Monday, June 1, 2015

Cheesy cookies

When I lived in Taiwan those eight wonderful years, I became happily acquainted with China’s love for cookies. Chocolate chip cookies and brownies were not yet common and in fact became objects of great desire for me, along with cheesecake and artichokes – in other words, anything unobtainable possessed a definite allure for every expat I knew. (Case in point: during my first year there, I once had to bring a load of Oreos to an American nun friend in Hong Kong to satisfy her cravings, but that is another story for another time.)

However, none of that mattered in the long run because a wonderful cookie culture already existed. The best came out of the local Shanghainese and Cantonese bakeries, and what I discovered was that I was a complete sucker for the combination of a sweet cookie with savory edges. The Sea Moss Sandies we looked at a couple of weeks ago are a good example.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of southern cooking in China is the juxtaposition of sweet against salty. Chaozhou in particular has a deep love for this delicate balance, as can be tasted in such divine steamed dim sum as Fun Gor (fěnguǒ 粉粿), which have lightly sweet wrappers made out of translucent wheat starch and a savory jumble of toasted peanuts, pressed bean curd, salted radish, and things like that hidden inside.

When we lived in Taipei, I came to look forward to strange flavor combinations that always managed to turn into addictions for me. A lovely example of this is crushed peanut brittle with cilantro or the large night-market spring rolls that were actually Chaozhou popia. The locals call these rùnbǐng 潤餅, and they were made by filling a huge wrapper like a burrito with things like shreds of char siu pork, carrots, fried shallots, bean sprouts, and a sprinkling of sweet ground peanuts.

The not-so-secret ingredient
Another personal addiction is this cookie. Here, the main seasoning is cheesy courtesy of fermented bean curd, which is called nanru in South China and dòufǔrǔ 豆腐乳 most other places. It possess a slight funk that I find delightful in such a surprising place as this. Think of it as a brilliant combination of cookie and cracker, like chewing a shortbread cookie and a Cheez-It at the same time, but only better.

The Cantonese bakeries always made these as rather hard cookies, but I’ve come to prefer these light, not-too-sweet confections that beg you to wolf down way more than is sensible. These would be a sophisticated treat for a cocktail party, and yet kids find them as irresistible as I do.

Nanru cookies
Nánrǔ xiǎobǐng 南乳小餅
Makes 6 to 7 dozen (1-inch) cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter, salted or unsalted
¾ cup sugar
3 cubes fermented bean curd cheese (nanru)
1 large egg, at room temperature
2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking ammonia, optional
¼ cup white sesame seeds

 1. Start this at least 3 hours before serving to give the dough time to chill. Place the softened butter and sugar in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and whirl them around until the butter becomes light. Add the fermented bean curd cheese and egg, and then process the mixture for a couple of minutes until the cheese is fully incorporated and the butter is once again smooth.
Ready to chill

2. Toss the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and baking ammonia together in a medium work bowl. Add this to the food processor and pulse these together until the dough forms a clean ball. Remove the dough to a plastic bag and chill it for a couple of hours.

3. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and heat it to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper and pour the sesame seeds into a wide bowl.

Roll the dough in sesame
4. Use a spoon to break up the dough, and then form it into balls about ¾ inch in diameter. As you roll them in your hands, the dough’s surface will become a bit tacky, and this will allow the sesame seeds to stick to the dough; if your hands or the kitchen are not warm enough, wet your hands before rolling the dough. Drop each ball into the sesame seeds to coat only one side, and then place them 1 inch apart with the seed sides up on the lined baking sheets; you’ll end up with about 3 baking sheets’ worth of cookies. Bake these 1 sheet at time for 11 to 13 minutes. When done, the cookies will puff up, be a golden brown on the bottom, and there will be some cracks in at least some of them. Immediately remove the cookies from the hot pan and let them come to room temperature. Store in an airtight container or freeze.

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