Happy almost Chinese/Lunar New Year to all of you who celebrate it! Like many Chinese holidays, Chinese New Year is celebrated with a lot of food. Most of the food eaten during this time is symbolic of things you would like to have more of in the new year, whether the symbolism is conveyed through the name of the dish of the shape of the food item. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, my family gathers around the table to feast on fish (the word fish means that there will be a surplus for next year, whether it is a surplus of wealth, luck, or anything positive), oysters with fat choy (a vegetable whose name sounds like ‘fortune’), noodles (for longevity), and tong yuan (circular rice balls, whose shape represents family connection, togetherness and reunion). The next morning on New Year’s Day, my parents would start frying up Chinese New Year cake (nian gao) early in the morning. The characters nian gao 年糕 translates to ‘year higher,’ meaning that those who eat the cake will have a year better than the last. Nian gao has always been the highlight for me. Traditionally it is made with glutinous rice flour, sugar, water, and flavouring of choice, though in more recent years there have been more creative version of this traditional sweet treat. I like the classic brown sugar or white sugar nian gao the best, especially when my parents dip slices of the cake in an egg batter before pan frying it until it reaches golden brown. I think it is the texture of nian gao that makes me love it so much — it is pretty identical to eating mochi, but with a crisp exterior.
I have always had this rice cake in a somewhat traditional way — either sliced and panfried or baked. Recently though, I came across some videos of cookies being stuffed with rice cake (!!) so that when you bite into the cookie, it reveals a chewy, sticky centre. I saw these magical cookies on Li Tying’s (@nglitying) instagram account, a very talented baker that I have followed since I started Instagram. If you have never came across her account before, she is known for her many variations of matcha treats, salted egg yolk espresso brownies, and rich chocolatey cookies. Her account has always inspired me to use more of my favourite Asian ingredients in my baking.
After I saw those nian gao cookies, I knew I had to create some for my Chinese New Year celebrations this year. I chose to use a white sugar nian gao for the centre of my fun, celebratory funfetti soft-baked sugar cookies. It took quite a few tries to do this cookie justice because I originally thought I could just stick a cube of rice cake in cookie dough and bake for the 8 – 10 minutes I was use to. It turns out that the rice cakes needs a bit more time than cookie dough to warm up and reach its sticky and chewy state. I thought about pre-cooking the rice cake first but then avoiding that extra step would be preferred. After a few tweaks and trials, I am happy to share this nian gao-stuffed soft-baked sugar cookie recipe with you just in time for Chinese New Year celebrations. Feel free to use any type of nian gao for the centre. I think brown sugar or coconut-flavoured nian gao would be just as good in these cookies.
Happy Chinese New Year!
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt, optional
- 1/2 cup sprinkles (jimmies)
- Nian gao or Chinese New Year cake, cut into 1 inch x 0.5 inch cubes
- Preheat oven to 325C.
- In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar on high until it becomes pale and fluffy.
- Add egg and vanilla extract and mix until well combined.
- Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in two increments and mix on slow, adding the second one when the first addition has been almost fully incorporated.
- Once the dry ingredients have been incorporated, fold in the sprinkles with a rubber spatula. I prefer using Jimmies so the colours from the sprinkles don’t ‘bleed’ into the dough.
- Using an ice cream scoop, scoop out balls of cookie dough onto a plate.
- Push a cube of the nian gao at the centre of each dough ball and use your hands to roll the dough so that the nian gao is no longer showing and the dough has evenly covered the rice cake.
- Place the prepared dough balls with rice cake onto a baking sheet, with two inches between each dough ball, and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown and the centre (where the rice cake is) has puffed up.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and let them cool for 20 – 30 minutes before eating. The rice cake centre develops more chew once it has cooled down a bit.