Monday, September 20, 2010

Speak to me of sesame

James Beard once famously proclaimed that Chinese cuisine “is not noted for desserts.”  That misconception may be considered true in the West, but that fact is that there are enough delicious sweets in China to satisfy at least a billion sweet tooths, if not more. I mean, look at all the recipes for tea snacks and desserts I post here with what some might unkindly call obsessive delight... I for one have my sweet tooth polished and ready at a moment's notice.

Today's recipe is for Crunchy Sesame Cookies, which are tasty little nuggets from the eastern area of China near Shanghai. They’re called “gold coin cookies” in Chinese and therefore sound auspicious in addition to tasting divine.

My first bite of these delicious little cookies took place back when I worked at a museum in Taipei. There were four young women in our department, and an elderly but very well known photographer called Hu Chung-hsien could be counted on to drop in unannounced every week or two to chat and flirt and drink tea, and we always welcomed his visits because he was as sweet as the cookies he'd bring for us. So, as soon as he wandered into our fourth-floor office, slightly winded from the steep stairs, we’d drop what we were doing, brew a pot of tea, and dive into the goodies before drifting back to work, with one of les girls on point to keep the conversation going while the rest of us frantically tried to meet our deadlines.

Mr. Hu had at one time been the official photographer for Taiwan’s president, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, and in his later years he had turned to taking pictures of plum blossoms. They were so beautiful and elegantly done that Taiwan’s greatest painter, Chang Dai-chien, provided the calligraphy and inscribed them with poems. It was a wonderful mixture of ancient aesthetics and modern technology. (See the backgrounds to the accompanying photographs.)

But as much as I loved his artistry, my rapt attention was always reserved for the bag of cookies he’d place on our desks with a graceful flourish, telling us that it was time to break for our tea snacks. I never could figure out where he bought them, and he wasn’t telling. That left me to my own devices, and while this recipe took me a long time to figure out, it was a happy adventure. 

Note that you can use butter, margarine, shortening, or lard for the cookies; lard is the traditional ingredient and so will taste most authentic, but butter will give them more of a shortbread flavor -- as with so many things in life, it’s all a matter of personal taste. Black sesame seeds or ground nuts like almonds and walnuts can also be used instead of the tan sesame seeds, so I often double or triple this recipe and roll them in a variety of coatings. 

I’m sure a plate of these would have changed Mr. Beard’s mind.


Crunchy sesame cookies
Jinqian bing 金錢餅
Jiangsu
Makes about 6 to 8 dozen, depending upon how thick they are sliced 

1½ cups cake flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup sugar
9 tablespoons unsalted fat (lard, butter, solid shortening), softened
1 large egg at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional 
7 tablespoons unhulled sesame seeds, untoasted

1. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together onto a piece of wax paper. Beat the sugar, butter, egg, and vanilla until smooth, and then add the dry ingredients to form a sticky dough. Divide the dough into four pieces and wrap them up like fat cigars in four pieces of wax paper, so that each cylinder is about ¾ of an inch in diameter. Chill the dough for 2 or 3 hours, or freeze for about half an hour, until the dough is hard. (You can make the dough ahead of time to this point and either refrigerate or freeze the wrapped cylinders in freezer-proof plastic bags.)

2. When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat your oven to 350°F (325°F for convection ovens). Line two baking sheets with Silpat or foil; set aside. Pour the sesame seeds into a low, wide bowl and place it near your cutting board and baking sheets.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator or freezer. Unroll each cylinder and cut the dough into ½-inch slices. 

3. Roll the slices into balls, which will make their surface tacky, and then toss about five or six at a time in the bowl of sesame seeds; coat them well and shake off any loose seeds. Place the sesame-coated balls on the lined cookie sheets about ¼ inch apart, as they don’t spread much, and flatten them slightly so that they don’t roll around. 

4. Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden, turning the baking sheets around 180° and flipping the sheets between the racks so that the cookies cook evenly.  Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the cookies cool on the sheet for a minute or two before sliding them off. Continue to cook these cookies one sheet at a time until all are baked. Store the cookies in an airtight container or freeze.

Closeup of "The Nation's Soul" (Guo hun) by Mr. Hu, with Mr. Chang's inscription

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