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~ Toasted Pistachio Pillows (Russian Tea Cakes) ~

Pistachio Pillows #1 (Intro Pillow)The people of Russia have a passion for Russian tea, and the Russian tea-sharing ceremony.  Tea in Russia is traditionally served after a meal (unlike the mid-afternoon "tea time" break in Britain or "high tea" in Britain if it gets served in place of the evening meal).  Tea was introduced to Russia by the Chinese in the mid-1600's.  The Russian people, who for the most part lived in a harsh environment, quickly embraced it because it was storable, soothing and warm, and like most Russian beverages (and foods), they created their own strong, hearty, dark brew, which they sweetened with sugar or honey.  Almost every home had a special method and/or pot to brew their special blend of tea in, the most famous pot being the samovar: 

Russian Samovar #1 Russian samovars (large urn-shaped vessels that keep water hot all day long), have a designated place on the top of them to sit a small tea kettle.  So, while the water is kept hot in the samovar, a small tea kettle containing water and tea leaves is placed on top to brew a very strong blend of tea.  Tea from the kettle is poured into the tea cup and a spigot at the bottom of the samovar releases hot water into the cup, to dilute the strong brew to the liking of the tea drinker.

Samovars are festive, most being brightly painted with fruits, flowers, or pictures from Russian folk lore.  I would suspect that on the bleakest of Russian winter days, a colorful, steaming hot samovar of tea just might be the one comforting "bright spot" in a person's day.   The samovar in this picture was made in Russia and my father bought it for me several years ago while he and my mother were visiting the Nicholas & Alexandra exhibition in Washington, D.C.  

Tea time in Russia is any time any visitor shows up at your home.  Proper etiquette in a Russian houseshold is to ALWAYS offer food and drink to even a stranger. By the 18th century, very simple-to-make confections, now known as Russian tea cakes were a common offering to accompany a simple cup of tea.  Soon afterward, these crunchy, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth, pastry-like delicacies started being served at family celebrations and holidays.  Prior to baking, depending on the recipe, they can be shaped like little round balls or like cookies, with the cookie version being richer, because the extra butter content causes them to flatten out slightly. 

It goes without saying there are as many variations on this recipe as there are cooks, however, authentic recipes for Russian tea cakes DO NOT CONTAIN baking powder, baking soda, eggs or milk (try to keep in mind the ingredients available in that time period of history).  They are made from a simple English-middle-ages-type pastry mixture of flour, sugar, ground nuts, butter and water (or surprisingly, vanilla extract). At the time, baking powder and baking soda did not exist for them.  If they were lucky enough to have fresh milk, they drank it.  If they had fresh eggs, they cooked and ate them, usually hard-cooking them to give them a longer shelf life.  As for the vanilla extract:  Russian peasants made their own potato-based "hootch" -- vodka.  In the 1800's, Tsarist Russia re-opened/expanded upon a grueling 11,000+ mile spice route which ran through Siberia to China.  One lowly vanilla bean, when soaked in vodka for 6-8 weeks, made enough of  wonderful flavoring to share with or sell to a lot people. 

This recipe is based on the ones my grandmother and mother always made using pecans or walnuts.   They are the best version of Russian tea cakes I've ever tasted.  Pistachio nuts have a delicate, subtle flavor that is wonderful either for eating out-of-hand or flavoring both sweet and savory dishes -- toasting them makes them even more fragrant and flavorful.  Tea cakes are perfect served with a piping hot cup of coffee or tea for breakfast, at the end of any meal, or, just as a treat after a long, hard day.  When they emerge from the oven, they really do look more like delicate little cakes (rather than balls or cookies, which is probably why they were named tea cakes to begin with), and, when lightly dusted with some confectioners' sugar, they really do look like little pillows (which is probably why they are sometimes called wedding cakes).

Pistachio Pillows #4 (Ingredients)













6  cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

2  cups confectioners' sugar

1  pound shelled, roasted and salted, pistachio nuts*

1/2  teaspoon salt

2  tablespoons pure vanilla extract, not imitation

3 3/4  cups salted butter, at room temperature (7 1/2 sticks), very soft, no substitutions

1/4  cup additional confectioners' sugar, for lightly dusting tea cakes

* Note:  It is very likely the package or jar of shelled pistachios you purchased is going to say "roasted and salted" on it.  While that makes them ready to eat, it is still necessary to roast/toast the finely ground nuts in my recipe.

Pistachio Pillows #7 (Pistachios Ready for Oven) ~ Step 1.  In the workbowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, finely grind the pistachios, using about 25-30, 1 second on/off pulses.

Transfer ground nuts to a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish.  Roast nuts on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 10-15 minutes, stopping to toss with a spoon about every 4-5 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely, 1-2 hours (or overnight if you'd like to get this out of the way ahead of time).

Pistachio Pillows #10 (Cutting in Butter)~ Step 2.  In a large mixing bowl, stir together all of the dry ingredients (the flour, confectioners' sugar, nuts, and salt).  Stir in the vanilla without trying to blend it in.

Note:  Confectioners' sugar, powdered sugar and 10X sugar are all the same.  10X simply refers to the number of times the sugar is processed make confectioners' sugar.

Pistachio Pillows #11 (Coarse Crumbs) Using a pastry blender and a paring knife, "cut" or blend the butter into the dry ingredients, until the mixture resembles coarse, rough lumps and crumbs. 

Depending upon how soft your butter is and quickly you work, this will take about 1 minute.  I like to let my butter sit out until it is very soft and spreadable before starting to mix.

Put down the pastry blender and paring knife, and... 

Pistachio Pillows #12 (Sticky Ball is Formed) ~ Step 3.  ... using the heel of your hand, gather and knead the mixture until an ooey, gooey, sticky, messy ball of dough is formed.

How easy was that?






Pistachio Pillows #13 (Scooping onto Pan) ~ Step 4.  Using a 1 3/4" ice cream scoop as a measure, place 35 balls of dough, slightly apart, on each of two 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans that have been lined with parchment paper.

Do not flatten the balls.

Pistachio Pillows #15 (On Pan Just Out of Oven) ~ Step 5.  Bake tea cakes, one pan at a time, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, 20 minutes.  Tea cakes will be just touching each other,  be just set and be very lightly browned.  Using a spatula, immediately separate and gently transfer tea cakes to cooling rack(s) to cool completely.

Pistachio Pillows #16 (Undusted Pillows Closeup) Now, be honest... don't they look more like little cakes than cookies?







 Pistachio Pillows #3 (Exit Picture)

Toasted Pistachio Pillows (Russian Tea Cakes):  Recipe yields approximately 5-5 1/2 dozen tea cakes.

Special Equipment List:  food processor; 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan; pastry blender; paring knife; 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; parchment paper; 1 3/4" ice cream scoop; cooling rack(s); fine mesh sieve (for distributing/dusting tea cakes with confectioner's sugar)

Cook's Note:  Store cookies in an air-tight container in a cool dry place for 1-2 weeks.   Give them their first or second light-dusting of confectioner's sugar just before you serve them.  I personally like to lightly sugar them once before I store them and then again just before I serve them, but that choice is yours.  Just remember... a little bit of confectioner's sugar goes a long way and a light dusting will be plenty.  Please don't mask the buttery, nutty flavor of these delicate tea cakes by using too much sugar!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2010) 


Hamish! Cookies and tea for an afternoon snack... how lovely! I love your suggestion of drizzling honey on these particular cookies... I can taste it already. This particular samovar I keep as a "showpiece", because it was a gift from my father. I do brew Russian tea, but in another type of pot. Hope to hear from you again, and, thanks for your kind words!

Cookies and tea make up my favorite late afternoon snack. Served with honey, both for the pastry and the tea, and my afternoon would be perfect. That intricately-designed samovar is gorgeous. Have you used it to brew authentic Russian tea?

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