For Chinese all over the world, be it in China, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Argentina, France or South Africa, we're only less than 2 weeks from Lunar New Year. Many of us simply call it "Chinese New Year" (CNY) in English. Coincidentally, it falls on Feb 14 this year! (I know, I know for many of you out there who are not open and available, it's Valentine's! Great, killing two birds with one stone!)
If you're a non-Chinese speaker, this may sound a bit confusing and yet, possibly interesting. Because southern China, which includes the provinces of Fujian 福建, Guangdong 廣東, Guangxi 廣西 and Hainan 海南, doesn't have clear seasonal differences throughout the year, we the southerners (南方人) refer to this 15-day celebration as 農歷新年 (pronunciation in Mandarin: nong li xin nian / Cantonese: noo-OH-ng Lake Sun NEE-een) and it literally means "Lunar New Year." On the other hand, because northern China, which includes the provinces of Liaoning 遼寧, Heilongjiang 黑龍江, Hebei 河北 and Jiangsu 江蘇, do have clear seasonal differences and freezing winter months, the northerners (北方人) would call it 春節 (pronunciation in Mandarin: chun jie / Cantonese: coo-WOON jeet) and it literally means "Spring Festival." Though they're two different names, they're both talking about the same thing in the same language -- except in different dialects.
Between the North and the South, there are moderate differences when it comes to celebrating CNY. However, I'm sure that all of us would unanimously agree upon its origin. The story has been retold for ages since who-knows-when, passing on from one generation to the next. Of course for many Chinese, it might sound repetitive and somewhat boring (unfortunately!)
For as much as I could recall from my childhood days, I was told, "Once upon a time ..." ALRIGHT, this sounds like a cliché! Hahaha ...! Anyway, there was a monster that went by the name 年(pronounced as "nian" in Mandarin and "NEE-een" in Cantonese), which literally means "Year." The villagers were all scared and terrified by its unfriendly, bloody visit each time. It was always up for no good: It would threaten the villagers, rob and destroy properties, as well as kidnap children. On one fine day, one of the households in the neighborhood had something red stuck onto its door. To the villagers' surprise, they found out that Nian the monster was driven away by the color red because it had a phobia for anything red. So beginning thereafter, the villagers would put up red-colored objects to cast away Nian and other evil spirits.
Despite the irrationality of the myth, it's been widely said that red (紅) is Chinese's favorite color all thanks to Nian the monster! At Chinese wedding, birthday banquets and any other special occasions, redness is a must! I get amused whenever I'm pushed to wear red by the elderly. And at the same time, I feel disgusted because red is one of those bright colors that would make me stand out from the rest! Argh ..., how I hate being the center of attention! Anyhow, I might have been fooled by my poor memory of the story! Please correct me if that's the case! Thanks, yea?
To my surprise, I only realized that year 2010 will be year 4708 for Chinese! And year 4708 belongs to the Tiger (虎), one of the 12 signs in Chinese zodiac (十二生肖). Hop over here to know more about them, it can be pretty fun! I vividly remember one of those questions I'd pop up as a silly 10-year-old to whoever that came my way, "Which of the Animals do you belong to?" Actually, I don't believe in both Chinese and Western zodiacs anymore because they're a bunch of contradictions. Now, just for the sake of fun, I've been a rabbit (兔) my whole life. As a rabbit, I'm supposed to be "[the] luckiest of all, gracious, [a] good friend, kind, sensitive,
Anyway, I'd like to share with you one of those cookies I've baked during my bake-a-thon for Lunar New Year. These highly addictive cookies are called pockmarked cookies (pronounced as "ma po" in both Mandarin and Cantonese -- but with different tones.) It wasn't in my plan; I meant to bake traditional Chinese-style peanut cookies (花生酥). However, my brain was altered once I set my eye on the recipe -- there was no turning back! "No way," I went frantic and said to myself, "You've gotta give it a shot!" So, I kicked my butt out of the bed at 7 a.m. that Sunday. I'd never been this insane my whole life, but I managed to pull it through with a bit of stress. With some help from my mom and helper, I made three different things in about 6 hours before rushing off for driving lesson. (Well, I did some prep work the night before though.)
The cookies are named so obviously because they look like they've got pockmark around them. (Ouch, zits!?) They have out-of-this-world nuttiness! The short and slightly crunchy pastry on the outside makes a smooth transition to the almost crumbly, rich and nutty filling. Just the perfect sweetness with a little salty kick. There are quite a few steps before you are rewarded with your fruit of labor. But trust me, a little effort does pay off! After all, these cookies are made with love -- perfect for Valentine's! This was also why I decided to make these insanely nutty cookies instead of the traditional ones. ;)
Pockmarked "Ma Po" Cookies 麻婆餅
(Adapted from Season Biscuits [sic] 《時尚餅乾》, by Kevin Chai, K.S. Lee, Amy Wong & Sally Lai)
For the nutty filling:
300 g raw peanuts (that have skin on)
60 g caster sugar
1/8 tsp salt
4~7 Tbsp creamy peanut butter, or as necessary
- Roast the peanuts over low heat in a wok or something similar -- stirring constantly at all times -- till they are aromatic. Then, leave them aside to cool completely.
- Remove the skin from the cooled roasted nuts, then place them into a food processor along with the 60 g sugar and grind them up together in short pulses till you've got a fine pulverized mixture. (My machine is a smaller one; therefore, I did this in batches.)
- Mix the pulverized mixture with enough peanut butter till you get a "dough" that comes together -- peanut butter acts as a binder here. Set aside for use later.
*Actually, the authors suggest 4 Tbsp, which I think are insufficient for binding the mixture together. It's just no way to work with if we were to wrap up overly crumbly mixture with something else -- that's just unworkable!
For the pastry:
150 g unsalted butter, softened
30 g caster sugar
50 ml milk
300 g plain flour
20 g powdered dry milk
- Cream (A) together till light and fluffy, then mix in the milk till combined.
- Combine (B) together and sift once, then with help from a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, fold the flour mixture into the creamed mixture till incorporated by hand -- don't overwork the dough
1 large egg, slightly beaten for glazing
Enough roasted peanut halves (that have been cooled completely), for garnishing
- Based on the pastry-to-filling ratio of 0.6 (pastry): 1 (filling), divide both the dough up evenly into smaller portions
**I'd suggest 5 g each for the filling while 7~8 g each for the pastry. I did mine once a little too generous; hence, complaints from my picky family! Well, the ideal size is one that would give you bite-sized cookies -- you don't wanna stuff your mouth with just one of those cookies, eh!?
***Both the dough weren't too bad to work with. So, you need not dust your hands.
- Take one portion of the filling and wrap it with one portion of the pastry dough, enclose to seal well and then roll into round balls.
Repeat till everything is used up
- Then, slightly flatten each of the shaped cookies with some pressure from your palm (till about 1.5 cm-thick.)
I wouldn't say I did a superb job in this. Nonetheless, while I used specially designed mini cookie pincher to do the trick, I do believe you can use a really tiny fork to poke tiny "holes" all over the sides of the cookies in some sort of pattern for added aesthetic value.
- Once you're done with "poking" the cookies, glaze them with the beaten egg. Next, stick a peanut half onto the center of each cookie and glaze them with some egg again
- Bake at 180C for 15 minutes till golden brown
- Remove the tray(s) of cookies from the oven and transfer them onto cooling racks to cool completely before serving/storing