Walnut Cookies – Happy Chinese New Year

Oakland, CA Chinatown

Celebrations for Lunar New Year begin on February 16, 2018.  Commonly known as Chinese New Year, this Year of the Dog marks the 4,715th Chinese Year.

 

Chinese New Year Dragon Dancers

I always enjoy the celebrations and festivities surrounding Chinese New Year, and appreciate they go on for a couple of weeks!  In addition to family gatherings, there is always a big party in San Francisco where all the stops are pulled, and we celebrate with music, dancing dragons, fortune telling, food and drink.  Oh my!

 

My family commonly share sweet treats during new year celebrations.  While almond cookies may be more familiar, walnut cookies are also traditional as walnuts symbolize happiness of the entire family.

 

For my take on these cookies, I add a bit of orange zest.  Oranges symbolize a wish for good fortune and are the dessert of many Chinese celebratory meals.  Who can argue with the delicious pairing of walnuts and oranges, happiness and good fortune?!

 

I won’t lie to you:  making these cookies takes some patience.  Forming the dough into balls and pressing them into shape is a bit fussy.  Make these when you have the leisure to fiddle with the dough. Whilst in the right frame of mind, I enjoy the simple handwork and let myself ponder thoughts large and small.

 

I promise you will be rewarded with delectably crispy, crunchy cookies for any occasion.

Walnut Cookies

Adapted from The China Cookbook by Kei Lum Chan and Diora Fong Chan

Makes about 30 cookies, 2” rounds

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/ 2 cup (4 oz.) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature and very squishy
  • 1/ 4 cup (2 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 1/ 4 cup (2 oz.) light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten and divided for use in the dough and to glaze the tops of the cookies
  • Finely grated zest of one large orange, about 1 – 2 teaspoons
  • 1 and 7/ 8 cup (8 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/ 8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/ 2 cup lightly toasted walnuts, finely chopped; plus 30 pieces to decorate

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, use a hand mixer and beat the butter and sugars together until smooth and light. Start the mixer on a lower speed, then increase the speed to medium-high to achieve a fluffy texture.  Stop to scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.  Add 2 tablespoons of the beaten egg and mix until fully blended.
  3. Add half the flour mixture into the wet mixture and stir until mostly combined. Add the remaining half of the flour and combine thoroughly.  Stir in the finely chopped walnuts and form into a thick dough.  Pat the dough into a 1-inch thick disk, wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap; and let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
  4. Arrange a baking rack in the middle position of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F.
  5. Divide the dough into about 30 portions. Roll each portion into a ball between your palms and flatten slightly into a small round cookie.  Top each cookie with a walnut piece.  Space about 1-inch apart on a cookie sheet.  These do not spread much during baking.
  6. Lightly brush a bit of the remaining beaten egg over the top of each cookie, taking care to not let it drip down to the cookie sheet.
  7. Bake at 350°F. for 18 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 325°F and bake an additional 12 minutes.
  8. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before cooling completely on a wire rack.

A note about toasting walnuts:  I measured out 3/4 cup of walnuts and toasted these in a 350*F oven for about 8 minutes.  I chopped them finely after toasting.  As the walnuts were fairly large, I sorted pieces about the size of 1/8th of a shelled walnut for decorating the tops of each cookie.

Finely Chopped Walnuts — Resist chopping them in a food processor

Winter Salad with Walnut Dressing

Say Hay Farms’ Chicories – Farmers Market Gems

Deep in the midst of winter we’re enjoying plenty of hearty fare – stews and soups, braises and beans.  But I also appreciate a lighter side dish, with a salad boasting the flavors of winter.  And, dare I say, a nice change up from roasted vegetables.

 

A version of this salad has been making it onto our dining table for the past several weeks, and to high praise no matter how I vary the components. I have made versions using only chicories, only lacinato kale (aka Tuscan or dinosaur kale), a mix of both with some Little Gem lettuces.  The original recipe called for radishes and celery, which is also delicious.

 

You might also switch out the walnuts for hazelnuts (aka filberts) or pistachios for a new twist.  And by all means, omit the step of toasting if you prefer to consume your nutmeats in their raw state.  This is a salad, so substitute freely!

 

Fortunately for us in the Bay Area, we are blessed with numerous farmers markets, with farmers bringing in a wide variety of unique salad greens, including chicories, even in the dark of winter months.  This makes for interesting tastes and textures, and a distinct difference from the salads of summer.

 

If you are a fan of chicories, you might also want to try this salad of chicory with Asian pear, and a ginger-honey vinaigrette.

 

Safety tip:

I find it easy enough to slice the fresh, raw beets thinly with my all-purpose chef’s knife.  To better stabilize the beet whilst slicing, I leave about 1-inch of the stalk above the beet root to use as a handle.  This allows for firm, steady control without much movement from the beet as you slice as thinly as possible.

 

Winter Salad with Walnut Dressing

Adapted from Bon Appétit, December 2015

Ingredients

  • 1 cup walnut pieces
  • 2 oil packed anchovy fillets, drained, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1/ 4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons sherry or white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 heads of winter greens such as chicories, torn into bite-sized pieces; or 1 bunch of kale or young collard greens; thinly sliced
  • 1/ 2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 2 medium beets, about 2” diameter, thinly sliced on a mandoline or coarsely grated on a box grater
  • 3 Mandarin oranges, or similar small seedless citrus; peeled and sectioned

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 °F.  Toast walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet, tossing occasionally until they begin to barely darken, about 8 – 10 minutes.  Take care to not over brown, it happens quickly! Set aside to cool.  Divide evenly, setting aside 1/ 2 cup walnut pieces to toss into the salad.

 

Pulse anchovies, garlic, olive oil and remaining 1/ 2 cup walnut pieces in a food processor to a coarse puree.  Stir in mustard, honey, vinegar, lemon zest, and lemon juice; season with salt and pepper.

 

Toss greens, parsley, and beets in a large bowl with one-third to one-half of the dressing.  Add walnuts and Mandarin orange sections and toss again.  Drizzle additional dressing over the top if needed.

 

Store any remaining dressing in the refrigerator, for up to a few days.

Lemon Marmalade Cake

Zest the lemon peel before juicing

My publisher made a request for an orange loaf cake – he has a fond food memory of a cake his mother baked; redolent with orange in every bite, including on top of the cake.  So off to my collection of classic cookbooks I went, Fannie Farmer, James Beard, Joy of Cooking, etc; in search of a recipe that matched his recollection.  An online search yielded Melissa Clark’s Orange Marmalade Cake, that turned out a very orange-y, moist cake.  It’s always a risk to recreate a childhood food memory, lest it disappoint, so I diverged a bit with this lemon version of the cake.  It is darn tasty in its own right, and no one has refused a proffered slice to date.

 

These special cakes are perfect to serve when guests stop by, or for gift-giving that will surely please.  Their bright lemon-y-ness adds a fresh note to pair nicely with a “cuppa” of your choosing.

 

Marmalade chockfull with flavorful rind

When I shared this cake with neighbors, I was asked if I had made the marmalade from my garden’s lemons.  I had not, but appreciated the thought for a future project!  You will want to use a marmalade that is well made, meaning chockfull of lemon rind for this cake.  The results will suffer if you use a marmalade that is more pectin/jelly than rind.

 

I happened to have a jar of divine Meyer lemon marmalade from the Clif Family Kitchen in Napa Valley, procured during a recent visit to their St. Helena winery.  They produce mouth-watering preserves from fruits grown on their farm, and recently received recognition when their preserves were listed on “Oprah’s Favorite Things 2017” list.

 

If you are in the St. Helena area, I highly recommend a visit to Clif Family Winery.  I had a wonderful time there with friends tasting wines and having lunch from their Bruschetteria food truck.  Their retail shop carries their now famous preserves, along with other custom offerings.  I came away with preserves, olive oil, candied nuts, spices and, oh yes — wine.

 

If you cannot find lemon marmalade, using orange marmalade as the cake is originally conceived, is sure to please.  There is also a video of Melissa Clark preparing her cake, a bonus for those appreciating a refresher on techniques and tips.

Lemon Marmalade Cake

Adapted from Melissa Clark’s Orange Marmalade Cake

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup lemon marmalade, divided
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened; plus 1/ 2 tablespoon for the glaze, and more for greasing the pan(s)
  • 1/ 2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1-1/ 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/ 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/ 2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/ 8 cup confectioners’ (powdered) sugar

Instructions

  1. Position an oven rack into the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350  Butter a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan, or use three mini loaf pans, approximately 3 x 6-inch size. Coarsely chop any extra-large pieces of peel in the marmalade.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, beat together softened butter, sugar and lemon zest until light and fluffy; about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each until well incorporated.  Beat in 1/ 3 cup marmalade and the lemon juice.  Using a spatula, gently fold in the dry ingredients into the butter-sugar-egg mixture by hand, until no traces of flour show.
  4. Scrape batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake until the surface of the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean; about 35 minutes for mini-pans or 50-55 minutes for one large pan.
  5. Remove from oven and transfer pan(s) to a wire rack. Cool 10 minutes, turn cake out of pans and place on a rack right-side up.  Place a rimmed baking sheet under the rack to catch any dripping glaze.
  6. Heat remaining 1/ 3 cup marmalade in a small pan over low heat until melted; whisk in confectioners’ sugar and 1/ 2 tablespoon of butter until smooth. Slather warm glaze over the top of the cake(s), allowing some to drizzle down the sides.  Cool completely before serving.

Note:  As with many cakes, this one will have the tenderest crumb if eaten on the day it is baked.  Next day the crumb is firmer, and the lemon-y-ness is both richer and mellower.  It’s all good!

Thai-Style Stir-Fried Beef and Vegetables

Thai Basil

Sometimes that one-pound package of ground beef is begging for an inspired use.  It just sits there, daring me to come up with something slightly out of the norm to give it a sense of higher value.

 

I worked this up for a quick, weeknight meal with ingredients pretty much on hand.  It works with a variety of vegetables, although including Asian eggplant and Thai basil will increase its authenticity factor – should that matter to you.  Me?  I just want it to taste good.

 

The farmers at my local farmers market are still bringing in zucchini, eggplants, chiles and basil.  But the harvests are dwindling to a trickle now that we’re into autumn harvests.  Now is the time to give this a try, while these ingredients remain readily available.  I hope you can see the flexibility of this recipe and the wide variety of ingredients you can use.

So Many Eggplant Varieties!

 

A few advance tips:

Do not fret if you do not have Thai basil.  The dish will be delicious using whatever fresh basil you have.  Try adding fresh mint leaves to the basil for an interesting switch up.

 

The seeds and membrane of the jalapenos are where the most “heat” lives.  Remove these before mincing if taming the heat is important to you.  Also, wear gloves when handling spicy chiles, and avoid touching anywhere near your eyes if there has been any chile contact with your hands.

 

Fish sauce is a key ingredient for Southeast Asian cooking.  If you enjoy Thai, Vietnamese and similar cuisines, I highly recommend stocking fish sauce along with soy sauce.  Red Boat, the brand I use, has a 250-ml bottle that’s a good introduction to their product.  A little goes a long way.

 

Thai-Style Stir-Fried Beef and Vegetables

ingredients

  • 1 pound ground beef (substitute any ground meat or crumbled, firm tofu, as you prefer)
  • 1 pound zucchini and/or eggplant, diced into 1/ 3” cubes (about 2-3 medium zucchini and/or Asian eggplant); about 3+ cups
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, Thai basil if you have them; plus extra leaves for finishing
  • 1/ 2 cup onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced; about 3 – 4 large cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 jalapeno, serrano or Thai chile, minced; or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce, or to taste (I use Red Boat brand)
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons soy sauce, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
  • Fresh lime wedges
  • 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil for stir-frying
  • Whole lettuce leaves for serving, such as Bibb or similar pliable leaf variety

Instructions

  1. Heat a large, heavy skillet (or wok) over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and let heat until it begins to “shimmer”.
  2. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, and chile (the “aromatics”); and stir-fry for just about one minute. Add the ground beef in several pieces and begin breaking it up in the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon.  The goal is to have crumbles of cooked beef that’s well-incorporated with the aromatics.  Remove the cooked beef and aromatics to a plate and set aside.
  3. Add the second 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and let it heat up over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and/or eggplant, stir-frying occasionally until lightly browned and nearly cooked through, about 5 – 8 minutes.
  4. Add the cooked beef mixture back into the pan; then add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and black pepper. Stir-fry to mix well, then lastly add the fresh basil leaves and give it a final stir to incorporate them.
  5. Remove from heat and serve in lettuce leaves or with steamed rice. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and include lime wedges for a fresh spritz of acidity to liven things up.