New year, new cookie
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
Most of us can't make those Chinese New Year specialties moon cakes, jin doi or peanut sesame candy — they're just too tricky.
But as the lunar new year approaches (it starts Sunday), there is one familiar and beloved sweet that anyone can make: Chinese almond cookies.
When, some months ago, I embarked on a quest for the Best Almond Cookie Ever, and asked readers to help, more than two dozen cookie bakers took the time to write or e-mail with their family treasures. And when I reviewed my collection of old-time local cookbooks, I found at least another dozen versions.
Did I find the Best Ever? To my taste, I did: buttery and deeply almond flavored, crackling crisp and rather rough-textured — and wouldn't you know it, the last one I tried, one that came to me the day before my deadline, from Kaimukī baker Brenda Leong. I found a couple of others I liked, too.
Actually, there are only about three versions of almond cookies, with almost infinite minor differences among them:
• Cookies made with lard or shortening only.
• Cookies made with other fats (butter and vegetable oil).
• Old-time recipes that make use of ingredients largely abandoned by today's home bakers.
That this recipe is so common here isn't surprising when you learn that almond cookies aren't Chinese at all. They're a Chinese-American invention, probably created by immigrants on the West Coast in the mid-1800s as a substitute for the good-luck walnut cakes they knew from home. History doesn't record why the substitution was made; walnuts grow in California, too, but perhaps almonds were cheaper or more readily available.
Early recipes for almond cookies are a bit more complex than today's rather simple butter cookie flavored with almond extract and topped with a splash of scarlet food coloring or a blanched almond.
These older recipes often make use of ground almonds in place of all or part of the flour or might add coarsely chopped almonds to a flour dough.
And they may call for a less-familiar ingredient: lye water.
Lye water is a weak solution of sodium hydroxide used to cure olives, pretzels, fish and other ingredients, to assist in various types of food processing and as a preservative.
But lye water is also the "secret ingredient" in many Chinese noodles and steamed goods, such as dumplings.
That yellow color in Chinese wheat noodles? Not egg, lye. That chewy noodle texture that's so hard to achieve at home? Lye. The delightful soft puffiness of commercial steamed bao? Lye. The way moon cake crust is both tender and firm? Lye.
In almond cookies, lye encourages that shatter-to-pieces crispness found in bakery versions.
Find lye water in Chinatown in glass bottles like old-fashioned soda bottles.
Today's almond cookie recipes appear ridiculously simple. Almost all of them make use of the same six or seven ingredients: shortening, sugar, egg, flour, baking powder and/or soda, and almond extract.
Some recipes call for salt; most don't. Oddball ingredients appear: peanut butter, rice flour, brown sugar, yellow food coloring.
By far the most common recipe is one the Hawaiian Electric Co. circulated, which appears in many cookbooks and the files of many cooks.
It invariably begins with 3 cups flour, calls for 1 to 1 1/4 cups sugar, 1 egg, baking powder and/or soda, 1 to 2 teaspoons almond extract and some form of shortening.
Shortening is a hot topic. Many people swear by the use of solid vegetable shortening. Others use half shortening/half butter. And still others use shortening and /or butter and vegetable oil.
In a long weekend of recipe testing, I landed firmly in the shortening camp. The cookies made solely with Crisco yielded the texture I was looking for: so crisp that you have to hold a hand under your mouth to catch the crumbs that burst from the cookie when you bite into it. And I was surprised to find how flavorful these were; I'd been leaning toward butter for its richness. Not necessary.
Almond cookies proved to be one of those recipes that's so simple it's complex. That is, everything is about the proportions; the slightest change in the amount of any ingredient can make an immense difference.
There is also considerable difference in people's approach to baking: Suggested temperatures ranged from 300 degrees for 20 minutes to 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes. I found that 325 for 15-20 minutes worked best.
Of the half-dozen almond cookie recipes I tested, two were duds (the ones with vegetable oil) and one failed because it called for too much flour, creating a heavy, hard cookie.
The others show the versatility of this recipe despite the sameness of ingredients, ranging from rough-textured and crisp to firm and slightly chewy, but with good flavor.
Reading letters that accompanied the recipes, it's clear that the Best Almond Cookie Ever is a matter of individual taste.
But what the recipes all had in common was that they go together easily, and that for about 160 years, these cookies have been made by grandmothers, mothers and daughters of many ethnicities, with skill and love.