Christmas 2016 Cookie Assortment

Christmas 2016 Cookie Assortment: Linzer Stars, Pecan Whiskey Balls, Marzipan Cookies, Biscotti (three kinds – Amaretto Cherry Almond, Pistachio, Anisette Orange Almond), and Identity Crisis Cookies – so named because I couldn’t decide whether to make chocolate chip walnut or oatmeal raisin or toasted coconut and since I had all of those on hand…well, you get the picture.

 
 

Chinese Mooncakes Demystified

Or, The Equal Opportunity Celebrant – Part 2

 

A visit to any Chinatown bakery this time of year will reveal a befuddling assemblage of mooncakes (yue bing) in a seemingly infinite variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation, and fillings, all begging to be enjoyed in observance of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Also known as the Autumn Moon Festival, this important holiday occurs on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month (around mid-September or early October on the Gregorian calendar) when the moon looms large and bright – the perfect time to celebrate summer’s bounteous harvest. They’re sold either individually or in eye-catching gift boxes or tins since it’s customary to offer gifts of mooncakes to friends and family (or lovers!) for the holiday. Being a curious monkey (2016 is the year of the same), I felt compelled to purchase an assortment of these delicacies in order to learn about their similarities and differences and to shed some light (moonlight, of course) on their intricacies.

The first point to note is that various regions of China have their own distinct versions of mooncakes. A quick survey of the interwebs revealed styles hailing from Beijing, Suzhou, Guangdong (Canton), Chaoshan, Ningbo, Yunnan, and Hong Kong, not to mention Taiwan and Malaysia. They’re distinguished by the types of dough, appearance, and fillings, some sweet and some more savory. In my experience, Chinese bakeries in Manhattan, Brooklyn (Sunset Park), and Queens (Flushing) favor the Cantonese style, but Fujianese mooncakes are easy to find along stoop line stands outside of markets in neighborhoods where there’s a concentration of folks from Fujian.
jinhua-hammoon-cake-mold
You’ll commonly find mooncakes with doughy crusts (golden brown, soft, somewhere between cakey and piecrusty, often with an egg wash sheen) as well as those with white, paper thin flaky layers that betray lard as an important ingredient; chewy glutinous rice skins (these aren’t baked); and gelatinous casings (jelly, agar, or konjak), the most difficult to find in the city. Golden-baked, elegantly decorated Cantonese versions are round (moon shaped, get it?) or square, are fluted around the perimeter, and have been created using molds made of intricately carved wood to provide the ornate design or an inscription describing what’s inside (see photo).

joyful-lotus-seed-pastejoyful-lotus-seed-paste-inside
Fillings among the Cantonese types are dense and sweet and include lotus seed paste, white lotus seed paste, red bean paste, and mung bean paste, sometimes with one or two salted duck egg yolks (representing the harvest moon) snuggled within. In addition, there are five-nut (or -kernel or -seed) versions, packed with chopped peanuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and watermelon seeds as well as a variety made with Jinhua ham, dried winter melon, and other fruits buried among the nuts; its flavor was a little herby, not unlike rosemary, but I couldn’t quite identify it. These last two were particularly tasty. All are about 3 inches wide and 1½ inches high and sell for about $4.50–$6; mini-versions are available as well. A visit to Flushing exhibited all of these as well as some outstanding fruity varieties including pineapple, lychee, and pandan; these can be best described as translucent fruit pastes and are perfect for the novitiate – a gateway mooncake if ever there was one.
five-seed-pastepineapple-lychee-pandan

In another market, I found a white, flaky pastry version, Shanghai style, I believe; the filling was like a very dense cake with a modicum of nuts and fruits providing some contrast and crunch – certainly tasty.

durian-with-bean-paste-snowy-moon-cakeicy-moon-cake-boxes
chocolate-icy-moon-cakechocolate-icy-moon-cake-with-cream-cheesechocolate-pearls-in-pandan-flavored-bean-paste
Then there are trendy versions that hail from Hong Kong all of which are equally accessible and delicious. Think mooncake meets mochi: rather than dough-based and baked, the skins are almost like the sweet Japanese glutinous rice cake, but not quite as chewy. These snowy and icy mooncakes must be kept chilled. The snowy flavors are contemporary: strawberry, mango, orange, pineapple, honeydew, peach, peanut, taro, chestnut, green tea and red bean; one version featured durian flavored sweet bean paste with bits of the fruit and enveloped by a skin of sweet, almost almond paste texture and flavor. Icy mooncakes come two to a box (they’re smaller, about 2 inches by ¾ inch) with imaginative flavors like pandan bean paste with chocolate pearls (tiny crispy, candy bits, crunchy like malted milk balls, but probably puffed rice), dark chocolate bean paste (the skin is like mochi with chocolatey paste on the inside and a piece of dark chocolate or a bit of cream cheese nestled within), durian, mango, blueberry, custard, chestnut, black sesame, strawberry, and cherry. Prices range from $6–$9.50 each or for a box.

Even the Häagen-Dazs in Flushing’s New World Mall was touting sets of ice cream mooncakes!

fujianese-moon-cake-3-stampsfujianese-moon-cake-insidePerhaps the most unusual are the mooncakes found in Fujianese neighborhoods, particularly along East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown. These round behemoths (about 8½ inches in diameter and an inch or so thick) are simple in appearance. Wrapped in a single flaky layer covering a more substantial crust (a mixture of rice and wheat flours) with red food coloring stamps on top to delineate varieties, they are an embarrassment of lard and sugar with the addition of chopped peanuts, dried red dates (jujubes), bits of candied winter melon and other nuts and fruits supported by sesame seed encrusted bottoms. I’m wary about cautioning you that these might be an acquired taste as they are certainly unlike anything you might find in Western cuisine and I don’t want to put you off; some friends liked them immediately, others had to think about it. In any event, the flavors will grow on you regardless of your starting point. These hefty disks exemplify the phrase “a little goes a long way” and a cup of tea nearby helps cut the oiliness. Cost is about $10 each.

I have to admit that I hit a wall in my attempt to decipher the inscriptions on the Fujianese mooncakes. Most bore a number of red sunburst shaped identifiers and were stamped, once, twice, three times or four. I was hard pressed to taste the difference between the single and double stamped versions; they were the simplest of the lot – sweet, lardy, and a little fruity perhaps. By the same token, the three-stamp and four-stamp versions were similar to each other and boasted the addition of sweet jujubes and other fruits – more interesting and better in my opinion, certainly sweeter because of the jujubes, but I couldn’t tease out the distinction between the two. Alas, there were other stamps as well – words, I suspect – but the color had run so they were undifferentiable to me. I have friends who can handle Mandarin and Cantonese, but not the Fujianese dialect, and none of the vendors had a word of English, so my questions were fruitless (unlike the 4-stamp mooncake). I’m not going to let this go, though, so keep an eye out for an update to this post.

Update as promised: Never one to be satisfied with “…and the rest” (as the theme from television’s Gilligan’s Island once crooned – but only for the first season), I had no choice but to return to East Broadway in Manhattan’s Chinatown where I had first tapped into the motherlode of Fujianese mooncakes.

On that visit, I had spotted one that displayed somewhat illegible writing rather than a mini-constellation of stamps but I had already purchased a surfeit of mooncakes that day and decided that I didn’t really need to buy one of each. Silly me; I should know better by now. So since that particular mooncake was eating at me (instead of the other way around), I hazarded $12 to try and solve the mystery.

This time the writing on the mystery mooncake was clear, but I’m still unsure about what it said. I see the character for “plus” over the one for “work”; if they were next to each other, it would mean “processing” (in addition to lots of other translations). In any event, it’s by far the best of any of that ilk that I’ve tried because of the ample addition of black sesame seeds and a plentitude of peanuts, so if you encounter it, that’s the one to get.

I’ve cobbled together a mini-glossary to help you decipher a few characters on some of the more popular fillings found in Cantonese mooncakes:

月                 moon
月餅             mooncake
白                 white
蓮蓉             lotus seed paste
紅豆             red bean
旦黃             single yolk
雙黃             double yolk
冰                 ice
冰皮             snowy
伍                 five
仁                 nut, seed, kernel, (benevolence)
金華火腿     Jinhua ham
棗                 jujube (red date)

Armed with these keys, you can combine phrases and discover the secrets hiding within. For example:

雙黃白蓮蓉 = double yolk white lotus seed
冰皮月餅 = snowy mooncake

So head to your nearest Chinese bakery and sample some of these autumn delights! If you can pronounce pinyin, say “zhōngqiū kuàilè” (which sounds like jong chew kwai luh). But in any language, here’s wishing you a Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

中秋快乐!

 
 

Smart Cookies

If you’ve visited the confectionery aisle at almost any Asian market, you know there’s no shortage of packaged cookies and cookie-like treats to tempt your tastebuds and purge your pocketbook. Japanese renditions of American classics take that to the next level, both in terms of snackability and sticker shock (at least what I can find stateside). A cursory perusal of one such aisle revealed variations on the theme of mini Kit Kats and Oreos (in a bite-sized format unfamiliar to me); I was tickled to find matcha green tea versions of both as well as strawberry Oreo and sweet potato Kit Kat varieties. (This last sported instructions on the back for optional toaster-oven crisping!)

Oreo Matcha BagOreo Strawberry BoxKit Kat Sweet Potato Bag

I was less tickled by the prices, however. Certainly the packaging is attractive – bright colors, shiny gold, embossed even! – but lots and lots of air surrounding teeny tiny morsels of sweet crunchiness. (Reminds me of a quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “There will now be a whopping great intermission, during which small ice creams in very large boxes will be sold.”) This 9½ inch wide bag of mini Kit Kats, for example, offers about a dozen individually wrapped pieces, each weighing in at about 12 grams – less than half an ounce – for $6.99, but I guess I do understand why the pricing is what it is.

Oreo Matcha PieceThree individually wrappedThree unwrapped

In terms of taste, the sweet potato Kit Kat was, for an instant, sort of sweet potato-y, then it turned somewhat artificial and a little metallic. The matcha was more subtle but was also more true to its green tea flavor description. Strawberry Oreo straddled the fence between fruity and artificial.

(I’ve always theorized that if a being from another planet landed on Earth and was tasked with the challenge of reconciling how the taste of artificial cherry, grape, et al. has any resemblance whatsoever to real cherries or grapes, it would shake its heads, concede defeat, and return home with its tails between its legs. Somehow, after years of ingesting these chemical concoctions, we’ve become inured to their ersatz essences and have accepted the use of the word “raspberry”, for instance, to describe both disparate flavors. Such is the wonder of modern food science as it confronts our ability to suspend culinary disbelief. But I digress.)

It turns out that Japan comes by its penchant for wild and crazy cookie flavors honestly. Since 2000, Nestlé has developed some 200–300 (reports vary) extreme Kit Kat flavors: cinnamon, hojicha roasted tea, strawberry cheesecake, brown sugar, pear, crème brulée, apple, apple vinegar, ginger ale, blueberry cheesecake, hazelnut, raspberry, orange, rum raisin, pumpkin pudding, orange pineapple, choco-banana, pancake, black honey, taro, chili pepper, red bean, edamame, sake, wasabi, soy sauce, and dark chocolate (how’d that get in there?) as well as something called “mixed juice” to name a few. (I can’t help but wonder what flavor “Midnight Eagle” might be.)

The story, as I understand it, of Kit Kat’s overwhelming popularity in Japan has to do with its name – it sounds roughly like “kitto katsu” which translates as “you will surely win”. The smart cookies at Nestlé became aware of burgeoning sales every January when the appropriately named sweet was given to students as a good luck gift prior to taking college entrance exams.

Now, sixteen years later, the candy is the number one seller in Japan, even promoted in schmancy department stores and specialty shops. The unusual (by Western standards) varieties pay homage to the unique flavors of Japanese foods; some of them are based on the particular character of a specific region in the country with limited distribution of each signature flavor to its region.

If you’d like to read more about how Kit Kat became a phenomenon in Japan, check out this story in the online version of the British newspaper, The Telegraph. In it, they write about innovations like an extravagant version covered in gold leaf and a Kit Kat croissant available in a coffee shop chain that sells out on a daily basis. (Take that, Dominique Ansel.)

I’m certain that more of these delicious wonders are lurking throughout the New York City area. (Update: I subsequently found bittersweet chocolate, strawberry, and Japanese sake. And more recently, I’ve discovered a designer version, the “Chocolatory Moleson”, the first decorated Kit Kat, which is topped with dried cranberries and almonds – placed there by hand!) Fellow ethnofoodies: let me know what you find and where you found it and I’ll update this post along with a hat tip for your hunting prowess!

 

Sponge Information

Kam HingI read the sign with no small measure of suspicion: BEST SPONGE CAKE IN TOWN, it shouted in all caps. Writing up this one will be a piece of cake, I thought, ignoring my own pun. Two words should do it: “Oh, really?” I mean, ya tried one sponge cake, ya tried ’em all, right? Eggy, airy, moist, a little sweet, and that about sums it up.

Seventy-five cents and one bite later, I began to wonder if I had let my prejudice get the better of me. Shouldn’t I at least compare this one with another if only to prove to myself that all sponge cakes are created equal? So I randomly entered another Chinese bakery (no shortage of those in Manhattan’s Chinatown) and emerged with a contender. The difference was subtle, but there was indeed a difference – enough to compel me to purchase a third rival. Again, the basic premise echoed the first two, but with a distinct personality of its own. With a sigh of resignation, it became evident that my story would exceed two words and I headed home to do some preliminary investigation.

The first order of business was to see what other NYC food writers had to say about the subject because attempting to taste every sponge cake at every bakery in Chinatown would be a herculean task. A few minutes of poking around on the web revealed that there are definitely a few favorites (four or so were always mentioned) among the experts. I made note of them and returned the next day armed with a list and the decision to hit up a few additional bakeries selected arbitrarily along the way just to be fair. I gathered nine examples (that’s all that would fit in my tote) and headed home to set up an Excel spreadsheet. (Those of you who know me are aware that I can get a little OCD sometimes, particularly when it comes to taste testing.)

I decided to rate them based on my initial definition of sponge cake characteristics: egginess, airiness (a continuum of spongy to cakey), moistness, and sweetness; crust and special features would factor in as well. My personal opinion of these qualities is that ideally they should be pretty middle of the road: eggy but not overly so, sweet but not too sweet – you get the idea – but above all, the cake should taste great.

I did a blind taste test and was amazed to discover that for the most part my independent research bore out the conventional wisdom. So I’m pleased to report that I stand corrected, disabused of any notion that sponge cake is sponge cake.
Sponge Cakes
If you’re an information sponge too, here are the details – my ranking in order of overall deliciousness (you won’t be disappointed in any of the top five):

Kam Hing Coffee Shop, 119 Baxter St.
75¢ (2 oz)
Yes, believe it or not, the one that claimed to be the best! Perfect balance.

Tai Pan Bakery, 194 Canal St.
$1.10 (2.5 oz)
Lemony! Almonds on top provided a little crunch and a lot of flavor.

Ka Wah Bakery, 9 Eldridge St.
$1.00 (3.25 oz)
Excellent as well; crust a little eggier than others.

M&W Bakery, 25 East Broadway
$1.20 (2.5 oz)
Very good; tight crumb but still moist.

Fay Da Bakery, 83 Mott St.
$1.20 (3 oz)
Pleasant “baked” flavor to crust; almonds on top.

New Golden Fung Wong, 41 Mott St.
$1.00 (3 oz)
A little more cakey; a little drier.

Simply Bakery, 70 Bayard St.
$1.10 (4.25 oz)
Sweet but average.

QQ Bakery, 50 East Broadway
$1.25 (3.75 oz)
Moist but average.

Good Century Café, 243 Grand St.
$1.00 (4.5 oz)
Biggest cake, smallest flavor.
 
 
Of course, now I need to investigate sponge cakes in Queens and Brooklyn Chinatown bakeries too. (Told you I was OCD.)
 
 

Luky Duck

Thai desserts (khanom thai) are sweet but not overly so, light, and delicious. Generally, they draw from a limited repertoire of ingredients but those are mixed and matched and combined and presented in a wide array of variations. Sticky rice, jackfruit, mango and other tropical fruits, pumpkin custards, pandan, sweet egg yolk threads boiled in syrup, and black beans and mung beans and corn (oh, my!) make their way into puddings, jellies, soupy concoctions, tiny cakes, candies, and a host of other delights.

One popular dessert is look choop (you may run across it as luk chup or any number of other transliterations) which look similar to shiny marzipan but taste nothing like it. The process is painstaking: soak and boil mung beans, sweeten with coconut milk and sugar, cook it down, mold or shape into miniature vegetable or fruit shapes, paint with food coloring, then glaze with agar-agar (like gelatin, but stiffer), and the result is something perfectly precious that looks too good to eat. (Little wonder that these were formerly served exclusively to royalty.)

Elmhurst’s sweetly named Sugar Club is my hands-down favorite market for khanom thai (as well as for outstanding prepared foods as good as you’ll find in any Thai restaurant). Recently, I was perusing their dessert case and, desperately struggling to restrain myself from buying one of each, decided that I’d better choose just one – but which? Out of the corner of my eye, I spied what at first I thought might be a children’s toy: a little yellow duck. What’s that doing in the dessert case? But a closer inspection disabused me of that notion – it was look choop molded in the shape of a classic rubber ducky floating atop a sea of green gelatin!

Look ChoopDucky 1Ducky 2
So deciding which dessert to choose was easy: look choop ducky, you’re the one!

 
Sugar Club
8118 Broadway
Elmhurst, NY
718-565-9018
 

Filipino Polvorón

Ever tasted polvorón? The correct response is, “Which kind?”

If you’ve ever wandered the streets of a Mexican neighborhood, you may have passed a panaderia that featured polvorónes, a soft, crumbly cookie that is essentially the Spanish version of shortbread and akin to the goody known as Mexican wedding cookies; the texture is almost like a Chinese almond cookie. One bite and you’ll know what I mean by crumbly – polvo means powder, after all. (Photo on the left.)

In the Philippines, polvorónes are made of powdered milk and toasted flour and are even more crumbly (if that’s possible) and to my taste, they’re more like a candy than a cookie. (Photo on the right.)
Mexican PolvoronFilipino polvorón

Typically wrapped in brightly colored cellophane twisted on the ends, Filipino polvorónes barely hold their shape and instantly crumble into sweet delicious dust when bitten into. They’re available in flavors like cashew, peanut, ube and pinipig (crisped rice).
Cellophane WrappedBox

I thought I had sampled every available version of this treat. Until now, that is. Chocolate coated polvorónes. Chocolatey goodness on the outside surrounding polvorón in flavors like cookies & cream on the inside. Surely a case of lily-gilding, but what’s to not like? I was certain that no further embellishment was conceivable.
Chocolate CoatedChocolate Coated 2

Wrong again. Because I had stumbled upon ChocoVron’s Rite Snack Polvorón Sticks. They’re similar to the cylindrical crispy wafer cookies called Pirouettes but covered in chocolate and filled with polverón, in this case ube. (Ube is purple yam — or purple yum if we’re to believe the package labeling.) Their slogan “One Bite is not Enough” is tauntingly accurate. Beware: these are addictive. (Actually, anything that goes crunch is addictive, but that merely serves to prove the point.) Buko Pandan (coconut pandan) and Classic flavors invite a return visit.
Polvoron Sticks 360x500Inside Polvoron 360x500

 
Found at Sariling Atin Grill and Filipino Grocery
89-12 Queens Blvd.
Elmhurst, NY
718-397-1200