Chinese New Year: Kuih bangkit (coconut biscuits)

One of the integral things about Chinese New Year are the cookies that come along with it. Ask any Chinese person, and they’ll have their favourite Chinese New Year cookies/snacks. My top 3 are: groundnut/peanut cookiesarrowroot chips, and pineapple tarts.

Kuih bangkit is a Nyonya/Malaysian Chinese New Year cookie made from coconut milk, tapoica flour, sugar and eggs. It has a very characteristic texture: crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside – in fact they should melt in your mouth once you get past the crispy exterior. (And yes, ‘melt in the mouth’ seems to be a must for most Chinese New Year cookies!) Mum & dad aren’t huge fans of kuih bangkit, so I never ate much of it growing up. Not compared to groundnut cookies anyway! 😉

The other characteristic of kuih bangkit is the lovely designs you get when you use traditional kuih bangkit molds. The original molds are made from wood (and all hand-carved), whereas you can get plastic ones nowadays.

I’d heard from countless people that kuih bangkit are tricky little morsels to make, as whilst they look fairly simple, it’s not easy to get the right texture of crispy outsides/melty insides. I always like a challenge, so I thought – why not? Plus I would get a chance to use freshly squeezed coconut milk (“santan”), which is nigh impossible to find in London.

The most time consuming bit of making these is the cooking of the flour… the aim is (I believe) to get rid of the ‘raw’ taste of flour. Cooking the flour takes anything from 60-90 minutes. But it’s not the cooking/stirring that is the problem, it’s the fact that tapoica flour sends minute particles of flour all over your kitchen each time you stir it. I kid you not when I say there was a thin layer of flour over all the kitchen counters! (For those of you who haven’t worked with tapoica flour before, it’s similar to corn flour, i.e. lets out puffs of ‘flour dust’.)

Whilst the taste of these little babies were great, I wasn’t altogether happy with their texture, as they weren’t crispy enough on the outside. Plus they cracked a little, meaning the lovely intricate designs on the kuih became less pronounced. I’m hearing conflicting things when it comes to kuih bangkit – are they supposed to crack, or not? If any of you know, please do let me know, as it would be good to know err.. what to aim for. 😛

I won’t be sharing the recipe for these kuih bangkit, as I don’t want to post a recipe I’m not happy with. Rest assured though that I will be making this again to try perfecting the recipe for next year!

Till then, Happy Chinese New Year to all of you! May the Year of the Dragon bring you happiness, good health, and good food. 😀

Almond cookies for Chinese New Year

I’ve always believed that it’s not really Chinese New Year without the following things: 1) family + the people you love (and who love you!), 2) cookies, and 3) cheesy Chinese ‘tong tong chiang’ type music.

I made my first ever batch of Chinese New Year peanut cookies and pineapple tarts last year, and really enjoyed the whole process. I’m not sure why it took me so long to do it, but I suspect that it was something to do with the fact that I usually have a supply of cookies from home…

But anyhow, back to the cookies. I wanted to try making something different this year, primarily because I’ll be back home for Chinese New Year this time around (yay!) and therefore have no immediate need to bake my favourite peanut cookies. 🙂 So I decided on almond cookies, which are one of the more popular cookies during the festive period.

I modified the peanut cookie recipe I used last year as it was rather simple and non-finicky, and replaced the peanuts with almonds. I also decided to use lard in the cookies instead of oil – I’ve always been told that lard is the secret to perfect ‘melt in your mouth’ cookies, and I wanted to see if this was true.

So what did I think? Well, first of all I was a little alarmed when the cookies were in the oven, as they smelt EXACTLY like pork crackling. Though truth be told, little bites of pork crackling isn’t the worst thing in the world.. in fact it would be an excellent snack! 😉 They didn’t smell of pork once they’d cooled though – thankfully. On the ‘melt in the mouth’ scale, I felt that they were a little ‘meltier’ compared to the cookies I made last year. However (I don’t believe I’m saying this), I feel that that extra little bit of ‘melt in your mouth-ness’ doesn’t justify the unhealthiness of lard… so I think I’ll stick with oil in the future. This must be a sign of ageing.

Almond cookies typically have a piece of silvered almond on their tops – I had run out of these so decided to stick to the tried and true method of making an indentation instead. I used a chopstick to do this, some people like to use a (clean) pen cover or straw.

Am planning to make a few more types of cookies, and I promise to blog about them promptly if I do!

Chinese New Year almond cookies
Makes approximately 50-60 cookies, depending on size

  • 2 cups ground almonds
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 3/4 cup icing sugar (alternatively, use castor sugar)
  • 220g lard (alternatively, use 1 cup corn oil)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 egg, beaten

1. Dry fry the ground almonds in a wide non-stick pan (over medium heat), until they start to become fragrant and lightly browned. Take care to make sure you do not burn the almonds, as it will impart an unpleasant burnt taste to your cookies.
If you don’t have ground almonds, you can use whole almonds (without skins), and pulse them into a fine powder after dry frying.
2. Place the ground almonds, flour, sugar and salt in a bowl, and mix with a spatula until well combined.
3. Using a pastry blender, incorporate the lard into the almond/flour mix, until you form a cohesive dough. A good guide is to try forming a ball from the dough – it should not crumble. You may need more or less oil/lard depending on the weather.
Alternatively, you can use a food processor for this step: place the almond/flour mix in the food processor bowl, add chopped cubes of lard, and pulse until it forms a cohesive dough. If using oil, trickle the oil in slowly whilst pulsing.
4. Heat the oven to 180′C.
5. Form the dough into 2cm balls, and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Press down lightly with a chopstick (or a straw or a clean pen cover), this forms the indentation you see in the cookie.
Alternatively, place a piece of slivered almond on the top of the cookie (after eggwashing though!).
7. Glaze lightly with the beaten egg.
8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until they turn a lovely shade of golden brown.

Chinese New Year ‘cakes’

I’ve gone Chinese New Year mad on the blog recently – and just to stick to the trend, here’s one last Chinese New Year post for good measure. What can I say? It is a 15 day celebration after all, and there are just so many types of food to cover. So I thought I’d round up my Chinese New Year-ism with a post on ‘cakes’ – one sweet, and one savoury.

Nian gao (also known as “thi kuih” in Hokkien, or Chinese New Year cake) is one of the must have foods of Chinese New Year. The main reason why it is so popular during this period is because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year”. As Wikipedia says:

The Chinese word 粘 (nián), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to 年, meaning “year”, and the word 糕 (gāo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to 高, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year.

We Chinese are VERY superstitious you see.

Anyway, back to the nian gao. It is made from a surprisingly small list of ingredients – glutinous rice flour, sugar, water and/or coconut milk. These ingredients are then steamed until they solidify to form your “cake”. The traditional method of making these is a rather long process, and as I do not have the patience to steam something for hours on end, I use a simpler method and only steam my nian gao for about an hour. And you know what, it still tastes pretty damn similar to the more traditionally made ones.

It can be eaten as it is (in all its sticky glory goodness), or be pan fried in an egg batter. We always pan fry it with yam or sweet potato slices at home, but I usually just eat it as it is here in London. Again, this is a testament to my laziness. Do note that it becomes more solid the longer you keep them (and they keep for a good 2 weeks in the fridge), but pan-frying or heating it in the microwave (1 minute on High) restores it to its original deliciousness.

The other “cake” of Chinese New Year is the turnip cake (“luo bo gao” in Mandarin, or “loh pak gou” in Cantonese). Whilst this is primarily a dim sum dish, it is very commonly eaten during Chinese New Year as we believe it symbolizes prosperity and rising fortunes. Told you we are superstitious. 😉

I’d never actually made this before (as opposed to nian gao which I’ve made every year since I discovered how to make it in my 2nd year of med school), but I tried Charmaine’s home made version during our Chinese New Year potluck, and I tell you – I was hooked. Obsessed. Simply because it tasted much better than the ones you get in restaurants. So I made some, and it was absolutely delicious. It’s fairly similar to yam cake, and wasn’t actually too hard to make at all!

Turnip cakes are usually sliced into squares/rectangles, and pan fried prior to serving. The pan frying allows you to achieve a crunchy exterior and a soft gooey interior, which as we all know is a brilliant combination of textures. It can also be eaten as it is, ideally warm.

So yes. Nian gao. Luo bo gao. Angku kuih. Peanut cookies. Pineapple tarts. Tang yuan. Yu sheng. Mandarin oranges. So much food, so little time. But no matter, because you can rest assured I’ll be back next year with MORE on the food of Chinese New Year. Be warned. 😉

Happy Chap Goh Meh (15th day of Chinese New Year), everyone! And to those who will be taking part in the festivities of throwing Mandarin oranges into the sea – have fun! 🙂

Nian gao (Chinese New Year cake)

  • 200ml water
  • 200g Chinese brown sugar (I use Pearl River) – alternatively you can use palm sugar
  • 200ml coconut milk
  • 250g glutinous rice flour

1. Heat water and Chinese brown sugar in a pot over medium heat, until all the sugar has melted.

2. Add the coconut milk, and stir until the mixture is well combined.

3. Take the pan off the heat, and leave the mixture to cool.

4. Once the mixture has cooled, slowly add the glutinous rice flour to the mixture (I do it in four additions), stirring well between each addition. You should end up with a mixture that has a consistency that is slightly thicker than double cream. If your mixture is too thick, add a little more water to it. If it is too runny, add a little glutinous rice flour.

5. Sieve the mixture – this helps to avoid any lumps that may have formed. Believe me when I say you don’t want to have a lumpy nian gao!

6. Pour the mixture into a container of your choice (either a heatproof bowl or takeaway aluminium containers – I used ramekins lined with banana leaves). Don’t forget to oil your containers well if you intend to serve them without the containers.

7. Steam over high heat for 35-45 minutes, or until the surface of the nian gao is fairly firm to touch. If in doubt, I recommend steaming it for longer (10 minutes each time) rather than risk ending up with a liquid/uncooked mixture.*

* To ensure a smooth surface, you can cover your containers with a teacloth during the steaming process. I did not do this, which is why it’s not as smooth as I would like it to be. Alternatively, you can turn the nian gao out from the container and serve it bottom up, which again will give you a smooth surface.

Radish cake (luo bo gau / loh pak gou)

Despite what its name suggests, radish cakes are made from Chinese white turnips, and not radishes.

  • 1kg Chinese white turnips/mooli/daikon (this is approximate, you can use more or less as you wish. I recommend a radish: flour ratio of at least 4:1)
  • 2 Chinese sausages (lap cheong)
  • 6 Chinese mushrooms
  • 2 dried scallops
  • 20g dried shrimps (heh bee)
  • 3 shallots
  • 150g rice flour
  • 25g wheat starch
  • 2 ½ cups water (including drained turnip water & soaking liquid for Chinese mushrooms and scallops)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • ½ teaspoon five spice powder

Prepping the ingredients:

1. Grate/shred the Chinese white turnips, either using a box grater or the shredder attachment on your food processor. Leave the turnips in a sieve to drain as much water as possible out of it. Reserve the drained liquid.

2. Soak your Chinese mushrooms and dried scallops in some water. Once they soften (this usually takes at least half an hour), cut them into 1cm pieces. Reserve the soaking liquid.

3. Soak the dried shrimps in some water for approximately 10 minutes. Discard the soaking water.

4. Dice your Chinese sausages into 1cm pieces.

5. Finely dice your shallots.

Making the cake:

6. Measure out 2 ½ cups of water. Start off with the water from the grated turnips, as well as the mushroom/scallop soaking liquid, then add water until you have the whole amount.

7. Mix the water, rice flour and wheat starch together. Stir until there are no lumps in the mixture. I suggest straining it to double check. Set aside.

8. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan (over medium high heat), and fry the shallots until they turn fragrant. This usually takes 3-5 minutes.

9. Add the dried shrimps, Chinese sausage and dried shallots to the pan, and fry for a further 2-3 minutes.

10. Add the grated turnips to the pan, and fry for 5 minutes, or until they start to soften slightly.

11. Season with the sugar, salt, pepper and five spice powder, and mix well. You may need to adjust the quantities according to personal taste.

12. Turn the heat to low, and slowly add the water/flour mixture to the pan, stirring consistently. Take care to ensure the flour doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pan and form a ‘crust’ there. Cook the mixture over the low heat for 5-10 minutes, or until it becomes a thick paste.

13. Pour the mixture into a greased bowl/container (I used a 20cm diameter Pyrex bowl, but have also used loaf tins!), and steam over high heat for 45 minutes, or until it is cooked. Its surface should be fairly firm to touch. (Sometimes the surface can be a little gooey from the steam even after steaming for 45 minutes, leading you to think it is uncooked. If this is the case, test by inserting a toothpick (or even chopstick) into the center of the cake. It should come up fairly clean, and you should feel resistance when inserting the toothpick.)

14. Slice the turnip cake into 2cm slices. (This will be easier once it has cooled slightly, as it firms up. I actually like putting in the fridge to cool, as the flavour also develops a little more.) You can choose to eat it as it is, or pan fry it in a lightly oiled pan over medium high heat. I highly recommend serving it with some chilli sauce on the side!

More Chinese New Year cookies: Pineapple “nastar” tarts

I’ve always had a thing for pineapple tarts. After my beloved peanut cookies, pineapple tarts are next on my “must overindulge in” list during Chinese New Year. My favourite pineapple tarts to date are the ones my mum buys from a Malay lady – melt in the mouth yet crumbly pastry encasing a lovely round of pineapple jam = perfection.

I must say one thing though – pineapple tarts are MUCH more time consuming compared to peanut cookies. I mean, in comparison those peanut cookies were an absolute doddle. Thankfully Catty dropped by to help me make these, and you know what – I could not have done it without her help! She initially thought that she would be “providing the chatter” and “taste testing”… little did she know how much work she would have to do… 😉

There are a few reasons why these are time consuming. 1) The pastry dough has to be “piped” out using a special mould – this is not dissimilar to cookie presses, and gives you the typical scalloped lines you see on the face of the pineapple tarts. The piping process was the hardest part of all. In the end, we decided that the best way to approach it was to have the mould filled with pastry dough at all times – and even then, it was very unpredictable. Push/pipe too slowly and you get breaks in the dough, which essentially means it then cannot be used.

2) The cookie dough is VERY fragile. Very. Even when you get a perfect strip of piped dough – you then are faced with the challenge of not destroying it. We found that the easiest way was for Catty to pipe the strip of dough directly onto my palm. I then placed a ball of pineapple jam ball on it and wrapped it up. Piping the dough onto a baking tray is also an option… but believe me when I say it is very hard to lift it off the tray without destroying it somewhat. So yes, much easier if one person does the piping, and someone else wraps. Trust me on this one.

Because I made too little pineapple jam (I saved half a pineapple to err.. eat with rojak sauce), we had some leftover pastry dough. So we made some matcha tartelettes (from some leftover white chocolate & matcha ganache that I had from baking the day before) and some mini blueberry pies. And you know what, those matcha tartelettes were amazing. If you eat them when they are warm, the filling oozes out whilst the delicate pastry melts in your mouth. Definitely a keeper.

But back to the pineapple tarts. These actually turned out pretty well. The pastry was light yet crumbly, and had that essential “melt in the mouth” texture. I did feel that the pastry lacked “fat”, and this is probably because I used a mixture of butter and oil in the recipe. I also thought the pastry could do with being slightly sweeter. The jam was also delicious – you can adjust the sugar content according to your personal tastes, and to the sweetness/tartness of your pineapples. I thought the jam was too sweet, R thought it wasn’t sweet enough, and Catty thought it was fine.

And before I get to the recipe, just a note to say that I had to add an extra 40-50ml of corn oil to the dough as it was originally too crumbly, and wasn’t forming a cohesive dough. I have incorporated this into the recipe below by increasing the amount of butter used.

Chinese New Year pineapple “nastar” tarts (Tat nenas)
For the jam:

  • 2 pineapples (my pineapples weighed approximately 600g each)
  • 1/2 cup sugar (you may need more or less depending on personal taste, and the sweetness of your pineapples)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 cloves
  • 3 tbsp liquid glucose
  • 2 tbsp wheat starch (alternatively, use plain flour)

1. Grate the pineapples, and drain off any excess pineapple juice.
2. Place the grated pineapples, sugar, cinnamon stick and cloves in a pot, and cook over medium high heat. Stir the jam mixture every few minutes to ensure it does not burn.
3. When the mixture starts to dry out (this can take up to 1 hour), add the liquid glucose and wheat starch. This helps to make the jam more cohesive and therefore easier to roll into balls. Cook for a further 5-10 minutes until the jam is dry and sticky enough to be rolled into balls.
5. Cool the pineapple jam, then roll into 2cm diameter balls. You may prefer to do this the day before you make the actual tarts.

For the pastry:

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 3 tbsp cornflour
  • 3 tbsp custard powder
  • 2 tbsp milk powder
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 280g butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup icing sugar
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk

For the glaze:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tbsp water

1. Sieve the flour, cornflour, custard powder, milk powder, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
2. Cream the butter and icing sugar in a bowl of a stand mixer, until it turns pale and fluffy.
3. Add the vanilla extract and egg yolk, and mix until just combined.
4. Add the sieved flour mixture into the butter/sugar/egg mixture, and mix until it forms a cohesive dough. If it is too crumbly, add some corn oil to the mixture (slowly) until it forms a nice ball of pastry dough.
5. Pipe out a 3 inch strip of pastry using the nastar mould.
6. Place a ball of pineapple jam onto the pastry strip, and roll it up. Repeat with the remaining pastry and jam.
7. Mix the egg yolk and water together, and use this to lightly glaze the tarts.
8. Bake in a 170’C oven for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Here’s wishing everyone a very happy and prosperous year of the Rabbit. Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Chinese New Year peanut cookies

One of the bad things about being away from home is missing out on Chinese New Year festivities. Sure, I can deck my place out in decorations, but it’s just not the same. My family isn’t here, you don’t have cheesy Chinese New Year songs playing everywhere you go, and you don’t have all the food and goodies that come along with it. Plus, it’s hard to have much of a festive spirit when you have to go to work…

I was lucky enough to go home for Chinese New Year last year (after not celebrating it at home for a whole 7 years), and it was GOOD. Unfortunately I do not have such good fortune this year, and will in fact be working everyday for a 12 day stretch at the time.

Having said that, there is no way I am going to miss out on the food of Chinese New Year… so I made some peanut cookies last week. These (along with pineapple tarts and arrowroot chips) are my favourite Chinese New Year treats, and I was actually worried that the peanut cookies I made would not live up to my high expectations. I’m very picky with my peanut cookies you see.

I hate recipes that are too finicky, so loved how my grandma’s yam cake recipe used a simple “cup ratio”. So when I chanced upon Quinn’s post on peanut cookies, where she used a similar “cup ratio” recipe, I knew I had to try it out. You can use ANY cup you wish – in fact, I used a chinese rice bowl. Just be sure to use the same cup throughout, and stick to the 2:2:1:1 ratio.

These cookies turned out beautifully, and had the “melt in your mouth” quality that is essential for peanut cookies. I used corn oil for the “fat” component of the cookies as it was all I had to hand. I would have preferred to use lard (I know it’s unhealthy but it’s the secret to the best “melt in your mouth” cookies), but it was cold and wet outside and I was too lazy to go out and buy some. But no matter, as they were still yum. 🙂


Chinese New Year peanut cookies
Based on Quinn’s recipe

  • 2 cups peanuts
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup icing sugar (alternatively, use castor sugar)
  • 1 cup corn oil (alternatively, use lard or butter)
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 egg, beaten

1. Dry fry the peanuts in a wide non-stick pan (over medium heat), until they start to become fragrant and lightly browned. Take care to make sure you do not burn the peanuts.
2. Pulse the peanuts in a food processor, until it becomes a fine powder.
3. Heat the oven to 180’C.
4. Place the ground peanuts, flour, sugar and salt in a bowl of a stand mixer*, and mix until well combined.
5. With the stand mixer on (medium speed), slowly trickle the corn oil into the bowl containing the peanut/flour/sugar mixture. Mix until it forms a cohesive dough. You may need more or less oil depending on the weather/humidity. A good guide is to try forming a ball from the dough – it should not crumble.
6. Form the dough into 2cm balls, and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Press down lightly with a chopstick (alternatively, use a straw or a clean pen cover), this forms the typical indentation you see in the cookie.
7. Glaze lightly with the beaten egg.
8. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until they turn a lovely shade of golden brown.

* if you have a food processor, you can use it to mix the cookie dough as it will lead to less washing up! Alternatively, you can use a wooden spoon/your hands to mix the dough together.