Lemongrass and Pandan Christmas Sugar Cookies: An Experiment in Asian-Inspired Baking
Growing up, my family didn’t have a tradition of baking Christmas cookies. My mom would place several orders of Bûche de Noël (Christmas log cake) for our family dinner on Christmas eve and to give away to friends but nary a sugar cookie was in sight.
I never realized what I was missing until I moved to the U.S. where everyone I met seemed to have a favorite family Christmas cookie. My husband has fond memories of churning out pizzelles (even though his adopted family is of mostly German descent, go figure!) in a pizzelle iron with his sister. My church friend Karen introduced me to biscochitos,
or Mexican wedding cookies, the official cookie of New Mexico. (*Note: a reader insisted that biscochitos and Mexican wedding cookies were not the same so I removed this. Do you have an opinion?). And Deb was baking glazed Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) months before Christmas, packing them into tins to “age.”
When my sis and I lived in the same city for a couple of years, we baked an assortment of Christmas cookies to share with our friends: Snickerdoodles, Mexican wedding cookies, thumbprint cookies, etc. But that arrangement doesn’t last long when one of us is married to a man in the military.
This year, I wanted to create my own Christmas cookie tradition, as often happens when you have a child. Isaac isn’t old enough to help in the kitchen but I figured I could do with a little practice in anticipation of the time he’ll be ready a few years down the road.
The wheels in my brain started whirring and then it came to me: Asian-inspired sugar cookies!
You might take one look at my methods and decide, Wow, that’s a lot of work! It’s not that I intentionally want to make my already-complicated life even more difficult. Trust me, there is reason behind the madness.
As I surveyed the ingredients in my pantry and refrigerator, I made a mental checklist of yay or nay items. I nixed the idea of curried sugar cookies; too straightforward. Coriander and cardamom were common Scandinavian flavor profiles too and weren’t uniquely Asian. Then I pulled out the pandan leaves and lemongrass in my freezer. Hmm …
As you can see, I was just using what I had on hand. Considering we are moving again soon, it’s in my best interest to cook down my cupboards. I also had some bergamot oil which I know isn’t Asian-inspired, but I love Earl Grey tea so I thought, why not?
I adapted this recipe for the sugar cookie base and set to work. I divided up the dough into four parts so that I would not be fully committed to any one flavor. (Quadruple any of the amounts below if you’d like to make just one flavor.) As luck would have it, all of them turned out yummy. And chopping up the lemongrass and the pandan leaves wasn’t so hard, really!
In the end, it’s not just about the cookies. Although eating them is always part of the fun.
It’s about moms (and dads!), kids, and siblings whiling away a wintry afternoon, sharing a laugh as they cream sugar and butter in turn, and sprinkle candies on cookies. It’s about the joy of seeing a friend smile as they accept your prettily-packaged box of cookies. And there’s nothing like the sweet smell of cookies baking in the oven to spread warmth and cheer, and remind us that Christmas is here.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Experimental Christmas Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Easy Sugar Cookies on Allrecipes.com
Cake flour produces a softer cookie with a finer crumb and I combined it with all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat flour because that’s what I had) so that it would still stand up as a sugar cookie. You can make the cookies entirely with all-purpose flour if you desire. I also prefer natural cane sugar to white granulated sugar. I like its richer, almost molasses-like flavor. If you prefer a sweeter cookie, add up to ½ cup more sugar.
Makes: about 4 dozen cookies
2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup natural cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons Lemongrass Confetti (see below)
1/2 tablespoon Pandan Juice (see below), or 1/4 teaspoon pandan paste (available at Asian markets)
1/8 teaspoon bergamot or other flavoring oils
Sugar sprinkles or other decorations
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
Combine the flours, baking soda, and baking powder in a small bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg and vanilla until well mixed.
Add the dry ingredients gradually, blending each batch in before adding more. Mix well.
Divide the dough into 4 balls and place in separate bowls. Add the lemongrass bits, pandan juice, and bergamot oil to each bowl respectively, leaving the fourth bowl plain. Knead each ball with your hands until the flavoring is completely mixed in.
Roll rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into balls, and place onto ungreased cookie sheets. Flatten with the back of the spoon and sprinkle with colored sugar or other decorations.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden. Let the cookies stand on the cookie sheet for two minutes before removing to cool completely on wire racks.
Rinse out cookie sheets, wipe down, and repeat until all the cookies are baked. (Don’t place dough on hot cookie sheets or they will cook unevenly and/or burn quickly.) Or refrigerate (up to 2 days) or freeze (up to a week) remaining dough to bake later.
Trim about an inch from the hard root end of one plump lemongrass stalk and chop off the woody top where it just starts to turn from green to pale yellow. You should have 6 to 7 inches of lemongrass stalk remaining. Peel off the loose, tough outer layers to expose the tender white core, then bruise the entire length of the stem with a meat pounder, large knife, or heavy glass to release the aroma and oils. Cut the stalks crosswise into very thin ringlets (as thin as you can possibly cut them). Then rock your knife blade over the pieces to chop them into confetti-sized flakes. The tinier you can chop the lemongrass, the less chance you’ll be chomping down on hard bits when you bite into the cookie. Or whirl in a food processor. You should get about 2 to 3 tablespoons from one stalk.
Pandan leaves are considered the Southeast Asian equivalent of vanilla extract and are used to flavor cakes and kuehs in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. You can find pandan leaves in the freezer section of Asian markets. They are occasionally available fresh. (Go here for an article on pandan leaves I wrote for Saveur magazine)
Rinse 6 pandan leaves and snip into 1/2 inch sections. Place the leaves in a small food processor with 2 tablespoons of water. Whirl until pulpy and wrap in a cheesecloth placed over a bowl. Squeeze out as much pandan juice as possible. You’ll probably have more than the required 1/2 tablespoon. You can boil it down in a small saucepan over low heat for a more concentrated flavor or just add the extra to a cup of tea.