During each of my last two trips back to Taiwan, Da Jiu Ma (my mom’s older brother’s wife) supplied me with 20 pounds of what looked like pure wax, packed so tightly into 2-gallon Ziplock bags that the contents nearly burst from the seams. My prized loot? Pineapple paste, purchased in bulk from a local bakery supplier, and very difficult to find Stateside.
This moist, sweet, golden paste is used in feng li su, or Taiwanese pineapple cakes. Despite their name, the “cakes” are actually square, jam-filled buttery shortbread cookies that loosely resemble Fig Newtons. Available year-round, these pastries are especially popular for gift-giving during special occasions and holidays, including Chinese New Year, which this year falls on Valentine’s Day.
In the States, you can find feng li su individually wrapped in beautiful paper and gold elastic bands for about $1.25 a piece at select Chinese bakeries, or, on the low-end, stacked in packs of 8 to 10 in see-through plastic for less than $3 in the cookie aisle of most major Chinese supermarkets. I prefer mine fresh, minus all the preservatives and fake flavorings, so I either go the bakery route or bake my own, based on a recipe I learned from Da Jiu Ma.
This year, despite the vacuum-sealed bags of pineapple paste still sitting in my refrigerator and freezer, I decided to figure out how to make the filling from scratch. (I didn’t want to have to wait three to five years for my next supply.)
Having grown up eating these pastries and developing a taste for the filling, it never occurred to me how subtle the pineapple flavor was. Only recently did I learn that pineapple paste actually contains very little pineapple. I felt duped. It’s actually mostly winter melon, a bland, flavorless vegetable also known as white gourd that’s often used in soups, like a sponge, to soak up all the other flavors. However, when I tasted a paste made from 100% pineapple — black as tar and just as thick — I didn’t likeit. All the balanced nuances of the fruit that I enjoy so much in its fresh state — sweetness, acidity, floral notes — were amplified to the point that the paste tasted almost…artificial. Without the flavorless white flesh of the winter melon, the sugars in the pineapple caramelize like crazy (hence the black color) and the flavor becomes super-concentrated. With the winter melon, everything is tamed and brought back into balance. It’s not, it turns out, just a cheap filler.
Pineapple paste is simply pureed pineapple and winter melon flesh cooked down slowly into a thick goo which is then sweetened with granulated sugar and maltose syrup and cooked down further into a pliable jam-like consistency.
The outer shortbread “crust” of the feng li su consists of cake flour (for a fine, almost powdery crumb), a teensy amount of leavening (I’m not sure it’s really necessary but it works) milk powder for enhanced dairy flavor; a combination of butter and shortening for flavor and a soft, crumbly texture; confectioners’ sugar; and egg yolks for richness and color.
Assembling the cookies is a little like molding with Play-Doh: Roll the dough into balls, roll the pineapple paste into balls, smash the dough into disks, put the paste in the center of the disks, then bring the edges up together and roll between your palms so that the paste becomes entirely encased in the dough. Next, press the filled dough into square pineapple cake molds, which aid the browning of the sides of the cookies (I found comparable molds here. They’re about an inch taller and a smidge wider than what I use, but should work just fine.) If you don’t have these specialty molds, gently press and form the cookies into squares by hand. Finally, bake the cookies on parchment-lined baking sheets, turning them over halfway through baking so the tops and bottoms of the cookies are equally browned. The last part is infinitely the hardest: waiting for the cookies to cool before taking a bite.
Makes 24 pineapple cakes.
2½ cups cake flour
⅛ teaspoon. baking powder
⅛ teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons nonfat milk powder, passed through a fine mesh sieve
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup shortening
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
2 egg yolks
1 recipe Pineapple Paste (recipe follows)
- Adjust oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and milk powder together in a medium bowl; set aside.
- Place the butter, shortening and confectioners‘ sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on low speed until just combined, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks and beat on medium-low speed until just combined, about 1 minute.
- Stop the mixer and add half of the flour mixture. Beat on low speed until most of the flour has been absorbed. Add the remaining flour and beat until all of the flour has been absorbed, 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat 1 minute. Divide the dough into 2 even pieces and roll each piece into a 10-inch log. Wrap each log tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, 1 hour.
- Cut each log into 12 even pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Use a tablespoon measure to divide the pineapple paste into 24 evenly sized 1-tablespoon balls.
- Place a dough ball in the palm of your hand and flatten into a disk. Place a pineapple paste ball in the center of the disk, bring the edges up together and pinch shut. Roll between the palms of your hands until the seams are no longer visible. Press into 1¾-inch-wide square pineapple cake molds or gently shape into squares by hand.
- Place the pineapple cakes 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes, turning the cakes over once and rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom halfway through baking. Place the baking sheets on wire racks to cool 10 minutes before transferring the cakes to the racks to cool completely.
Makes 1½ cups pineapple paste
This pineapple paste is more intensely pineapple-y than the filling in commercial pineapple cakes. If a milder flavor is desired, reduce the amount of pineapple and increase the amount of diced winter melon by the same amount. Winter melon and maltose syrup can be found in most large Asian markets.
¾ cup granulated sugar
- Place the pineapple in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until pureed, stopping and scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally, 18 to 20 pulses. Pour into a Dutch oven.
- Place the winter melon in the food processor and pulse until very finely shredded, 20 to 22 pulses. Transfer to the Dutch oven.
- Cook the combined mixture over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the winter melon begins turning translucent, about 20 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium, add the sugar, and cook until the mixture has thickened, about 8 minutes.
- Stir in the maltose syrup and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is very thick, sticky, and uniformly light amber in color, 10 to 12 minutes.
- Transfer mixture to a shallow bowl and refrigerate until cool.
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.
Buttery Taiwanese cookies are tender on the outside, sweet and chewy on the inside. All photos by Sandra Wu.
Photos by Sandra Wu.