; some tasters said they “wouldn’t know it was gluten-free.” “Light, buttery, melt-in-mouth texture” was another Recipe A comment. Recipe B is “a little heavier, drier” as one taster said; it even “left an aftertaste,” another said. To me, the Bisquick made the cookie a bit saltier than I’d prefer.
Betty Crocker gluten-free Russian tea cakes (Recipe B)
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 10 minutes per batch
Makes 4 dozen cookies
Adapted by Kathy Morrison from a recipe in “Betty Crocker Christmas Cookies” (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99, 208 pages paperback, also available as an e-book).
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon gluten-free vanilla
2 1/4 cups Bisquick Gluten-Free Mix (most of a 16-ounce box)
3/4 cup finely chopped nuts
2/3 cup (or more) powdered sugar, for rolling
Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the butter and powdered sugar until well-blended and fluffy. Mix in the vanilla and egg. Stir in Bisquick mix and nuts until dough holds together.
Shape dough into 1-inch balls. On ungreased or parchment-lined cookie sheets, place balls about 1 inch apart.
Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until set but not brown. Immediately (but carefully) remove from cookie sheets to cooling racks. Cool slightly.
Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar; place on cooling racks to cool completely. Roll in powdered sugar again. Store cookies in tightly covered containers.
Per cookie: 80 calories; 5 grams fat (2.5g sat.); 15 mg cholesterol; 90 mg sodium; 8 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein