Monday, February 8, 2010

Welcome the Tiger

By Hungry Rabbit

To all people who trace their roots back to China, the most important date in the Lunar calendar is Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. As in all traditional Chinese gatherings, food plays an important role as this holiday’s dinners tend to be very elaborate involving tables laden with “auspicious” foods. The significance of food symbolism is sometimes based on appearance--other times, the sound of the Chinese name carries the added meaning. Tangerines and oranges, for example, are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth, respectively. Steamed cakes are very popular during the Chinese New Year season, and sticky Rice Cake has symbolic value on many levels. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers express rising abundance for the coming year, and the round shape signifies family reunion.

During the week-long New Year celebrations, every household keeps its tables topped up with sweet and savory specialties so it can welcome family and friends with a choice of festive treats. Another prerequisite of Lunar New Year is the "tray of togetherness," a tray or special box filled with an assortment of auspicious treats. Among the more popular treats are sweetened lotus roots (embodying abundance), sweetened lotus seeds (suggesting fertility), dried melon seeds (stand for profuse earnings), and all kinds of candies, which are a source of long-term sweetness.

Walnuts are amongst the foods that have a special meaning--they represent happiness of the entire family. When friends visit, I’ll put out a bowl of walnut cookies to wish them and their families happiness in the Year of the Tiger. Interestingly, this recipe comes from another tradition. Springerle, which means ‘little jumper,’ is a type of German cookie or biscuit with an embossed design made by pressing dough into a mold. Molds are traditionally carved from wood. Their origin can be traced back to at least the 14th century in southeastern Germany and surrounding areas.

(More - and recipes - after the jump.)

Use a Zen approach to creating these beauties. The most important ingredient for these cookies isn’t the quality of butter and sugar, but your patience. As with all preparations for Chinese New Year, definitely plan ahead. These cookies need to be frozen ahead of time (at least 1 hour) before baking to maintain the gorgeous impression that the mold provides. When I first made these cookies, I didn’t think I could make enough to give to anyone. Once I got the rhythm going, however, I had bags of these jewels in my freezer.

I hope you’ll give these cookies a whirl. When displayed on a table, they are almost too beautiful to bite into. But once you do so, you will be rewarded with a buttery, nutty celebration in your mouth--a crunch on the outer shell and a slightly soft and chewy interior. A year of happiness can’t be that far away. Happy Chinese New Year- Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái.

Walnut Cookies
Makes 25 sandwich cookies.
(You can easily double or even triple the recipe)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon walnut liqueur
Confectioners' sugar, for mold
Chocolate Walnut Filling (recipe to follow)

Whisk flour, salt, cinnamon, and ginger in a medium bowl. Beat butter, cream cheese, and sugars with a mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in yolk and walnut liqueur, then add flour mixture, beating until just combined. Divide dough into 2 1-inch-thick disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Work with one disc of dough at a time. Using a dry pastry brush, generously dust a walnut springerle mold (available from House on the Hill) with confectioners' sugar. Cut a piece of dough about the size of the mold. Working from center, press the dough into the mold with fingers.

Gently coax the dough out of the mold with fingertips and place it on a 1/4 sheet baking pan or small tray. Trim the edges with a knife. Redust the mold with confectioners' sugar and repeat until the baking pan is filled. Freeze for 1 hour and repeat all steps with the second disc.

Now you have two choices. You can place the frozen cookies 1-inch apart on a baking pan and bake. Or you can, as I do, store the unbaked frozen cookies in freezer bags until your ready to bake them for your celebration.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake cookies until set, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks. Pipe or spread 1 teaspoon chocolate-walnut filling on flat side of 1 cookie. Press flat side of another cookie onto filling to sandwich. Repeat with remaining cookies and filling. Cookies will keep, covered, for up to 4 days.

Chocolate-Walnut Filling
Makes 1 1/4 cups, enough for 25 cookies.

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup) walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
Pinch of salt
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled

Beat in walnuts and salt until combined. Beat in chocolate. Use immediately.

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