Chinese New Year is coming up Feb. 1. While we are busy getting the house cleaned up, buying ingredients to make traditional snacks and cooking a feast for family, making almond cookies as gifts is another way to celebrate. Classic almond cookies, round and golden like coins, symbolize good fortune. They are more popular during Chinese New Year, but you can make them all year long.
I didn't grow up with Chinese American-style almond cookies. The first time I tried them was in the 1980s, when l moved to America. l was working at Chin's in Eureka, my uncle Ben Chin's restaurant. The irresistible almond aroma filled the restaurant every time we baked them. The taste was slightly sweet and crunchy, and the little crumbly cookies just melted in my mouth. I was always so proud to bring out the freshly baked cookies to share with the customers. Uncle Ben passed away a few years ago now; I wish we had saved his recipe. I used to watch my aunts and my mom making the dough in the kitchen. Then we girls helped rolling and flattening them with our thumbs, then we brushed them with egg wash and sprinkled them with almond slivers. Later in the 1990s, lard was considered unhealthy and became unpopular with customers, so many restaurants stopped serving them.
Now, thankfully, lard has become popular again. According to researchers, lard has the most monounsaturated fats, aka "good fat." This type of fat is more slowly digested by the human body than polyunsaturated fats, is associated with decreased risk of heart disease and may even help to lower "bad" LDL cholesterol levels and maintain healthy cells. You can buy it ready to use but I love rendering lard from cuts of fresh, local pork fat from my butcher.
l was determined to make my own almond cookies based on those early memories from Chin's but with a new twist: I tried them with lard and duck fat, lard and butter, lard and shortening, then with regular flour, cake flour and almond flour, with granulated sugar and powdered sugar. The textures were all slightly different but still good. So, l asked friends and family to test them, and they helped determine which recipe was the winner. When l saw the happy smiles on my aunts' faces after tasting the last batch, I knew my mission was accomplished. One aunt grinned and said, "Our almond cookies, saved by Wendy!" I laughed.
Here is my final recipe after feedback from my tasters. I hope you find these cookies enjoyable to make and share them with family and friends.
Classic Almond Cookies
These are crispy and a little crumbly, perfect with a cup of tea.
Makes 24 to 30 cookies.
8 ounces homemade lard (or 6 ounces lard plus 2 ounces duck fat)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 small egg
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 teaspoon yellow food coloring (optional)
1 ¾ cup cake flour
¼ cup almond flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
¼ cup sliced raw almonds
1 egg yolk for brushing
In a large mixing bowl, with a hand mixer, beat the lard and sugar until creamy. Add the egg, almond extract and food coloring, if using, and beat until combined.
Sift in the cake four, almond flour, salt and baking soda. Use a spatula, fold and mix all ingredients until combined. Do not over-mix. Cover and chill the dough in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Take the dough out and divide it into 24 to 30 pieces. Roll each piece between your palms to form a small ball.
Place the balls of dough on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, leaving 2 inches of space between each cookie. Use your thumb to make an indentation on each cookie. Brush the tops with the egg yolk and place a few slices of almond in the center of each one. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes until golden. Cool for 5 minutes before moving to a wire rack to cool completely. Serve with a cup of tea.
You can find Home Cooking with Wendy Chan (she/her) classes benefitting local charities on Facebook.