We are almost a week away from Chinese New Year! It is always a joyous time in our house when this holiday comes around, because it is one of our most favorite holidays, celebrated by over 1 billion people around the world. This year, Lunar New Year will start on February 1 and will conclude on February 15 as it always does with the Lantern Festival. In China, Lunar New Year is also known as the Spring Festival, and it is a special time for families. Typically, on New Year’s Eve, there is a family reunion dinner followed by visits to relatives and in-laws and neighbors on subsequent days. Everything closes during the first four days of festivities, so it is a pretty big celebration and a pretty important one as it is a time of socializing, family reunion and unity. The Lunar New Year doesn’t quite reach those majestic proportions here in the US, but cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have some pretty impressive celebrations to honor it. One day, when this pandemic is over, our Minnesota family is hoping to attend the Chinese New Year festival in New York City, where the family first settled in the US. New York’s celebration is super festive, with so many activities like performances, a lion dance to the beat of Chinese drums and cymbals, and of course the lighting of sky lanterns.
With the pandemic, of course we have not been traveling much, and had to skip a couple of Chinese New Year celebrations, but this year, thanks to the widespread availability of vaccines and tests, we will be hosting a small Chinese New Year celebration with our family, friends, and loved ones now that it’s possible to do so safely. Although our Li family Chinese New Year is hosted in our home and is much smaller, it is a much-anticipated, fun and cozy celebration. We love decorating our home with red paper lanterns, flowers, and branches. As you can probably guess, in any celebration, food is a big part of it, and this is no exception. Some of the dishes we will serve this year are long life noodles, whole steamed fish, rue yi cai, and homemade pork and chive jiaozi. We usually add a few creative dishes and try to switch up our desserts, depending on the number of attendees and dietary restrictions. In past years, we have also given out hong bao, the lucky red envelopes, stuffed with lucky cat shortbread cookies and foil-wrapped chocolate coins, to all of our guests. For this year’s desserts, we are hoping to make a grass jelly dessert, a matcha white chocolate cake, fresh mandarins, and Chinese almond cookies—a time-honored favorite and classic in the Li family.
Dan’s father grew up in New York City and recalls trips to the local Chinese bakery where his parents would buy a selection of sweet treats. The golden round cookies were lined up in rows, stacked perfectly and looking so enticing. Here in Minnesota, we buy most of our delicious Chinese treats at Keefer Court Bakery and Café in Minneapolis, where often the selection is so incredible, it is hard to make up your mind what to buy! I usually stare at the treasures behind the glass case at Keefer Court Bakery trying to decide what to get because it all looks so mouth-watering. One classic we always get is Chinese almond cookies, a super popular snack for children, and much beloved by many Chinese American families. Chinese almond cookies are special and distinct from western-style cookies because they have a different texture. They are crunchy, crumbly, slightly mealy, very nutty, and subtly sweet. They are a satisfying treat that gets their seal of approval precisely because they are not overly sweet.
This past weekend, we had a pretty intense cold snap here in Minnesota, with temperatures dipping as low as -15°F. Dan and I made the most of the intensely cold weekend by watching movies, reading, and, yes—you guessed it—prepping for Chinese New Year, including developing a recipe for Chinese almond cookies. The reason we wanted to develop our own was that we wanted a cookie that retained all of the features of the beloved classic but with a well-balanced flavor and a sturdier and cakier texture. A lot of traditional Chinese almond cookies end up being sandy and mealy and overly crispy, and we wanted to develop something that would suit the tastes of our family and friends while keeping the essence of the classic alive. I think we have achieved that goal with this version: they are not overly sweet, they are almondy, they have a cakey and slightly dry feel like the traditional cookies. Another twist is that we decided to make the cookies slightly thicker. Neither Dan, I, nor any member of our family is particularly fond of thin, crispy cookies, with the only exception being pepparkakor, so these cookies were developed to be thicker and rounder with a crumbly outside but a denser, cake-like center. I do think the rounder, thicker cookie shape is really appealing and makes them so great for gift-giving packed into boxes or tied up with a string, but if you want a thinner cookie, all you would have to do is flatten your dough balls a lot more to achieve that result. Finally, my recipe calls for a combination of both butter and duck fat. I can imagine that when you see that the recipe calls for duck fat, you might balk slightly. Authentic Chinese almond cookies use lard. I have a phobia of lard, and really dislike the taste, but in recent years I typically substitute duck fat in any recipe that calls for lard. I think if you wanted to use lard instead of duck fat, it will work just fine. Duck fat is an ingredient present in Chinese cuisine but surprisingly enough, it is also used in many desserts. One advantage is that duck fat has a texture and composition very similar to lard without the unpleasant flavor, and so I substituted the traditional lard for duck fat to achieve the cookies’ traditional crumbly texture and distinctive flavor that cannot be achieved with butter alone. Could you make them using just butter? Yes, you could, and if that’s what you are most comfortable with, I encourage you to do so. Just know that without the duck fat or lard, you won’t achieve quite the same result. Still don’t believe me? Even David Lebovitz makes cookies using duck fat!
I’m so looking forward to celebrating the beginning of the Year of the Tiger! For a bit of humor, our striped cat, Dahlia, will feature as our lucky tiger in residence this year, and we are looking forward to having our family and friends over to share in the celebration. These Chinese almond cookies will go great with a cup of Assam tea or even a strong cup of coffee as we usher in the new year together, hoping for longevity, prosperity, health, and good fortune!
Chinese Almond Cookies
Prep time: 30 minutes
Bake time: 20 minutes
Servings: 18-20 cookies
- 6 tbsp butter, softened
- 4 tbsp duck fat, at room temperature
- ½ cup + 2 tbsp cane sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- ¾ tsp almond extract
- ¾ cup almond flour
- 2 cups cake flour
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- 18 to 20 whole, roasted almonds
- 1 beaten egg, for egg wash
- In a medium bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and baking soda, and set aside.
- In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the butter, duck fat, cane sugar, and salt, beating vigorously with a whisk until the mixture is creamed and light in color.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, followed by the almond extract.
- Add the almond flour followed by the cake flour mixture, working the mixture into a dough ball. Initially, the dough might look crumbly, but as you mix it, it will come together into a cohesive cookie dough ball.
- Prepare two baking sheets, lining them with parchment paper.
- Divide the dough into 18 to 20 equal pieces, and roll each one of them into a smooth ball about 1 inch in diameter. If you prefer a thinner cookies, flatten the balls with the palm of your hand. Place each cookie on the baking sheet about an inch apart from each other.
- Take a whole almond and press gently onto the top of each cookie. It’s ok if the cookies develop some cracks, but don’t press it too hard.
- Cover the baking sheets with a clean kitchen towel and let them rest for 20 minutes. While the cookies rest, preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Uncover the cookies on the baking sheets and, using a brush, paint each cookie using the egg wash.
- Place the baking sheets on the top rack of the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
- Remove the cookies from the oven, let cool, and enjoy!
- Store in a tightly-covered tin. Serve with a cup of hot coffee or tea.
© 2022 Carol’s Baking Adventures