Monday, November 5, 2018

Elephant ear cookies

You probably eaten (and loved) palmiers, those delightful swirls of puff pastry rolled up with nothing more than cinnamon and sugar in order to form simple, crunchy cookies. 

And I agree, those are indeed delicious, as well as elegant.

But how about something approximately a zillion times better? For that you need to try the Chinese version. 

And by the way, these are nothing close to elegant.

Instead of the classic palmier shape that has both sides curled toward the center (palmier is French for palm tree, but don’t ask me why these look like palm trees or fronds… I’d call these bunny heads for sure), the Chinese version is just rolled up in one direction with the regular filling. 
Yup, lamination

And so, if you are a fan of The Great British Baking Show, you might even recognize that the correct ancestors of these elephant ears very likely were French arlettes. That is why, in the immortal words of Paul Hollywood, you will find lamination galore. (For the Netflix deprived, lamination means lots of distinct layers.)

However, things suddenly turn decidedly decadent at this point. 

Not yet content with the sugar and spice level at this point, you will now sprinkle more cinnamon sugar on your work surface, dredge each slice in this topping, and then roll in out until it is the size of a large man’s hand. It won’t be as thick as a large man’s hand at this point, but have patience, for it has yet to be baked.

For when these cookies are slid into a hot oven, they will puff up enticingly. Even better, that extra sugar will caramelize around the edge and on the bottom, making this incredibly crispy and satisfyingly crunchy. 

Trails in the cinnamon sugar filling
In fact, they become so flaky that these are best eaten standing up in an empty bathtub. I’m not kidding.

You'll occasionally find these in Taiwanese-style (or even Hong Kong-style) bakeries under a variety of names, like krispies in English or buffalo ears (níuĕr 牛耳) in Chinese, so there doesn't seem to be any agreement anywhere, except that these are quite possibly the best little secret a bakery can have.

Elephant ear cookies
Dàxiàng ĕrduó sū 大象耳朵酥
Press the filling into the dough
Makes 6 enormous cookies

1 package (2 sheets, 17.3 ounces | 490 g) best quality frozen puff pastry
¼ cup | 50 g granulated (caster) sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (see Tips)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Spray oil
½ cup | 100 g granulated (caster) sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Smoosh down the roll into a coil
1. Thaw the puff pastry as directed on the package, but keep it cold. Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl, and crush any lumps you happen across.

2. Set one rack in the center of your oven and heat it to 400°F (200°C). Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and spray lightly with oil.

3. Unroll one sheet of puff pastry on a big piece of parchment paper and open it up. Keep the second sheet in the refrigerator, as puff pastry needs to remain cold until it’s shaped and baked. It’s ok if the sheet breaks along the fold lines, as you’ll be dealing with that soon enough. Gently roll out the dough without adding any extra flour until it is an even rectangle and is fairly smooth; the size is unimportant. Sprinkle half of the cinnamon-sugar mixture evenly over the surface, and then roll the puff pastry up from one of the long sides. If your kitchen is hot, transfer the roll to the refrigerator to chill and keep the sugar from melting while you repeat this step with the rest of the cookie ingredients, and then chill that second roll, too.
Sprinkle with the topping

4. Mix the topping ingredients together in a work bowl. You’ll need about a heaping tablespoon of the topping per cookie. Working on one chilled roll at a time, slice each crosswise into 3 even pieces. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of the topping on the parchment paper, and then set one rolled piece on its end. Press it down gently to form a flattened coil.

5. Roll out the coil to make an oval disc about 8 x 4 inches (20 x 10 cm), sprinkling the rest of the topping on it, flipping it over a couple of times as you work, and then transfer it and any sugar underneath it to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with one more, keeping around 1 inch | 2 cm between the cookies, as they won’t spread much, but this will make them easier to remove later on. Sprinkle a teaspoon or so of the topping evenly over each cookie, and then slide in the oven. Work on the second sheet while the first sheet is in the oven, and keep this rhythm going so that you have one tray in the oven while the next tray of cookies is being formed. 
Roll out the coil into a cookie

6. Check the cookies at around 7 minutes and every minute after that. (My oven took about 10 minutes per sheet.) They are done when the edges are gently caramelized and the cookies are puffy and golden. Slide the parchment paper with the cookies off onto a cool, heatproof surface, and then once they are relatively easy to handle, peel them off of the paper to cool thoroughly on a cake rack. Repeat the rolling and baking until all of the cookies are done. I think you can store in an airtight container at room temperature, but to be honest I’ve never actually proceeded to the storing part of this recipe, as they disappear the moment they hit the cake rack.

Caramelization around the edges, too
Use really good quality frozen puff pastry here (not the knock-off brands), since you want to taste the butter and you want lots of layers. I usually buy Pepperidge Farms for this.

Likewise, the cinnamon should be fresh and not the musty stuff that’s been hanging around for ages. Health food stores often sell ground cinnamon in bulk so that you can buy a small amount at a time.

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