As many of you know, part of my husband’s family is of Chinese heritage, so this week I bring a recipe to honor the tradition of Lunar New Year (chunjie), or spring festival. This year, it starts Friday, February 12, and it ends with the Lantern Festival on February 26. In our family, we call it Chinese New Year, though I’ve gotten more in the habit of saying Lunar New Year recently because it is a festive occasion shared by many Asian countries. The Vietnamese and Hoa people call it Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Dan, which in Vietnamese means “festival of the first morning of the first day.” The Korean and Japanese New Years are also based on the lunar calendar, so calling it Lunar New Year allows us to include all the cultures that observe their own celebrations based on the lunar calendar. The holiday is a super festive one, and features lion dancers, fireworks, money-filled red envelopes known as hong bao for kids and teenagers, and many delicious dishes. Food is central and traditionally includes two whole fishes for surplus and prosperity, sticky rice balls for family togetherness, dumplings and spring rolls for luck, long noodles for longevity, and mandarin oranges for wealth.
Lunar New Year was one of the traditions that my husband’s grandparents kept alive even after making the United States their permanent home. Dan remembers being a young kid and chopping up scallions to help his grandpa (Yeh-Yeh) make the filling for his famous jiaozi, or pot stickers. When we got married, we decided we wanted to revitalize the tradition of making these dishes at home each year for the Lunar New Year to share with our family and friends. Last year, we threw a Lunar New Year party and, incidentally, it ended up being our last in-person gathering before the pandemic led to stay-at-home orders only a few weeks later. It was so fun! We hung red lanterns in our dining room and doorways and red banners on the mantlepiece, we had hong bao full of chocolate coins for our friends, and we made all the dishes from scratch: glazed salmon, homemade jiaozi with a beautiful golden dough infused with butternut squash juice, broccoli and bok choy as side dishes, and a cold noodle and scallion dish. My repertoire did not include any desserts at that point. Every year, I try to add a little something new. Sadly, with the pandemic in full swing, such a gathering is not possible to celebrate the Year of the Ox. Making a large feast of many dishes for only two people seems a bit excessive. Half the fun for me is not just to make but to share! So, to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, which don’t really allow for a gathering this year, I tried making these Chinese Lucky Cat cookies. I stuffed them into hong bao envelopes as a gift for my friends and family, together with several foil-wrapped chocolate coins. We are all adults, so no real money in the hong bao!
The Lucky Cat cookies are an east-meets-west recipe made in honor of Dan’s grandparents who moved to New York from Beijing and Shanghai, and frequently visited Hong Kong, where they enjoyed shortbread biscuits and other sweet treats with their tea while overlooking Victoria Harbor. Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997, so the British left their mark on it, including their great love of shortbread biscuits, which made a perfect companion to Chinese pu’er tea. Yeh-Yeh loved shortbread, and one of Dan’s fond memories is how his grandpa regaled him with stories of his travels and adventures over cups of tea and plates of rich, buttery shortbread. Sometimes Yeh-Yeh would bring boxes of shortbread back from Hong Kong in the diplomatic bag, along with bottles of cognac, loose tea, wood carvings, and jade ornaments. Dan always looked forward to the treasures brought back from such special trips. My husband picked up his grandfather’s taste for shortbread, and so did all of his cousins! Long after making his permanent home in the United States, Yeh-Yeh still visited Hong Kong regularly. He loved so many aspects of Hong Kong city life, such as the street vendors selling pork buns, the strong feng shui of the architecture, the spectacular views of boats plying Victoria Harbor, the tailor-made suits he could get there, and the places to get a cup of tea and relax, shortbread biscuit in hand.
Shortbread usually comes in rectangular fingers or triangular “petticoat tails,” so why the cat shape? If you’ve ever visited a Chinese restaurant or Asian supermarket, you’ve probably seen a little cat figurine. Many shops have them sitting by the cash register as a sort of talisman to bring good fortune and attract customers. If the left paw is raised, it is supposed to bring in customers. If the right paw is raised, it promotes prosperity and money. Often, the Lucky Cat holds a gold bar as a symbol of wealth and good luck. Superstition goes that the cat must be placed in the southeastern corner for full effect. Because of its popularity in Chinese and Vietnamese communities, the manecki-neko is often mistaken for being Chinese in origin rather than Japanese, but the legend of the Lucky Cat actually originated in Japan and spread throughout East Asia, although nobody knows for sure how the figure came to be. My favorite legend goes that as a monk was standing under a tree in the temple courtyard getting ready to pray, he saw a cat on the temple steps raising its paw and beckoning him. When the monk walked toward the cat in curiosity, a bolt of lighting struck the tree just where he had been standing! From that day forward, the monks all believed that the cat was a sign beckoning the man away from danger, hence being a good fortune cat.
I figured that after 2020, the Year of the Rat, we could all use some good luck, and the Lucky Cat can chase away the Year of the Rat! So make yourself a nice cup of tea to pair with these Lucky Cat cookies, or biscuits if you prefer to call them the Hong Kong way, to ring in the new year. May the Year of the Ox bring you luck, longevity, and prosperity!
Lucky Cat Cookies
Prep time: 20 minutes
Chill time: 2 hours
Bake: 10-12 minutes per batch
Servings: 1 dozen cookies
- 1 ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp ground vanilla powder
- 1 tbsp mandarin zest
- ½ tsp Celtic salt
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp water
For the cookies:
- In a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter, vanilla powder, and mandarin zest until creamed.
- Add the confectioner’s sugar and salt. Scrape down the bowl and mix until combined.
- Add the flour to the mixture while beating on low speed.
- Shape the dough into a ball and flatten it into a disc. Wrap it in plastic and chill until firm. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
- Once the dough is chilled, unwrap one of the discs and transfer it to a piece of parchment paper. Cover the top with a second piece of parchment paper and use a rolling pin to flatten the surface to 1/3 inch thickness. The parchment paper will prevent the shortbread from sticking to your rolling pin, so this really helps!
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- While oven is preheating, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Cut dough lucky cats with your cookie cutter and place them on the baking sheet.
- It’s best to refrigerate the cat cookies for about 10 minutes to firm up before baking, so that they don’t spread too much in the oven.
- After chilled, bake the lucky cat cookies for 9-10 minutes, until the edges and bottoms are lightly golden.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for 8 minutes, and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.
- Note: the cookie dough can be made in advance, and it keeps for a week in the fridge. Because these cookies have a high content of butter, when you are cutting your cats, you might find that the dough will soften and you might have more difficulty peeling the cats off the cookie cutters. I recommend that if the dough gets too soft, you pop it in the refrigerator for a few minutes.
Our actual “Lucky Cat!” LOL