No matter how hard you dig across the internet, you can’t find out much about Mrs. Ruby Henley of Social Circle, Georgia.
I wanted to know more about who she was because she, evidently, was the source of a recipe from Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking called “Russian Communist Tea Cakes.” For the life of me, I could not figure out why Mrs. Henley would call these simple concoctions what she did. I could not fathom what in the world they have to do with either Russia or communism.
My research began with a general search for anything I could find about Mrs. Henley and her life in Walton County, Georgia. I couldn’t find a thing, no obituary, nothing. If any of y’all know anything of Mrs. Henley’s life, let us know. We’d love to learn.
Pressing on, I did find quite a few references to “Russian tea cakes” across the web. I discovered a 2017 post about them on a blog, inthevintagekitchen.com, a Nashville-based operation run by a woman named Katherine who grew up in New York. Her post says, “One of the most simple of cookies to make, it has other aliases as well…Mexican Wedding Cakes, Rolling in the Snow, Holy Rollers and the plain Jane, practical name … Pecan Balls.”
Katherine even writes that at Christmastime, you can even stack three of them on top of each other and add a few twigs and some orange peel to make snowmen.
That research confirmed that many folks make little round cookies called Russian Tea Cakes, but I was still left with no clue to why White Trash Cooking calls them Russian Communist Tea Cakes.
I then called an old friend who has done extensive research into Ernie Micker’s life and work, and he referred me to Florence Turcotte, an archivist at the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries, where all of Mickler’s papers now reside.
Turcotte probably knows Ernie Mickler’s work and where it came from better than anyone alive. For years, she’s overseen the collection and cataloging of his papers. I was grateful when she replied quickly to tell me that she was working from home just now, as so many of us are, but that she would ask one of the few staffers working in the library to crack open the collection and see if there was a specific reason that Mickler appended the word “Communist” to the recipe.
“Knowing the collection,” she wrote, “my hunch is that Ernie was being ‘Cold-War facetious’ in naming that recipe.”
But Turcotte’s colleagues acted quickly and sent me two documents from Mickler’s papers — one of them a handwritten recipe for “Russian Tea Cakes,” which they said came from a box of recipes that people had apparently mailed to Mickler as he was assembling the cookbook. The second document, I think, provides confirmation that Turcotte’s theory was right. The page is from Mickler’s typewritten manuscript for the book, and there it is, plain as day, straight from Mickler’s typewriter: “Russian Communist Tea Cakes.”
White Trash Cooking is nothing if not facetious, so now it makes sense to me: It was nothing more than Mickler’s sense of humor that caused the word “Communist” to be added to the recipe’s title.
Whatever you call them and wherever they come from, I do know they taste very good. Only six ingredients: butter, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, salt, flour and chopped nuts. Over the last couple months, Stacy and I have eaten several batches of them. Making them goes thusly:
Take a half-pound of softened butter, a cup of powdered sugar, 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, and a dash of salt, and cream them together with a mixer. Then stir in a whopping 2½ cups of flour — we recommend White Lily All-Purpose, sifted — and somewhere between ½ and 1 cup of chopped nuts. Going from the practical name that Katherine offers and my own love of pecans, that’s what we choose.
You roll the mixture into little balls, put them on a cookie sheet and make them at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Then, you take some more powdered sugar, in which the tea cakes get two rolls — the first when they are still warm, and the second when they are cooled completely.
Using less flour than directed means the cakes won’t hold up as perfectly round balls. As the aforementioned Mrs. Henley is quoted in White Trash Cooking, “If you make a mistake and use 1 cup of flour instead of 2½, they’ll come out like thin wafers. They’ll be just as delicious but won’t make enough for Christmas.
Some of our batches have been flatter than others. Some of have been the right proper ball shapes. All of them have tasted good, but none of them made us feel either Russian or communist.