Cookie Monster: Chinese Five Spice Cookies
The menu at the Grand Sichuan on 7th Avenue is divided into sections. There is a classical Sichuan menu, with specialties like Gui Zhou Spicy Chicken and Braised Sliced Fish with Chili Sauce, and then there is the American Chinese menu, with fan favorites like Chicken and Broccoli and General Tso's. These days, I tend to order off the Sichuan menu. I love the slowly creeping tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. But my nostalgia for childhood and a lost New York occasionally has me lingering over a plate of Broccoli with Garlic Sauce.
To look my nostalgia plainly in the eye, you could say that part of the appeal of Chinese restaurants in the pre-foodie era was their comfortable uniformity. It's why people visit McDonald's abroad: they're looking for familiar dishes and a taste they know they'll like. There was definitely something pleasant about knowing exactly what I would order (vegetable dumplings, wonton soup, stir fried vegetables). But as someone who would never go to a McDonald's here or abroad, I'd like to think that my fond attachment is something more. I liked the small dishes of fried noodles with duck sauce, a former staple courtesy that I've vainly held out hope for every time I've sat down at a Chinese restaurant since 1995, and the endless pots of amber tea. There was also something distinctly New York about New York Chinese restaurants. They were like the City itself; exciting yet comforting, exotic yet American, and, of course, they always seemed to be open.
All these thoughts morphed into a batch of cookies because of the Macy's Day Parade. For me, that parade is on an endless loop through 1987. Al Roker is still fat, the Snoopy balloon is still the main event, and Katie Couric is still satisfied with her job introducing the Rockettes. In an attempt to satiate my New York nostalgia, I pulled out a recipe I knew my mother had stashed somewhere for "Chinese Cookies" which, I'll admit, have probably never been made in China. The cookies looked easy and as lovably inauthentic as a Chinese butter cookie can be. I made them in haste, and was not disappointed.
These cookies are mildly sweet with a buttery crunch. Finely chopped almonds and almond extract impart a sweet, nutty flavor, though the most prominent taste is definitely the five spice powder. Five spice powder is a blend of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper, and ground fennel seed, though the ratios are inexact and sometimes cloves or ginger are included in the blend. The mix is earthy and heady, with a touch of spice and sweetness. So yes, these cookies may not be authentically anything. Except delicious.
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About the author: Carrie Vasios is the Community Manager of Serious Eats and writes the Wake and Bake, Cookie Monster, and Serious Entertaining columns. She likes perusing her large collection of cookbooks while eating jam from the jar.