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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

Madame Wu’s Buttery Sesame Cookies

The twelfth century was a rough time for China. In 1127, the Jurchens, a nomadic group from Manchuria, invaded and sacked the capital in Kaifeng. They occupied the north for more than a century.

To this day, the invasion conjures up bitter memories in China and with good reason. The conquest was disastrous by most standards. The Song empire lost much of its territory. It also had to pay tremendous sums of money to the enemy in exchange for peace. Tens of thousands of Chinese were displaced by the collapse of the north.

Song defeat, finally, inspired talented writers to compose gory poems.

Losing the north may have been a blow to Chinese pride, but it enhanced its culinary traditions. Refugees from the north introduced the cuisines of Kaifeng to the new southern capital of Hangzhou. In so doing, they created a rich fusion of regional cooking styles. By the end of the fourteenth century, people in Hangzhou feasted on chewy noodles, steamed buns, mutton stews, flat breads, and fresh cheeses. They also enjoyed buttery cookies.

Sesame seeds lightly sprinkled on top of this Chinese cookie

The following recipe comes out of a twelfth or thirteenth-century cookbook. The author was a Madame Wu, who lived in the South. Unfortunately, we know little else about her. Her recipes, though, reveal the diffusion of northern food traditions to the south. The lady used butter and sesame. She sometimes baked her pastries.

The recipe presented some challenges to make. Madame Wu omitted essential information. For example, I was left wondering how much butter or spiced salt to use. She was also mum about baking time and oven temperature.

After some fiddling, I got the recipe to work. My interpretation naturally took liberties with the text. I stirred in some butter, but Madame Wu was probably thinking of clarified butter, similar to ghee. She further instructed her readers to flavor the dough with a little spiced salt, but I dumped in a tablespoon (you can dial it back if you prefer more subtle seasoning). She was also vague about what went into the spiced salt, so I improvised. I heated some black pepper with salt in a wok. After the salt tanned, I added equal parts Five-Spice Powder and blended. The mix gave the pastry a distinctive kick.

While Madame Wu’s cookie can’t compete with Yunnan rose pastry or Hong Kong custard bun, the results were not bad. My family devoured three successive batches. As usual, I am eager to know if anyone has suggestions for improvement!

Sweet Crispy Cookies

Flour, 2 cups

Sugar, 1/3 cup

Vegetable oil, ¼ cup

Ghee or butter (1 T)

Spiced salt (1 teaspoon- 1 tablespoon)

Cool water, ¾ cup

Sesame seeds

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Knead together the flour, sugar, and oil.

3. Add the ghee or butter, spiced salt, and cold water. Add as much water as necessary to form a smooth ball.

4. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes (don’t refrigerate).

5. Divide the dough into three batches and shape them into logs.

6. Slice the logs into about 8-10 equal pieces. Roll out the disc into circles and make sure that they are thin.

7. Sprinkle on some sesame seeds.

8. Bake for 15 minutes. Allow the cookies to completely cool before eating.

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