Gong Xi Fa Cai!
Happy Chinese New Year! Before James and I bought the Carolina Bed & Breakfast, our Asheville Inn, we lived in Singapore for eleven years. And every year, right after Christmas, the shops and markets would explode with sweets, cookies, fruits, flowers, paper goods and more, all in celebration of the Lunar New Year. And my favorite of all were the Pineapple tarts.
The country of Singapore is a true melting pot. They celebrate more than 30 religious holidays, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and more. But at its core, Singapore is Chinese and the Lunar New Year (or “Chinese” New Year as we call it) is the biggest holiday of all. The celebrations stretch out over two weeks and for the first two days all government offices and businesses are closed so that families can get together for the Reunion Dinner of the first night and to make the required visits to close relatives over the next day.
The holiday is highly ritualized. Symbols of good luck abound and food is a central part of this. Over the first two weeks of the New Year, there will be multiple parties and open houses held. A guest should always offer two Mandarian Oranges to the host on arrival: the oranges symbolize prosperity, good luck and long life. The host will also have a bowl of oranges to offer to those who visit. (The oranges do get passed around but I always seemed to end up with a lot left over. This leads to a glut of Orange Marmalade in my house after the New Year!) Children and unmarried young adults will also receive red envelopes containing money–always an even amount and never four, forty or four hundred. Four is a highly unlucky number for the Chinese. After the family meal on the eve of the New Year and the required visits to close relatives on the second day, visits will be made to friends and co-workers. Often employers will hold an open house for their staff and customers. And it is important to share a meal or some offering of food at all of these events!
As an American living in Asia it was wonderful to explore the markets and try all of the delicacies. Row after row of red-topped plastic jars held an enormous variety of cookies: Love Letters (a type of tuile), Almond Butter Cookies, and Sesame Ball Cookies were just a few of our favorites. Trays of sweets and nuts were displayed, ready to bring as a gift to a party or gathering. Street vendors set up grills and barbecued slabs of Char Siu pork, suckling pigs and ducks hung from the ceilings of their shops. Florists offered orange trees, bamboo plants twisted into Chinese Characters and symbols, and beautiful flowers and orchids. The bang of the drum was everywhere, as those who could afford it held lion dances at their homes and apartment blocks, and neighbourhood community centers performed the traditional dance for those who could not.
While I love Asheville and its many restaurants, in late January and February I often find myself missing the foods of the Lunar New Year. I don’t remember exactly how I found this shop but Brown Cookie (online) seems to have an amazing amount of cookie molds and “exotic food recipes” (note to self: they have Mooncake molds!!) and once I saw the Pineapple Tart Cookie press I knew I had to try recreating this favorite of all Lunar new Year treats!
When the cookie press arrived, it was authentic right down to the rather esoteric recipe on the back. It used metric weights, oddly named ingredients and had very little in the way of instruction. Knowing what the end product should be helped and Google did the rest. But before I put down my final recipe, I have some notes for you!
The recipe calls for “custard flour” which is a slightly incorrect translation of “custard powder”. ( And you probably still don’t know what that is!) There is a strong British influence throughout Asia leftover from the days of the British Empire. The ships that brought tea and spices to England returned to Asia filled with products for the British ex-pats. Among these were Bird’s Custard Powder: an egg-free instant custard powder which my children learned to love at their small English Grammer School outside London. If you live in a major metropolitan area it’s not hard to find. Any store stocking British foods will certainly stock it. I believe some Walmart Stores have it. Worse comes to worst, you can get it on Amazon.
Pineapple is a low pectin fruit. That means it is hard to turn it into jam without added pectin so what you are making here is not a “jam” so much as a candied fruit paste. Watch it carefully the last five to ten minutes. It should really dry out and thicken. You will need to bring it up to room temperature in order to spoon it onto
your tarts. But the good things is it doesn’t act like jam in the oven. It will hold its shape and not bubble over and out of the cookie making a sticky mess.
Lastly, you don’t have to have a pineapple tart mold. The tarts are visually lovely but you can also cut a 2-3″ circle out of the dough, spread some of the jam inside, fold it over (like an omelet) and fold in the ends. Pinch it shut and place it seam side down on the cookie sheet. Score the “finger” in diamond shapes with a sharp knife and brush with an egg wash before baking.
1 medium pineapple
1 ¾ to 2 cups sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
2 egg yolks (reserve the egg whites)
1 ½ cups flour
1 ¼ cups Bird’s Custard powder
FOR THE PINEAPPLE JAM
Peel and core the pineapple. Chop into large pieces and process or blend the pineapple until it’s mushy. Place the pineapple in a large saucepan with the sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook at a low boil until it is very thick and golden. This will take about 25-30 minutes. In the beginning you can stir occasionally but for the last 5-10 minutes you will need to stir constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the lemon juice and salt at the end of cooking.
Cool until ready to use. If you make this the day before, store it in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before using.
FOR THE COOKIES
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line your cookie sheets with parchment paper
Beat together the butter, powdered sugar, egg yolks and vanilla until light and fluffy (about two minutes). Add the flour and custard powder and mix well until it comes together.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board to not less than ½” thick. If you have a pineapple tart press, cut out the cookies and fill the centers with about ¼ to ½ teaspoon of pineapple jam.
If you do not have a press, cut out circles (2.5” diameter). Place a line of jam down the middle of each circle and fold the dough over the filling, folding in the ends as well. Use your hands to shape it into a roll. Place the rolls, seam-side down, on the prepared sheet. With a sharp knife score the top into diamond shapes. Brush with reserved eggs whites which have been beaten with a little water.
Bake until just turning golden. 10 minutes for the tarts and 15 minutes for the rolls.