Pecan Butterballs

Russian tea cakes. Snowballs. Mexican wedding cookies. Mantecosos. Butterballs. Whatever you call them, you’ve probably had these cookies before at Christmastime. I think they are so popular because they are basically butter (with some nuts and flour to hold it together) rolled in sugar. If you’re aiming for a delicious cookie, you definitely want to go heavy on the butter and sugar.

The recipe for these cookies comes from my grandma. And the kitchen gadget you see above comes from her too. Yes, it’s sole purpose is to chop nuts. And yes, you have to turn that little key thing until your hand is almost asleep in order to get the amount of chopped pecans for this recipe. When I was little I was always given this task. It is a good job to give a kid–I think having smaller hands makes it easier somehow. I actually always enjoyed using this contraption when I was a child, probably because I liked helping in the kitchen so much.

As an adult I am less enamored with it, but I’ve learned from experience not to try to substitute. One year I tried using pre-chopped pecans–no good. The pieces in the package were very uneven and many were way too big to be incorporated into the dough. Another year I tried chopping the nuts with a knife–uh, not for me. The pieces went flying all over the kitchen and I had a hard time getting even sizes. Now, if you don’t have one of these doohickeys, don’t despair. You can definitely do this with a knife, or maybe even a food processor. Just try to get evenly sized pieces that aren’t too big.

Probably the trait that makes these cookies the most recognizable is their coating of powdered sugar. It’s perfect for Christmas (or any other winter holiday gathering) because it makes the cookies look like they’re covered in snow. But, there are a few tricks to getting this right. First, like the Girl Scouts always say, be prepared. In the picture below you can see my setup for sugar coating the butterballs. You’ll need a hot pad (underneath the tray of cookies on the left), a shallow bowl of powdered sugar, a small spatula, and a cooling rack over a cookie sheet (or piece of aluminum foil/wax paper). Second, you have to roll the cookies in the sugar while they are still hot. This is not a job for a kid. The heat from the cookies melts the powdered sugar a little bit which helps it stick to the cookie. And my last tip, be gentle. These cookies are so delicious because they are so tender, but that quality also makes them easy to bust into a million pieces if you’re not careful.

With a little practice, it’s easy to master these cookies. And (unlike other things in life), you can eat your mistakes. So, get rolling!

Pecan Butterballs

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) room temperature unsalted butter
  • 4 Tablespoons powdered sugar PLUS ~1 cup extra (to roll the cookies in)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup chopped pecans (measure after they are chopped, not before)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Use a mixer to cream the butter thoroughly. Add the 4 Tablespoons powdered sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
  3. Add the vanilla and flour to the butter mixture. Mix well.
  4. Stir in the pecans. If the dough is too crumbly you can add 1-2 Tablespoons of water to get it to come together.
  5. Use your hands to roll the dough into small balls. (You can use a small cookie scoop or Tablespoon to evenly proportion the dough, but make sure you use your hands to form the dough into balls.) Place the cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes.
  6. Roll the cookies in the extra powdered sugar while still hot from the oven (I explained my tips for this in the blog post above). Let the cookies cool, and then roll in the powdered sugar again.

Makes: 35 cookies

Time: 45 minutes

Note: This recipe can easily be doubled.


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