A Not So Christmassy Christmas Cookie
It’s amazing what you discover just by plugging words into Google.
Do you know what manju is? Well, in my books, it’s a Japanese confection that has myriad guises. It can be baked or steamed and filled with anything from azuki beans, lima beans to kabocha. According to Wikipedia, manju is also a Sanskrit word meaning “pleasing” or “sweet,” it is the Tamil word for “cloud,” as well as a popular name for females. Plus, Manchu (as in the people of Manchuria in what is today Northeastern China) comes from the Chinese Manju or Manzhou. Who would have thought?
Anyways, back to manju the Japanese confection. If baking is a holiday tradition in your family, or if you’d like to start the tradition, try this recipe on for size.
Yaki, or baked, manju is not your typical Christmas cookie–there’s no ginger, cinnamon or star shapes involved–but Katie Kiyonaga’s Auntie Shiz has been making them for the holidays for decades. Aunty Shiz makes a number of varieties with different fillings and in different shapes (including a brown-tinged sweet potatoe shape). Needless to say, each piece is an individual work of art.
Making manju from scratch takes quite a bit of work but you can hardly find them in stores anymore here in the U.S. I believe it’s worth all the effort to keep this recipe alive.
Happy Holidays everyone!
Japanese Sweet Bean Cookies (Yaki Manju)
The recipe is deceptively simple because it doesn’t reflect the years and years of experience it takes to develop the know-how of when the dough is exactly the right texture, how to get the knack for rolling the manju so that there are no gaps between filling and dough. But keep practicing and you’ll eventually get it right.
Time: 1 1/2 hours
Makes: 3 to 3 1/2 dozen cookies
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 cups flour, or as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 drops soy sauce for color (optional)
2 1/2 to 3 cups lima bean paste (recipe follows)
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon evaporated milk (Carnation is the preferred brand)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and then the egg whites and beat until smooth and well combined. Add the corn syrup and mix well.
Stir in 2 cups of flour, the baking soda, and salt. Knead everything into a smooth dough with your hands. Sprinkle in the remaining cup of flour, a little at a time, and knead until the dough pulls away easily from the sides of the bowl and no longer sticks to your fingers. If desired, add the soy sauce and knead into the dough to color it evenly.
Pinch off a small portion of dough and roll it into a ball the size of a gumball (about 1-inch in diameter). Roll a small portion of the lima bean paste into a ball of the same size. Flatten the dough ball between your palms and cup it in one hand. Place the lima bean ball in the middle. Stretch the dough over the lima bean ball and pinch the ends together to cover the filling completely. Shape as desired into a ball or an egg-shaped confection with two pointy ends. Repeat with the remaining dough and lima bean paste.
Arrange the cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart. Brush thickly with glaze. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until light golden.
Lima Bean Paste (Shiro An)
If you’re short on time, or patience, lima bean paste is available at most Asian markets well-stocked with Japanese merchandise. The beauty of making the paste at home is you can control the amount of sugar that goes into it. Lima bean paste keeps in the refrigerator for up to 1 week and in the freezer indefinitely.
Time: 3 hours plus soaking time
Makes: 4 cups
1 pound (3 cups) dried lima beans
2 cups sugar
Place the lima beans in a large heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for at least 3 hours, up to 12 hours.
Drain. Using your fingers, slip the skins off gently–they will pop off easily–and discard. Remove any sprouts. The beans might split but that’s okay.
The skins pop off with little effort
Transfer the beans to a medium saucepan and pour in enough water to cover the beans by an inch. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam or scum that rises to the surface. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the beans are fall-apart tender and crumble easily between your fingers. Replenish the water as it evaporates so that the beans are submerged at all times (you will probably add 1 to 2 more cups of water), and stir often. If the beans scorch, they will turn an ugly brown and taste as bad as they look.
When the beans are tender, mash them with a potato masher or large fork until the texture resembles chunky mashed potatoes. Working in batches, use a wooden spatula to press the bean mixture through a sieve. Add a little water if the mashed beans are having trouble going through. The sieved bean mixture should now resemble smooth mashed potatoes.
The post-sieve lima bean mixture
Return the bean mixture to the same saucepan and add the sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from scorching. Run your wooden spatula through the paste and if the paste holds it shape and remains parted for a few seconds, it is ready. The paste will thicken as it cools anyway, so don’t worry about cooking it down until it’s really thick.
Parting of the yellow sea
Remove from the heat and cool before using as a filling for confections.
The thickened lima bean paste