Lemongrass and Pandan Christmas Sugar Cookies: An Experiment in Asian-Inspired Baking

stacked cookies

Growing up, my family didn’t have a tradition of baking Christmas cookies. My mom would place several orders of Bûche de Noël (Christmas log cake) for our family dinner on Christmas eve and to give away to friends but nary a sugar cookie was in sight.

I never realized what I was missing until I moved to the U.S. where everyone I met seemed to have a favorite family Christmas cookie. My husband has fond memories of churning out pizzelles (even though his adopted family is of mostly German descent, go figure!) in a pizzelle iron with his sister. My church friend Karen introduced me to biscochitos, or Mexican wedding cookies, the official cookie of New Mexico. (*Note: a reader insisted that biscochitos and Mexican wedding cookies were not the same so I removed this. Do you have an opinion?). And Deb was baking glazed Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) months before Christmas, packing them into tins to “age.”

When my sis and I lived in the same city for a couple of years, we baked an assortment of Christmas cookies to share with our friends: Snickerdoodles, Mexican wedding cookies, thumbprint cookies, etc. But that arrangement doesn’t last long when one of us is married to a man in the military.

This year, I wanted to create my own Christmas cookie tradition, as often happens when you have a child. Isaac isn’t old enough to help in the kitchen but I figured I could do with a little practice in anticipation of the time he’ll be ready a few years down the road.

The wheels in my brain started whirring and then it came to me: Asian-inspired sugar cookies!

You might take one look at my methods and decide, Wow, that’s a lot of work! It’s not that I intentionally want to make my already-complicated life even more difficult. Trust me, there is reason behind the madness.

red sprinkles

As I surveyed the ingredients in my pantry and refrigerator, I made a mental checklist of yay or nay items. I nixed the idea of curried sugar cookies; too straightforward. Coriander and cardamom were common Scandinavian flavor profiles too and weren’t uniquely Asian. Then I pulled out the pandan leaves and lemongrass in my freezer. Hmm …

As you can see, I was just using what I had on hand. Considering we are moving again soon, it’s in my best interest to cook down my cupboards. I also had some bergamot oil which I know isn’t Asian-inspired, but I love Earl Grey tea so I thought, why not?

I adapted this recipe for the sugar cookie base and set to work. I divided up the dough into four parts so that I would not be fully committed to any one flavor. (Quadruple any of the amounts below if you’d like to make just one flavor.) As luck would have it, all of them turned out yummy. And chopping up the lemongrass and the pandan leaves wasn’t so hard, really!

In the end, it’s not just about the cookies. Although eating them is always part of the fun.

It’s about moms (and dads!), kids, and siblings whiling away a wintry afternoon, sharing a laugh as they cream sugar and butter in turn, and sprinkle candies on cookies. It’s about the joy of seeing a friend smile as they accept your prettily-packaged box of cookies. And there’s nothing like the sweet smell of cookies baking in the oven to spread warmth and cheer, and remind us that Christmas is here.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Experimental Christmas Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Easy Sugar Cookies on Allrecipes.com

cookeis in a row

Cake flour produces a softer cookie with a finer crumb and I combined it with all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat flour because that’s what I had) so that it would still stand up as a sugar cookie. You can make the cookies entirely with all-purpose flour if you desire. I also prefer natural cane sugar to white granulated sugar. I like its richer, almost molasses-like flavor. If you prefer a sweeter cookie, add up to ½ cup more sugar.

Makes: about 4 dozen cookies

2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup natural cane sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons Lemongrass Confetti (see below)
1/2 tablespoon Pandan Juice (see below), or 1/4 teaspoon pandan paste (available at Asian markets)
1/8 teaspoon bergamot or other flavoring oils
Sugar sprinkles or other decorations

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Combine the flours, baking soda, and baking powder in a small bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla until well mixed.

Add the dry ingredients gradually, blending each batch in before adding more. Mix well.

Divide the dough into 4 balls and place in separate bowls. Add the lemongrass bits, pandan juice, and bergamot oil to each bowl respectively, leaving the fourth bowl plain. Knead each ball with your hands until the flavoring is completely mixed in.

Roll rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into balls, and place onto ungreased cookie sheets. Flatten with the back of the spoon and sprinkle with colored sugar or other decorations.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden. Let the cookies stand on the cookie sheet for two minutes before removing to cool completely on wire racks.

Rinse out cookie sheets, wipe down, and repeat until all the cookies are baked. (Don’t place dough on hot cookie sheets or they will cook unevenly and/or burn quickly.) Or refrigerate (up to 2 days) or freeze (up to a week) remaining dough to bake later.

Lemongrass Confetti

Trim about an inch from the hard root end of one plump lemongrass stalk and chop off the woody top where it just starts to turn from green to pale yellow. You should have 6 to 7 inches of lemongrass stalk remaining. Peel off the loose, tough outer layers to expose the tender white core, then bruise the entire length of the stem with a meat pounder, large knife, or heavy glass to release the aroma and oils. Cut the stalks crosswise into very thin ringlets (as thin as you can possibly cut them). Then rock your knife blade over the pieces to chop them into confetti-sized flakes. The tinier you can chop the lemongrass, the less chance you’ll be chomping down on hard bits when you bite into the cookie. Or whirl in a food processor. You should get about 2 to 3 tablespoons from one stalk.

Pandan Juice

Pandan leaves are considered the Southeast Asian equivalent of vanilla extract and are used to flavor cakes and kuehs in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. You can find pandan leaves in the freezer section of Asian markets. They are occasionally available fresh. (Go here for an article on pandan leaves I wrote for Saveur magazine)

Rinse 6 pandan leaves and snip into 1/2 inch sections. Place the leaves in a small food processor with 2 tablespoons of water. Whirl until pulpy and wrap in a cheesecloth placed over a bowl. Squeeze out as much pandan juice as possible. You’ll probably have more than the required 1/2 tablespoon. You can boil it down in a small saucepan over low heat for a more concentrated flavor or just add the extra to a cup of tea.

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New Potato Rendang with Green Beans and a Cook Book Giveaway

Many Asian dishes are naturally vegan–i.e. contain no meat products and no dairy–or are easily adapted. It’s not surprising since fresh vegetables are a large part of our diet, coconut milk is our “milk” of choice, and cheese hardly shows up in any of our dishes.

So when I found out that my food writer friend Robin Asbell was organizing a virtual potluck to launch her new mega-book I was excited to participate. Big Vegan, Over 350 Recipes, No Meat, No Dairy, All Delicious is a celebration of just how satisfying and alluring plant based cuisine can be. The book contains many easy Asian-inspired recipes that are not quite traditional but are still very appealing. They include: “Tofu Pad Thai,” “Edamame Dumplings in Handmade Green-Tea Wrappers” and “Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Lemongrass, Seitan, Sprouts and Basil.”

Robin is a Minnesota-based chef, food writer, and cooking teacher and an expert in natural foods. So you can be rest assured that her recipes are wholesome and tasty.

My contribution to the potluck is “New Potato Rendang with Green Beans.” Now my mom makes a mean beef rendang and I love her recipe. However, because it is such an involved process and uses a laundry list of ingredients that requires a trek to the Asian store, I never make it, preferring instead to wait until the next time I see mom again.

Granted Robin’s recipe doesn’t use traditional ingredients like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves, nor the myriad spices, but that’s the beauty of it. All the ingredients are available at your neighborhood grocery store, the steps are simple, thus making the dish a lot more accessible to American home cooks.

I made the dish with no expectations and I’m definitely a fan! It isn’t as authentic as my mom’s rendang, but for as little effort as it takes (at least compared to her version!), it satisfies with a good approximation of Southeast Asian flavors. I’ll be making it again for sure.

Chronicle Books is giving away a copy of Big Vegan for my readers. If you’d like to win a copy, please leave a comment and tell me what your favorite Asian vegan dish is, or why you like rendang by November 7th. If you’re eating Asian, you’ve probably had several vegan dishes without even realizing it! Please don’t forget to leave me your email address so I can contact you if you win.

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New Potato Rendang with Green Beans

Adapted from Big Vegan, Over 350 Recipes, No Meat, No Dairy, All Delicious (Chronicle Books, 2011) by Robin Asbell

In Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, rendang is most commonly made with beef but you can use your choice of meat, as well as vegetables, as this recipe demonstrates. The green beans at my grocery store were a little sad looking so I used sugar snap peas instead. Since I had some kaffir lime leaves in the freezer I tossed some in and I substituted ground coriander for the cloves.

Time:1 hour
Makes: 4 servings

1 large red Fresno chili, seeded
1/4 cup/30 g minced onion or shallot
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 lemon, zested
1 lime, zested
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander, or 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup/240 ml coconut milk
2 Kaffir lime leaves, crushed to release their essential oils
1 lb/455 g fingerling or small new (baby) potatoes, halved
4 oz/115 g sugar snap peas or green beans, trimmed
1 medium carrot, julienned
1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a coffee grinder or mini chopper, combine the chili, shallot, ginger, garlic, lime and lemon zests, turmeric, and coriander. Process to puree them to a smooth paste. If needed, add a little of the coconut milk to help it puree. Or use a mortar and pestle (which is what I did!).

In a wok or large frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer. Fry the paste until fragrant, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves and mix well. Add the potatoes and bring them to a simmer, stirring. Cover and check often, stirring and adding water as needed to keep the potatoes from sticking.

When the potatoes are almost tender, about 8 to 10 minutes, add the beans, carrot, tamari, and salt and keep stirring. Cook until the vegetables are tender, another 3 to 4 minutes (or cooked to your liking), and the sauce is completely thick and coats the vegetables. Squeeze half of the zested lime over the vegetables, taste, and add more as desired. Fish out the kaffir lime leaves and discard.

Serve hot with white rice.

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Here some other rendang recipes to try:

Rasa Malaysia: Rendang Daging (Beef rendang)
Serious Eats: A series of rendang recipes to try
Seasaltwithfood: Indonesian rendang recipe

And if you’d like to check out the rest of the Big Vegan Virtual Potluck, here are the links:

Green and Red Spaghetti
Sandra Gutierrez

Bengali Curry of Cauliflower and Kidney Beans
Robin Robertson

Spanish Chickpea Fritters
Julie Hasson

Sundried Tomato-Kale Calzones AND 
Pumpkin Cherry Bundt Cake
Leinana Two Moons

Peanut Butter Tart with “Ganache”
Tara Desmond

Matcha Scones with Golden Raisins
Carol Golden

Maple Barley Granola with Pecans
Robin Asbell

Mango-Jícama Salad with Lime Dressing and Pepitas    
Susan Russo

Armenian Red Lentil Stew with Sesame Brown Rice
Bryanna Clark Grogan

Korean Miso-Tofu Soup
Nancie McDermott

Squash Quesadillas with Cranberry-Jícama Salsa
Jill Nussinow


Macaroni and Cheese My Way

You caught me. I used leftover holiday ham instead of Spam to make this dish.

People either recoil in terror or express intrigue when I tell them about one of my favorite comfort foods—Spam mac and cheese. Yes, you read right: Spam–aka luncheon meat–that processed and prepackaged meat product (I daren’t call it real meat!) in a can. Growing up in Asia, Spam was called luncheon meat and branded Ma Ling (which I recently discovered was banned in Singapore in 2007 for containing nitrofurans, an antibiotic for pigs. Whoa. Click here and here for two interesting articles).

Technically, the dish is called macaroni schoetel, a Dutch-inspired dish that has become a staple in the Indonesian culinary landscape. For some people, pronouncing “schoetel” (scott-tle) might be more of a challenge than the thought of eating Spam. If you’re a stickler for details, I admit it’s more of a macaroni casserole because unlike American mac and cheeses, it contains egg, and the minimal amount of cheese may offend the mac and cheese connoisseur. Regardless, it’s a hit with children (and some adults :)).

If you really don’t like Spam, alternatives abound in sausage, ham, chicken or corned beef.

Macaroni Schoetel

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I’ve had versions of this dish that are baked until the egg binds the macaroni together firmly so that it can be cut into slices and eaten as finger food—great for picnics or as a party appetizer. I like mine still mushy and served on a plate. Use 6 eggs and bake for an hour if you prefer firmer macaroni schoetel. Of course, the peas are my doing to make it seem “healthier.”

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (30 minutes active)
Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Half pound shell or farfalle pasta (or any small pasta shape of your choice)
¼ cup (1/2 stick), plus 1 tablespoon butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 cups milk
8 ounces luncheon meat, ham, or cooked chicken, cubed
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
3 cups shredded Gouda or Edam cheese (about 8 ounces)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
4 eggs, beaten

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Cook the pasta according to package directions with 1 tablespoon of butter. Drain and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until pasty and light golden. Pour in the milk, and stir until the sauce thickens and starts to bubble, about 2 minutes.

Add the cooked pasta, luncheon meat, green peas and cheese, and mix well. Stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary, keeping in mind that the cheese is already salty.

Turn off the heat and stir in the eggs until well blended.

Transfer the pasta into a greased 2-½ quart dish. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or until bubbling and golden brown on top.

A Fried Chicken Conundrum

Deep-fried drumsticks and thighs glistening just after their turn in the hot oil

I couldn’t help but feel a wee bit like a traitor when I made this fried chicken dish.

Growing up, I loved my mum’s fried chicken. In fact, I worshiped it. To me, there was no comparison. Mum made two versions of fried chicken: one, we called ayam goreng kuning (yellow fried chicken) that was tinged with turmeric, and ayam goreng manis (sweet fried chicken), which was made with palm sugar. Both were braised in a rich array of spices before being deep fried to a crisp.

I always ate both fried chickens with my fingers, and still do to this day. Licking the juices and spices off my fingers at the end of the meal was part of the sublime experience. I would tear away some succulent flesh from the bone and scoop it up with a handful of rice. I loved the meeting of crispy skin and fluffy, white rice in my mouth, as well as the taste and texture of the fried bumbu (or seasoning) bits that added flavor and crunch to each bite.

Yes, my mum’s fried chickens were the end-all and be-all until … I discovered Scott Peacock’s and Edna Lewis’s Miraculously Good Fried Chicken.

I was longing for fried chicken but didn’t want to attempt my mum’s long and laborious recipes so I did what everyone does nowadays. I sent a request out to the Twitter universe, asking for easy yet tasty fried chicken recipes. Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl fame came to my rescue and suggested I try this recipe.

The recipe didn’t require any pounding of spices and while there’s no instant gratification (the whole process took about 24 hours), most of the prep time was taken up by passive brining and soaking. It seemed pretty simple to me, and simple was what I was looking for. I also got to try my hand at deep frying with lard, which I’ve not attempted before.

Fluffy, white-as-clouds lard sizzling in my Staub with butter

The resulting chicken had tasty, tender, and juicy meat (because I used only dark meat, it was all the more luscious) and a crusty coating that fell apart as I crunched into it. As my husband and I sat there enjoying our meal in silence, I consoled myself that Southern fried chicken was worlds apart from Indonesian fried chicken and there was still no comparison to mum’s.

I have to admit though, that the flavor of the lard was a little overpowering and next time, I’ll try using a combo of butter and cooking oil instead. There is a limit to how much my arteries can take after all.

Scott Peacock’s and Edna Lewis’s Miraculously Good Fried Chicken
Adapted from “The Gift of Southern Cooking”

This recipe blends the authors’ best chicken-frying tips from Virginia and Alabama. The chicken is soaked twice: first in brine, Alabama-style, and then in buttermilk. The brine helps the flesh retain moisture and season it all the way through; the buttermilk adds a tangy flavor and helps tenderize it. The Virginia-style frying fat originally includes country ham but I figured the lard and sweet butter would make the chicken rich-tasting enough. I couldn’t help but embellish the recipe with a couple of Asian twists by using soy sauce to inject some rich umami into the brine and tapioca starch instead of cornstarch in the dredge.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 1 to 1 1/2 hours, plus 24 hours or more for brining

3 tablespoons sea or kosher salt (don’t use table salt for brining as the iodide will discolor)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/3 cup sugar
1 quart cold water
3 pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks
1 to 2 cups buttermilk
1 pound lard
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Make the brine: In a large nonreactive bowl or pot, stir the sea salt and sugar into the cold water until dissolved. Add the chicken, making sure the brine covers the pieces completely. Cover and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the brined chicken and rinse out the bowl it was brined in. Return the chicken to the bowl, and pour enough buttermilk over to cover. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. Drain the chicken on a wire rack, discarding the buttermilk.

Prepare the fat for frying by combining the lard and butter in a wok or large cast iron pot (my 2 liter Staub pot worked beautifully). Cook over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, skimming as needed, until the butter ceases to throw off foam.

Just before frying, increase the temperature to medium-high and heat the fat to 335 degrees F. Prepare the dredge by blending together the flour, tapioca starch, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Dredge the drained chicken pieces thoroughly in the flour mixture, then pat well to remove all excess flour.

Prepare a plate covered with crumpled paper towels or a wire rack to drain the fried chicken.

Using tongs, slip some of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the heated fat. Do not overcrowd the pan or the cooking fat will cool. Fry in batches, if necessary. Regulate the fat so it just bubbles, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes on each side, until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through. Drain on paper towels, and serve with mashed potatoes and braised greens.

Some useful tips for frying chicken from the book:
-Be sure to pat off all excess dredge.
-Drain the chicken well on crumpled-up—not flat—paper towels or a wire rack.

Flim Flum Flan

Cardamom-studded Flan

One wouldn’t necessarily think of flan as an Indian dessert but this fusion recipe comes from someone with a fascinating provenance. Mumtaz Rahemtulla is of Indian origin (from the Western-most state of Gujarat) and a fourth generation Kenyan. Both she and her husband were born British nationals in Kenya. But when Kenya gained independence, they opted for Kenyan citizenship. In the 1970’s, she and her husband migrated to Canada where her children were born, before moving again to the U.S. Mumtaz usually steams her flan on the stove (over medium heat for about 30 minutes) but I have altered the recipe to bake in a water bath in the oven. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with a rich, creamy, melt-in-your mouth treat harboring a surprise in every bite–a heady shot of cardamom.

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (20 minutes active)
Makes: 8 servings
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
2 cups 2-percent fresh milk
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk (about half of a 14-ounce can)
5 eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
Seeds from 6 green cardamom pods, ground with a mortar and pestle (about 1/4 teaspoon), plus more for garnish
Pinch saffron

In a small, heavy saucepan (cast iron or aluminum are ideal), melt sugar over medium heat undisturbed. The sugar will start to melt around the edges of the pan at the 5 to 7 minute mark. When a syrup starts to form, swirl the pan occasionally or stir with a wooden spoon to encourage the rest of the sugar to melt. The light golden color will shift from lighter to darker shades of amber. After about 15 minutes in total, the sugar will have completely melted into a thick, deep amber syrup. Don’t step away from the stove during this process, even for a minute. If at any time you need to stop the caramelizing process abruptly, pull the pan off the stove and carefully immerse the bottom of the pan into your sink filled with cool water.

Quickly pour caramel into a 10-inch pie plate and swirl to coat the bottom. If the caramel hardens before you’re done, microwave plate for 30 to 45 seconds until the caramel is runny again. Set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine fresh, evaporated, and condensed milks, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg, cardamom, and saffron. Whisk until smooth. Pour custard into the caramel-coated plate.

Place the pie plate in a baking pan. Fill the pan with water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the pie plate to create a water bath.

Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the flan crinkles at the edges and is speckled with light brown spots. A toothpick inserted into the middle should come out clean.

Cool to room temperature and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

When ready to serve, run a thin-bladed knife along the edge of the plate. Place a serving platter on top of the pie plate and turn over. The flan should release easily from the pie plate onto the platter. Cut into 8 slices and garnish with hand-crushed cardamom seeds.

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