Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Eat Cho Food creator Kristina Cho shares a very special almond cookie recipe, inspired by what her goong goong (maternal grandpa) used to make. The recipe is excerpted from her new book, Mooncakes and Milk Bread, out this month.
Even though I grew up in a very food-centric house, no one in my family really baked. My grandparents moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the late 1960s and my goong goong (or maternal grandpa, in English) started working in restaurants. Eventually, he opened his own restaurants and that became the family business. Because of this, I was always surrounded by really incredible chefs, but baking wasn't exactly part of our family culinary history. If there were pastries at home, they came from a box mix.
I was in middle school when I decided to try baking myself. I watched a lot of Food Network and would practically be drooling when I saw the bakers on TV bite into a gooey chocolate chip cookie or plunge a fork into a moist chocolate cake. I think part of why it also appealed to me was that a lot of the desserts I saw on TV were so classic American. Growing up in a Chinese American family, we didn't eat a lot of chocolate chip cookies or pie.
One of the first baked goods I made was cheesecake. My mom used to buy frozen cheesecakes at Costco that I just loved (honestly, anything with cream cheese had my heart), so I decided to try making a homemade one. And you know what, it was pretty good! I started to bake even more and my family was all about it. After all, who would complain about homemade dessert?
It wasn't until I got a little older that I started to explore Chinese baking more. What I've learned is that Chinese baking doesn't necessarily mean a baked good. Often, it's something steamed or fried. Similar to Western baked goods, Chinese baked goods still include foods like breads, cookies, and cakes. What sets Chinese baking apart are the distinct textures and flavors. Milk bread is extra fluffy, tarts are extra flaky. Whatever natural flavor the dessert centers around (such as a fruit), the other ingredients play up that flavor even more.
Since my family is so filled with cooks rather than bakers, the majority of the time I baked alone. But I do remember making almond cookies with my goong goong. Back in Hong Kong, my grandfather was a teacher. He taught reading and writing to elementary school kids. It was a job that he really loved, but wasn't one he was able do in the U.S. That's when he started working in restaurants. One of his first restaurant jobs was baking almond cookies, which were served for dessert in the restaurant where he worked. Since he made almond cookies every single day, he got really great at it. Goong goong's almond cookies really were the best.
One time, we made the almond cookies together at home. It was actually the only time we made them together. By this time, goong goong had his own restaurant and he wasn't making almond cookies anymore. In fact, they just served fortune cookies instead because they didn't have time to make fresh almond cookies every day. For a very long time, goong goong didn't make any almond cookies. That is, until this day, right before I left for college, when I asked him to make them with me. It's such a sweet memory for me, making almond cookies with my goong goong and enjoying them with the whole family afterward.
When I started thinking about what recipes I wanted to include in my cookbook, I knew I had to include them. The problem was, I didn't have the recipe; goong goong never wrote it down and he passed away in 2009. All I had to go off of was a crumpled piece of paper with ingredient measurements for a restaurant quantity of cookies. I had to figure it out on my own, just going by the memory of what it tasted like. I enlisted my other family members to help. "What do you think, a little more sugar? A bit more salt?" I'd ask my mom, after whipping up a test batch. I wanted it to be as close to his recipe as possible. After a few tries, I think I got it right.
It's so special to me, seeing people make my goong goong's almond cookies now. I wonder what he would think of it. My goong goong was such a humble guy that he would probably just blush and smile. He might say something like, "wow, that's crazy!" but I think it would be very sentimental to him. After all, making almond cookies was never really part of his plan. He was a teacher. But like many immigrant parents, my goong goong came to the U.S. to create a better life for his kids, grandkids, and everyone who came after. Somehow, making almond cookies became a small part of that. And I'm so glad it did.
Kristina Cho's goong goong's almond cookies recipe
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
3/4 tsp pure almond extract
1 large egg yolk
15 sliced almonds
Flaky salt, for topping
1. In a medium bowl, whisk to combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.
2. In another medium bowl, mix to combine the butter and sugar with a flexible spatula until smooth. Add the egg and almond extract and continue to mix until fully incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and mix until a thick dough is formed (it will be sticky). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill until slightly firm but scoopable, about one hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a 1 1/2-tablespoon cookie scoop, measure out 1 1/2 tablespoons of dough and place on the prepared sheet. (Or use a spoon to scoop and roll the dough into a smooth ball, wetting your hands if the dough is still sticky.) Repeat with remaining dough, spacing them 3 inches apart. Wet your fingers with water to prevent dough from sticking and gently press down on the dough balls with your fingers until they are a half-inch thick.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and use to lightly brush the tops of the cookies. Place an almond slice on each cookie.
5. Bake until cookies are golden brown and crisp around the edges, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack, sprinkle with flaky salt, and allow cookies to cool on the sheets for five minutes. Transfer cookies to the rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
As told to Emily Laurence
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