Chef Pichet Ong transforms traditional Chinese treats into elegant recipes for New Year's celebrations.
Celebrated for 15 days, Chinese New Year is like many holidays rolled into one. Performers in shimmering dragon costumes dance through the streets. Families gather to feast and shower children with money-filled "lucky" red envelopes. Homes undergo "spring" cleaning, romances blossom, and ancestors are remembered.
As a child, however, my favorite part of the holiday (aside from receiving those envelopes) was ogling my mother's black and gold lacquered candy tray. Ringed with eight compartments, it brimmed with sweets ranging from sesame brittle to slivers of candied melon and was a fixture in our house throughout the festival.
These days, although my mother is nearly 3,000 miles away, I still make sweets a part of my celebration. This year, I'm hosting a desserts party using recipes from The Sweet Spot, a book I coathored with chef Pichet Ong. His confections are based on classic Chinese treats, but he refashions them in stylish contemporary forms: Sesame balls are made lighter and stuffed with Cognac-laced figs; spring rolls are reinvented as gold ingots filled with luscious chocolate. All of these items are finger foods, leaving guests free to mingle while nibbling. And better yet, nearly everything can be prepared ahead of time, making setup and cleanup a snap.
Below are four of the recipes I'll be serving. In keeping with Chinese tradition, each features ingredients associated with good fortune. Below I've added notes on this ancient symbolism, as well as cooking tips.
Cooking and Serving Suggestions
Associated with unity, these chewy walnut and date confections are eaten in the hope that family bonds will remain as strong as the sweet, sticky candies. Pichet's version hews closely to tradition, but he toasts his walnuts for a richer nuttiness and adds a dash of cinnamon to the mix. When serving these treats, be sure to arrange them spaced apart so the cubes don't stick to each other. They also make great gifts wrapped in rice paper or decorative candy wrappers. They'll keep at room temperature for up to one week.
Chocolate Kumquat Spring Rolls
With their crisp, fried exteriors, these treats resemble gold bars, heralding riches in the new year. (And their silky citrus ganache will guarantee that your year starts on a "rich" note.) For delicate shells, look for TYJ brand Spring Roll Pastry Wrappers (available in most Asian markets). The rolls must be frozen ten minutes before frying, but I like to assemble and freeze them up to two days ahead and then just pop them into the hot oil when guests arrive. After a quick drain on paper towels, they're best served immediately so the filling remains molten. They look impressive stacked in little pyramids in a candy tray or bowl.
Sesame Balls with Drunken Fig Filling
Found year-round in dim sum houses, these treats are popular around New Year's because of their sticky shells and spherical shape, both of which symbolize close, harmonious relationships. (In Chinese philosophy, the circle represents perfection and togetherness.) The filling can be prepared up to two weeks ahead and the shells up to a day ahead. If you're also making the spring rolls, fry the sesame balls first, and then use the same oil to fry the rolls. To further enhance the circle symbolism, arrange the balls in a round bamboo steamer, candy tray, or dish.
"Tangerine Pie" Caramelized Pineapple Turnovers
The Chinese character kam, which appears in in the words for both tangerines and kumquats, is a homonym with the word for gold, making these fruits common New Year's gifts. This trompe l'oeil version, created in Singapore , contains no actual tangerines but rather caramelized pineapple, another symbol of wealth (the word for "pineapple" sounds similar to the phrase "prosperity to come" in some Chinese dialects). These are much easier to shape, fill, and roll when the dough and filling are chilled: You can make the filling up to three days ahead, form it into one-inch balls, and freeze them until you're ready to form the turnovers. Once baked, they keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. Display them in place of real tangerines in the center of a circular Chinese candy tray, or pack them in decorative boxes or bamboo steamers to give to friends and family.
Updated Treats for the Chinese New Year
- Chinese Delight
- Chocolate Kumquat Spring Rolls
- Sesame Balls with Drunken Fig Filling
- Tangerine Pie-caramelized Pineapple Turnovers
By Genevieve Ko
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