3-Ingredient Challenge: Gluten-Free Almond Cookies

For this month’s Let’s Lunch challenge, we were tasked with making three-ingredient recipes. Now I’ve seen and attempted five-ingredient recipes but three ingredients? That’s a tough one.

As often happens in life, things organically fell into place.

Last month, I wrote a story on building a gluten-free pantry and I was intrigued by all the alternative flours available for baking. Almond meal in particular caught my eye. I love almond flavored anything. I can still remember little-girl-me at weddings scraping off the marzipan frosting from the cake slices we were served (yes, I attacked my family’s share as well) and leaving the (yucky) fruitcake behind.

Almond meal cookie
Made with almond meal instead of wheat flour, these gluten-free almond cookies are a fascimile of my favorite Chinese almond cookies but they’re still yummy!

In adulthood, my almond obsession continues: I swoon for sweet frangipane tarts and I can devour a dozen delicate amaretti cookies at one sitting. And then there are Chinese almond cookies. I don’t remember having them in Singapore but as a college student in Seattle, I’d often buy them at the Chinese bakery in Chinatown in addition to the barbecued pork buns and egg tarts that offered a taste of home. When I was researching The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, I saw many recipes in old cookbooks but it never occurred to me to make them at home. Until now.

By chance, I came across this honey almond cookie recipe. Another coincidence occurred when fellow Let’s Luncher Grace of HapaMama.com resurfaced an old blog post about Chinese almond cookies in commemoration of Chinese Almond Cookie Day on April 9 (who knew?).

You don't have to wait long for these cookies to bake--go water your plants, read a page or two from your book and ding... they're done!
You don’t have to wait long for these cookies to bake–go water your plants, read a page or two from your book and ding… they’re done!

The almond cookie I came up with tastes similar to Chinese almond cookies but are softer and chewier, lacking the crunch of the true specimen (visit HapaMama.com for Grace’s version of a more traditional Chinese almond cookie). But I’m not complaining: This cookie is mighty tasty considering it’s gluten-free, has no refined sugars, and takes barely10 minutes of active time. Plus, it fulfilled the three-ingredient challenge!

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Gluten-Free Almond Cookies

cookie stack

This is a basic, basic gluten-free cookie recipe made with almond meal. If I weren’t restricted to just three ingredients, I’d add vanilla, baking soda (1/4 teaspoon) to give it more rise, and some almond extract (1/4 teaspoon) for a more almondy flavor. Oh and crown each cookie with an almond sliver to pretty them up some more! Almond meal is basically ground blanched almonds. It’s a pricy package–$8.99 per pound but it’s very useful in gluten-free baking. Even if you’re not gluten-free, try replacing some of the wheat flour with almond meal in a favorite cake or muffin recipe–you’ll reduce total carbs and give yourself a good dose of Vitamin E and manganese.

Makes: 3 dozen cookies
Time: 10 minutes active, 30 minutes resting, 8 minutes baking

1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1/4 cup honey
2 -1/2 cups almond meal
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling (OK, so I cheated and added a 4th ingredient, but it’s only for decoration!)

In a medium bowl, mix the butter and honey until well blended. Add the almond meal and mix until a soft dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes or so until the dough firms up a little.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Take dough out of the fridge and roll into 1-inch balls with damp hands. Place them on the parchment and flatten with the back of a wet spoon. Sprinkle turbinado sugar with or without abandon!

Bake for 8 to 9 minutes or until the edges turn golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. The cookies will be soft so handle with care.

Enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container.

**Addendum: if you refrigerate the baked cookies, they’ll be firmer and in my opinion, taste even better!

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Today’s post is part of our monthly Let’s Lunch Twitter blogger potluck and we’re featuring 3-ingredient recipes!

For more Let’s Lunch posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below:

Mac and Cheese and Peanut Butter Cookies at Tea and Scones.

Filipino Sticky Rice Logs at Asian in America.

Easier Chicken and Dumplings at A Cook and Her Books.

Turkish Sesame Sweet at Monday Morning Cooking Club.

Trinidadian Mango Chow at Spicebox Travels.

Mango Coconut Chia Pudding at HapaMama.

Peanut Butter Cookies at Hot Curries & Cold Beer.

5 Tips for Tasty Vegetables and an Umami-Laden Green Bean Recipe

Chase William Merritt Still Life with Vegetable
Vegetables were popular with 17th c. Baroque painters but alas, have yet to win over many kid-fans today  (Chase William Merritt, “Still Life with Vegetable”)

My earliest memory of eating vegetables involves my mother chasing me around the living room balancing a plateful of stir-fried spinach and rice in one hand, and desperately trying to shove dinner spoonful-by-spoonful past my uncooperative lips with the other.

I must admit I’ve come a long way since then. In fact, I even consider myself a flexitarian, preferring a larger portion of vegetables to meat (which, by the way, is the Asian way).

I’ve come to love previously abhorred greens such as ladies finger (okra), mustard cabbage, and choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage). Even spinach, my childhood nemesis, tastes sweet on my adult tongue!

The trick, I’ve learned, is to select the freshest specimens you can find, and to cook the vegetables well. This means no wilty leaves, or brown, mushy spots on your bok choy. And heaven forbid you should overcook your broccoli! These tactics are even more important now that I have a child. As many a parent has come to realize, little people are the most persnickety of vegetable eaters.

I have some tips to offer any mom or spouse with a veggie-cynic on their hands, none of which involve hiding zucchini or Brussels sprouts (a technique I don’t quite approve of). However, I don’t disapprove of embellishing with ingredients that will make vegetables more palatable for naysayers big and small.

1. Roasting can make even the most banal of vegetables as addictive as candy (just think of the roasted kale chips craze). Roasting turns kale, cauliflower, broccoli crisp and crunchy and concentrates their sweetness through caramelization.

2. Pickling vegetables is another great way to get them to slide easily down your child’s throat. My son devours pickled cucumbers and carrots by the bushel.

3. Experiment with umami-laden ingredients like oyster sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, anchovies, and pickled veggies to amp up the flavor in a salad or stirfry. (My recipe below uses both soy sauce and pickled radish). And trust me, sambal terasi/belacan (shrimp paste and chilies) can transform ho-hum spinach into yum-yum!

salted radish
It comes in a big bag but preserved radish adds such a wonderful flavor and crunch. You’ll use it up in no time in pad Thai, omelets and numerous stirfries! Find it at Asian markets.

4. Toss vegetables like cauliflower, eggplant, okra into curry and they will soak up all that tasty goodness.

5. If all else fails, add bacon.

6. Oh, and here’s one more suggestion: buy Joe Yonan’s latest book, titled coincidentally, Eat Your Vegetables.

What’s your secret trick or dish that has been known to win over the most hardened of vegetable-haters? Please share below!

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Haricots Verts with Preserved Radish

green beans with radish

Haricots verts and preserved radish are an unlikely combination but this dish is a hit with both my 3-year-old son and husband. Read: there are never any leftovers! I adapted this recipe from Steamy Kitchen’s green bean stir-fry recipe. On a whim, I used haricots verts, also called filet beans, the green bean’s slender French cousin (crikey, even their veggies are skinnier!). These beans are very tender and “beanier” in flavor when young but can turn tough if allowed to mature.

As for the preserved radish, you can buy either the sweet or salted kind at the Asian market—it will say on the bag. It doesn’t make too much of a difference as both are preserved with salt and sugar. I know it’s a big bag but you’ll use it up in no time in pad Thai, omelets and numerous stirfries! If you can’t find preserved salted radish, use more garlic or add some chopped shallots.

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse, family meal

1 pound haricots verts, trimmed
1/8 cup preserved salted radish
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon sugar

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the haricots verts and parboil until crisp-tender, 4 to 5 minutes. (You can also microwave (3 to 4 minutes) or steam them for the same amount of time.) Don’t overcook as you will be stirfrying them later. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water.

While the beans are cooking, soak the preserved radish in a small bowl of water for a couple of minutes to get the excess salt off. Squeeze them dry then mince.

Swirl the oil into a large wok or skillet and heat over high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the preserved radish and garlic and stir and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Toss in the cooked haricots verts and drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil. Sprinkle the sugar and stir and cook until the beans are coated with sauce and heated through. Serve immediately with hot cooked rice and/or a main dish.

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This post is part of the monthly Let’s Lunch Twitter blogger potluck. This  month, we celebrate the launch of Washington Post food and travel editor, and fellow Let’s Luncher, Joe Yonan’s latest cookbook, Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (Ten Speed Press, August 6, 20123). 

EatYourVegetablescover (1)

For more Let’s Lunch veggie-centric posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below: 

Annabelle‘s Farmer’s Market Gazpacho at Glass of Fancy

Cheryl‘s Egg-Drop Broccoli with Ginger-Miso Gravy at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Eleanor‘s Green Beans Two Ways at Wok Star

Grace‘s Vegetable Tempura at HapaMama

Jill‘s Fusilli with Corn Sauce at Eating My Words 

Joe‘s Guaca-Chi at Joe Yonan

Linda‘s Chocolate-Zucchini Twinkies at Free Range Cookies

Linda‘s Gateway Brussels Sprouts at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Totally “Free” Veggie Soup at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Vivian‘s Kangkong (Water Spinach) with Fermented Beancurd, Chili and Garlic at Vivian Pei

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What’s your secret trick or dish that has been known to win over the most hardened of vegetable-haters?

Black Sesame Ice Cream and a Cookbook Giveaway

Black sesame seeds have a toasty, nuttier flavor than white sesame seeds and is a favorite flavor in Asian desserts.
Black sesame seeds have a toastier, nuttier flavor than white sesame seeds and is a favorite in Asian desserts.

Have you ever been struck by an incessant food craving that just won’t go away? (No, this has nothing to do with pregnancy.) It’s kinda like an earworm (click here for more info about this wonderful new word I just learned about on NPR), a song that lodges in your head and plays over and over again.

Most often, it’s a childhood snack or comfort food you crave–mom’s mac and cheese, Twinkies (RIP), or cherry-flavored jello. And it’s always, always, always, annoying because you simply can’t shake it off until you actually indulge it.

In my case, I’ve been fantasizing about glutinous rice balls in sugar syrup (also known as tang yuan,汤圆) for the last week or so. You know, those chewy white balls made from glutinous (or sweet rice) flour, the ones that burst open with one bite, releasing a lavalike flow of sweet black sesame paste?

So when Diana Kuan (who writes the marvelous blog appetiteforchina.com) invited me to participate in her Chinese New Year potluck to celebrate her new book The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, one recipe was calling, siren-like, out to me.

I’ve seen black sesame ice cream on menus before but I’ve never tried it, let alone attempted to make it. However, Diana’s recipe is so simple that my mind was made up before you could say “black sesame.” I whipped up the ice cream base in barely 10 minutes and the ice cream machine did the rest of the work.

The four hours the ice cream had to sit in the freezer to set seemed like a toe-tapping eternity. As soon as the timer went off, I scooped some out, sat down with a bowl of cool, nutty black sesame ice cream and ate my craving away spoonful by luscious spoonful.

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If you’d like to win a copy of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, please leave a comment below telling me where and/or in what dish you’ve tried black sesame seeds (and even if you haven’t, leave a comment anyway)! I’ll select a winner at random on March 8th.

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Black Sesame Ice Cream

Adapted from The Chinese Takeout Cookbook by Diana Kuan

ice cream scoop2Diana uses a light Philadelphia-style eggless base for this delicious dessert infused with a hint of vanilla and the more dramatic nutty fragrance and flavor of black sesame, which is almost akin to dark chocolate or French roast coffee. I lightened it up a little and used half-and-half instead of heavy cream for a fluffier gelato-like texture. If you can actually resist gorging, the ice cream stores well in the freezer for up to a week.

Makes: 1 quart
Time: 10 minutes, active

2 cups half-and-half, or heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1/∕8 teaspoon salt
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup black sesame seeds

Special equipment:
Spice grinder
Ice cream maker

Combine 1 cup of the heavy cream, the sugar, and salt in a large bowl and whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Stir in the remaining 1 cup heavy cream, the milk, and vanilla extract. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour. (If you are in a hurry, skip this step).

Grind the sesame seeds in a clean spice grinder for about 5 seconds until they turn into a coarse powder. Don’t grind for too long as the seeds will turn into a paste.

Pour the mixture into your ice cream maker and slowly pour in the ground black sesame. Churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a freezersafe container and freeze for at least 4 hours or overnight.

~~~

Now for some disclaimers: I received a copy of this book as thanks for writing a blurb for the back cover. And in participating in this potluck, I’ll be given a copy of The Chinese Takeout Cookboook to share with one lucky reader as well as be entered in a giveaway. However, I am endorsing this book because it has awesome, easy recipes that I know you, my reader, will enjoy.

Egg Rolls and Gold Bars

The Lunar New Year celebration lasts 15 days so there’s still plenty of time to eat your fill of lucky and auspicious foods for a prosperous year ahead.

egg rolls uncooked
Freshly wrapped egg rolls waiting to be fried

Egg rolls (also called fried spring rolls) are a favorite all year round but they’re considered an auspicious food during the new year because they resemble gold bars and thus symbolize wealth and prosperity!

If you’d like to see a demo of me rolling egg rolls as well as learn more about lucky new year foods, here’s a video of my segment on King5 TV’s New Day Northwest (click on the still below and you’ll be taken to the video):

King5

Here’s my recipe, enjoy!

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Fried Egg Rolls (蛋卷)

fried egg rolls

I’ve adapted this lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) recipe from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. I used carrots because in Mandarin, orange carrots are called hong luo bo (红萝卜), i.e. “red carrots,” and red symbolizes good fortune, while the yellow carrots are close enough to a golden hue and gold symbolizes wealth. Chinese chives are known as jiu cai (韭菜) which sounds like “forever vegetable,” and who doesn’t want a long life? Feel free to add or subtract whatever ingredients you’d like. Ground pork, glass noodles, cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, etc., are all great ingredients to add to the mix. The filling can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Makes: about 25 egg rolls
Time: 1-1/2 hours

2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
3 medium orange and yellow carrots, shredded (1-1/2 cups)
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped green beans
1 stalk Chinese chives, finely chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package egg roll wrappers (usually 25 wrappers, click here for my favorite brand)
1 egg white, beaten, or water for sealing
3 cups (or as needed) vegetable oil for deep-frying
Sweet and Sour Sauce (recipe follows)

To make the filling, place the chicken in a medium saucepan and fill with water until the chicken is submerged by about an inch. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and cover. Let the chicken stand for 15 minutes. Test by cutting into a piece: it should not be pink. Let cool and shred the meat along the grain into tiny shards with your fingers, or chop into a confetti-sized dice. Reserve the stock for another use or discard.

In a small skillet, heat the 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft and light golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken, carrots, and green beans, and stir to mix. Add the soy sauce, remaining salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste) and mix thoroughly. Add the Chinese chives and stir and cook until the mixture is heated through.

Allow the filling to cool completely.

To assemble the egg rolls, carefully peel one wrapper from the stack (cover the remaining wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them moist). Lay the wrapper on a dry work surface with one corner pointing toward you.) Place 2 tablespoons of filling just below the center line of the wrapper parallel to your body. Shape it into a mound 1 by 3 inches, leaving about 2½ inches on either side. Fold the corner closest to you over the filling and tuck it under snugly. Roll once, then fold the left and right sides in to form an envelope. Continue to roll the filling tightly into a fat tube until you reach the end of the wrapper. Before you reach the end, dab some egg white or water along the top edge to seal the egg roll. The egg roll should measure 4 to 5 inches in length and 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Place on a plate or tray and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large wok, heavy skillet, or Dutch oven, heat the 3 cups oil over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Reduce the heat to medium-high. Using tongs, gently lower the egg rolls into the oil one by one; fry in a batch of 5 or 6 until both sides are evenly golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the egg rolls with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in the oven.

Bring the oil temperature back to 350 degrees F before frying the next batch. Repeat with the remaining egg rolls. Serve immediately with sweet and sour sauce.

Sweet and Sour Sauce
3 tablespoons rice or distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water to form a slurry

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, ketchup, and soy sauce to a boil over medium heat. Stir the cornstarch slurry and add to the pan, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Pour into a small bowl and serve with the egg rolls.

Some egg roll making tips (don’t heed at your own risk!):

  1. Keep your egg roll wrappers frozen and defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or two, or on the counter for 3o minutes.
  2. If your wrappers dry out, cover with a damp towel and microwave on medium for 10 seconds. They should soften up but work quickly before they dry out again and keep covered with a damp towel!
  3. Allow your filling to cool completely before wrapping your egg rolls. A warm filling may cause your wrapper to soften and tear, and your egg roll to fall apart.
  4. Don’t overfill your wrapper or #3 will happen.
  5. Make sure your oil is at the optimum temp before you start frying. Otherwise your egg rolls will come out soggy instead of crisp.
  6. When frying, don’t overcrowd your pan, otherwise #5 will happen.
  7. You can freeze unfried or fried egg rolls. Lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze them for about an hour. Then transfer them to a ziptop bag and freeze for up to three months.
  8. When ready to eat, deep-fry the frozen egg rolls (don’t defrost) for 2 to 3 minutes (pre-fried) or 5 to 7 minutes (unfried).
  9. To warm up fried egg rolls (that have been refrigerated or kept at room temp), preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp.

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Here are some other dishes to help usher in a happy and prosperous new year:

Indonesian-Style Pineapple Tarts for Chinese New Year!

The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which starts this Sunday, February 10, 2013. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.

Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.

I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat—pineapple tarts!

Pineapple tarts!!
Singapore-style pineapple tarts (Photo credit: chernwei)

Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the U.S. but that might change!

pineapple cakes . 01
Taiwanese pineapple cakes (Photo credit: 7_70)

Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.

The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.

Pineapple
There’s a reason (or two) why pineapples are considered auspicious (Photo credit: Wolfharu)

Since moving to the U.S., I haven’t  indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my!  Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time—each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.

I asked  my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!

Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the U.S.. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.

ingredients
Dutch butter (brought back from Indonesia) in the red can which Tante Linda calls colloquially”Wijsman” (see ingredient list in the recipe below), is one of the ingredients she had laid out on the counter when I arrived at her home.

I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.

I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!

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Indonesian Pineapple Cookies (Kue Nastar)

kue nastar ready

Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.

Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours

500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablepoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder too)
Pineapple Filling (recipe below)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.

butter_sugar_eggs

Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.

powdered milk

Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams, but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams).

pouring in the flour

Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about ½-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Scoop about ½ teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.

waiting to be glazed

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.

glazing2

Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.

scraping cookies

Pineapple Filling

nastar filling

Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about 4 hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.

Time: 4 hours

3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar

Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).

Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.

The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.

Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.

~~~

Happy Year of the Snake and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Ann Mah’s “Kitchen Chinese,” a Q+A, and Salt and Pepper Shrimp

Kitchen Chinese Ann Mah

Ann Mah’s debut novel, Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself, has all the ingredients for a successful chick lit novel. It’s an easy, breezy read. It has a lovable heroine–Isabelle Lee–who has her flaws yet  emerges victorious. And it offers so much more, especially for Asian Americans who hardly see themselves reflected in mainstream literature. Plus, the book is chock full of mouthwatering descriptions of the regional cuisines Isabelle samples in Beijing, Shanghai, and beyond.

Isabelle leaves behind debris of an ex-boyfriend and a dead-end editorial job in New York for the bright lights of big city Beijing. She moves in with her high-powered attorney sister, Claire, who helps her land a job as dining editor for an expat magazine. True to formula (and just the way I like it!), Isabelle bounces between two irresistible men, all the while struggling with her identity as American yet Chinese.

With her knowledge of the culture and language limited only to what Ann terms “kitchen Chinese” (hence the title of the book), Isabelle finds her way in Beijing’s fast-paced society and reconnects with her roots with a touch of self-deprecating humor, warmth, and somewhat wide-eyed innocence.

I couldn’t put the book down for many reasons. It was smart, funny and overall, a very engaging read. Three things really struck me:

1. Isabelle, with all her insecurities and self-doubts (about her identity, talents, allure, etc.) was very much like me. I could really identify with her character and I deemed her my soul sister!

2. The smattering of Mandarin words (written in Romanized hanyu pinyin) used throughout the book encouraged me to pick up Mandarin again.

3. All the luscious descriptions of regional specialties like jianbing, mabo tofu and Peking duck made me so hungry I was enticed to either seek out recipes or call for takeout.

To give you a taste, I asked Ann to share a little bit about herself (do check out her blog) and her book and I hope you treat yourself or a friend to it. You can still order it in time for Christmas here!

Q+A with  Author Ann Mah

Ann-in-Paris KGL

 1. What inspired you to write this novel?

In 2003, my husband and I got married and a month later we moved from New York to Beijing. I gave up a job I loved in New York book publishing to become a diplomat’s wife. Initially, I was a little stunned — and I missed my job so much it felt like I’d amputated a limb — but slowly the local Chinese food ignited a spark to explore. This book grew out of those experiences.

2. You’ve admitted that Isabelle’s story is inspired by your own life. But how much is true to (your) life and how much is fiction? Did you embellish Isabelle’s character/life with elements you wish were present in your life?

Oh, of course! Isabelle is based loosely on my own experiences but ultimately I decided to write a novel because it allowed me to explore ideas of ethnicity and self-discovery more metaphorically. Isabelle is much braver than I am, especially when it comes to eating everything and traveling in the primitive Chinese countryside. And, unlike me, she’s lucky enough to have a sister.

3. You spent a year in Bologna, Italy on a James Beard Foundation scholarship, and after living in Paris for several years you are now working on a book about regional French cuisine. But you are ethnically Chinese and grew up eating Chinese food. How important was it for you to write this book and to spotlight China and Chinese cuisine?

I love Chinese food but in my Chinese-American home, I grew up eating it every day so I thought I knew everything about it. But when I got to China, I was shocked to discover an enormous landscape of regional cuisines — everything from numbing peppercorns to Chinese cheese — stuff wildly different from the food in my parents’ house. Food became the bridge that drew me into China. But the tale that burned inside of me was of a young American woman — who happens to be Chinese — living in Beijing. Food is the metaphor that allows the main character to make peace with her circumstances.

4. Growing up in Southern California, were you raised with strict Chinese traditions? Did living in China and/or the process of writing this book connect you to your culture? What are your reflections on both?

My father is ethnically Chinese but he was born in the States and as a result I had a very American childhood and grew up with a very American perspective. Living in China actually made me feel more American than Chinese because I felt more accepted by my compatriots, who understood that the conflict of outer appearance and inner identity. It also made me appreciate the struggles faced by my grandparents, who must have experienced the same fish-out-of-water challenges in 1920s California that I faced in 21st century Beijing. And, after leaving China, I have to say I missed Chinese food for the first time in my entire life. I still do.

5. You used to work in book publishing and made the transition to writing when you moved abroad. How did this decision come about and why focus on food?

I always secretly dreamed of being a writer but never had the gumption to go for it. Living overseas changed that — especially living in a place like Beijing, which pulsed with opportunity for someone young, energetic and educated in the West. I’ll always feel grateful to China for giving me a chance to realize a dream. As a young, semi-illiterate woman in Beijing, food was the bridge that drew me into China, the thing that made me eager to learn more about the culture and history. In fact, I’ve learned, it’s a pretty great way to explore the whole world.

6. Unlike many households, your dad did most of the cooking. Did you find this odd? Can you share a favorite recipe your dad taught you?

My dad grew up in central California, the son of Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant. When he moved to North Carolina for his first job, he missed his mom’s food so much he taught himself how to cook it. I love to imagine him growing bitter melons and gailan (Chinese broccoli) — he even made his own tofu (once). Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the counter while he chopped garlic; he remains one of my favorite cooking partners. For his legendary dinner parties, he always makes a dish of salt and pepper shrimp — they’re so delicious, they can make even the most squeamish of eaters start to suck shrimp shells.

**Question #7 has a spoiler so it’s after the recipe.

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Salt and Pepper Shrimp (Salad)

salt and pepper shrimp_blog

Ann learned to make this dish from her dad. She usually serves the shrimp as a salad with arugula or mixed greens tossed in balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sesame oil. I adapted the recipe a little, tweaking amounts as well substituting pine nuts for red bell pepper. I also chose to serve the shrimp as a main course on an undressed bed of shredded red lettuce.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 servings as part of a multi-course family meal

1/2 pound shrimp (about 20 31/40 shrimp), peeled, cleaned, and patted dry (*preferably fresh because frozen shrimp contains salt, and you may have to alter the amount of salt you use)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt-pepper-sugar mixture (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 plump garlic clove, minced
1 green onion, chopped
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced (about 1-1/2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dry sherry or white wine

Bed of shredded lettuce or mixed greens for serving

In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with the salt-pepper-sugar mixture and cornstarch until well coated.

Preheat a wok or large skillet. Swirl in the oil and heat over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the shrimp and cook until they just turn pink (1 to 2 minutes on either side). Add the garlic, green onions, and red pepper and stir and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Drizzle in just enough sherry to create a sauce that barely coats the prawns. Remove from the heat.

Place the shrimp on the bed of greens and serve with rice.

Salt-Pepper-Sugar Mixture

This is a master batch for your spice cabinet (about 6 batches). You can increase the quantities to make more and store it in a bottle. I used white pepper from the Asian store which in my opinion is spicier than black pepper. Feel free to adjust the ratio according to taste.

2 tablespoons ground black pepper or white pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine all the seasonings in a small bottle or jar. Shake well and store for up to a month.

 

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**SPOILER ALERT—If you don’t want to know what happens in the end, stop reading now!**

7. This question is to satisfy my personal curiosity. I like that you left Charlie and Isabelle’s relationship open-ended. I get annoyed when authors feel they have to give their characters a happy-ever-after ending. Was this intentional?

Ha ha — well, yes, I wanted Charlie and Isabelle to have a chance to be together, but who knows what happens to them in the end? I like to think Isabelle stays in China for a good long while, unlike me. Maybe she is my döppelganger in that sense.

Almond Tofu (杏仁豆腐) and Syrupy Smashed Cherries–A Childhood Favorite Teams up with Summer Lovelies For Bliss in a Bowl

Cherries in syrup is quick and simple to make. Feel free to embellish with booze.

Almond tofu or almond jelly is one of the most popular desserts to come out of the Chinese restaurant. It’s almost always served at the end of a Chinese banquet, usually with canned longans in syrup and/or fruit cocktail.

As a little girl in swishy pigtails, I liked almond tofu enough but I lived for the bright pink cherries bobbing like rubies alongside the squishy grapes, soggy pear chunks, and soft peach slices in the accompanying fruit cocktail. With only two or three cherries to a can, a catfight inevitably broke out among the kids.

Flash forward three decades. I am older, wiser, and most importantly, I have enough money to buy as many cans of fruit cocktail as I desire.

However it does seem silly to stock up on canned fruit when cherry season is in full swing here in the Northwest. I am surrounded by cherries. Everywhere I look I see dark purple, almost black, Bing cherries, cheery-yellow Rainier cherries blushing with rouge, bright red sour cherries beckoning like sirens from a neighbor’s yard.

In what can only be defined as an aha moment, I realized I could have all the fruit cocktail-esque cherries I wanted, no hair-pulling required.

A quick Web surf later, I found recipes for macerated cherries, cherries in boozy syrup and cherries in almond syrup which I decided to adapt.

The cherries were easy. Next, it was on to the almond tofu.

The descriptor “tofu” is somewhat of a misnomer as the dessert’s ingredients usually comprise agar agar (a vegan gelling agent made from seaweed), and evaporated milk (which is cheaper and more common than fresh milk in Asia). I suppose the resulting color and delicate texture is similar to silken tofu. You could use soymilk to make it true to its moniker, a great substitute too if you can’t have dairy.

Almond tofu mixes are readily available at Asian stores but I like to make mine from scratch. I went in search of the agar agar brand my mom always used, Swallow Globe. The bright yellow packets are usually unmistakable on the shelf but it was out of stock at my Asian market so I settled for Golden Coins brand manufactured in Santa Fe Springs, CA.

I like that Golden Coins brand is made in California. I don’t quite like that it has added sugar but at least it wasn’t too sweet.

I removed the sachet from the box to discover the mix already includes sugar, which isn’t usually the case with other brands. Fortunately, the box had detailed instructions for making almond tofu so I didn’t have to guess.

I more or less followed the instructions, except I used only 1 cup of half-and-half instead of 3 cups of whole milk. I wanted to use these cute little molds my mom had bought in Singapore and I wanted to ensure they were firm enough to unmold cleanly. To use pure agar agar or gelatin, try this recipe, which will yield a more tofu-like consistency.

Right now, I’m lovin’ eating syrupy cherries to my heart’s content! And for me, almond tofu and cherries go together like black tea and milk in the British Isles.

As it turns out I’m not the only cherry-crazy fruit cocktail-lover. Enter Del Monte’s Very Cherry Mixed Fruit with extra cherries!

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Almond Tofu with Syrupy Smashed Cherries

If you have a cherry pitter, by all means use it. I try to keep my kitchen gadgets to a minimum so I simply thwack my cherries with a large chef’s knife. With crimson juice splattering everywhere, it’s messy but lots of fun and you can save the juice to add to the syrup. It’s also very therapeutic. I used red Bing cherries but go ahead and use any type of cherry just not sour cherries. I have my eye on Rainier cherries for next time!

Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 35 minutes active

Syrupy Smashed Cherries:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
3-inch curl of lemon zest
2-inch piece vanilla bean, seeds scraped
2 cups pitted cherries of your choice (about 1 pound)

Almond tofu:
1 (6 ounce) box of Golden Coins agar agar powder
1/2 cup sugar
6 cups water
1 cup half-and-half
2 teaspoons almond extract
2-quart shallow pan or mold(s)

Place the sugar, water, lemon curl, and vanilla pod and seeds in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn off the heat and add the cherries (plus juice, if any). Let cool and pour into a 16-ounce jar. Cover and refrigerate at least overnight, or up to one week.

Make the almond tofu. Place the contents of the box together with the sugar and water in a large saucepan. Bring the mixture to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the agar agar and sugar completely dissolve. Remove from the heat and add the half-and-half and almond extract. Let cool a little.

Rinse the pan or molds with water to make it easier to unmold. I use hot water but I don’t think it matters, just don’t wipe it out. Pour the cooled mixture slowly into the pan or mold.

Refrigerate until the agar agar is set, about 2 hours. Serve with the smashed cherries.