While their exact origins are unclear, almond cookies were likely developed by Chinese immigrants over a century ago, perhaps as an adaptation of the traditional walnut cookies of their homeland. Today, they can still be found on the counters of some old-school Chinatown bakeries, as well as in the snack aisles of suburban and metropolitan Chinese supermarkets. I recently rediscovered this childhood favorite of mine when I was given an instantly recognizable pink box of the individually wrapped variety.
Eating two or three of these cookies in a row in the same methodical way was strangely satisfying: from the outside in, saving the crown jewel — a single piece of blanched almond in the middle — for last. If you’ve ever eaten around the jammy part of a thumbprint cookie or the sweet cheese filling of a Danish to slowly relish those few bites at the end, you understand what I’m talking about.
For a packaged product, these cookies weren’t half bad. But after the initial nostalgia wore away, I wished the cookie could have tasted fresher and less as if it had sat on a shelf for several months (which it undoubtedly had). The almond flavor could have been more nuanced, the texture less dry and the almond garnish more snappy. I wanted to make a better version of these treats, which are really no more than just a twist on icebox-style slice-and-bake cookies.
A non-traditional approach to Chinese almond cookies
Almond cookies (as well as most Chinese baked goods) are traditionally made using lard, a more accessible and cheaper alternative to butter. I opted to use a combination of vegetable shortening (non-hydrogenated expeller-pressed palm oil is great, if you can find it) and unsalted butter instead. This helped maintain the slightly shortbready texture while adding a rich, buttery flavor. A small amount of cornstarch blended in with the mostly all-purpose flour base helped keep the cookies crisp and sandy rather than chewy. The trick to getting a greater depth of almond flavor was using a combination of almond meal and almond extract. Relying on extract alone can sometimes become overwhelming and artificial tasting.
The next step took a cue from icebox cookie preparation: rolling the soft dough into a log, wrapping it in plastic, and refrigerating it until firm. Once the dough was sliced into uniform rounds, it was time to decorate the centers. I passed over the typical shards of blanched almonds for less authentic — but exponentially tastier — whole salted roasted marcona almonds. Just prior to baking, the cookies got a light lacquer of egg wash to seal in the glossy finish. After removing the cookies from the oven and catching a whiff of the fragrant aroma, I knew I had hit my target. Bye bye forever, pink box.
Chinese Almond Cookies
Makes 30 cookies
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, almond meal, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, 2 minutes. Add the almond extract and 1 of the eggs and beat until just incorporated, 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and beat on medium-low until the mixture comes together and forms a soft dough, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Place the dough on a 26-inch-long sheet of plastic wrap and roll into an 11½-inch-long, 2-inch-diameter log. Roll tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, 4 hours or overnight.
- Preheat an oven to 350F and set the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from refrigerator and slice into ⅜-inch-thick slices. Place 15 cookies onto each prepared baking sheet, about 1½ inches apart, and press an almond into the center of each cookie. Beat the remaining egg with 1 tsp. water and brush on top of each cookie.
- Bake 18 to 20 minutes until tops of cookies are golden. Let cool on baking sheet 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photo: Chinese almond cookies. Credit: Sandra Wu