Food is more than nutrition, it is one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values and traditions. Our series, behind the recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Eat Cho Food creator Kristina Cho shares a very special almond cookie recipe inspired by what her goong goong (maternal grandfather) used to make. The recipe is taken from his new book, Mooncakes and milk bread, out this month.
Even though I grew up in a very food-centric household, no one in my family really cooked. My grandparents left Hong Kong for the United States in the late 1960s and my goong goong (or maternal grandfather, in English) started working in restaurants. Eventually he opened his own restaurants and it became the family business. Because of this, I’ve always been surrounded by truly amazing chefs, but baking wasn’t exactly part of our family culinary history. If there were pastries at home, they were from a mix box.
I was in college when I decided to try baking myself. I watched a lot of Food Network and I would practically drool when I saw the bakers on TV biting into a gooey chocolate chip cookie or plunging a fork into a moist chocolate cake. I think part of the reason this appealed to me as well was that a lot of the desserts I saw on TV were so classic American. Growing up in a Chinese-American family, we didn’t eat a lot of chocolate chip cookies or pie.
One of the first baked goods I made was cheesecake. My mom used to buy frozen cheesecakes at Costco which I loved (honestly anything with cream cheese had my heart set on it) so I decided to try making one home made. And you know what, it was pretty good! I started to cook even more and my family was interested in it. After all, who would complain about a homemade dessert?
It wasn’t until I got a little older that I started to explore Chinese pastry more. What I learned is that Chinese pastry does not necessarily mean a cooked Well. Often it is something steamed or fried. Similar to Western baked goods, Chinese baked goods always include foods like breads, cookies, and cakes. What sets Chinese pastry apart are the distinct textures and flavors. Milk bread is additional fluffy, the pies are additional flaky. Whatever the natural flavor around the dessert (like a fruit), the other ingredients enhance that flavor even more.
Since my family is so full of cooks than bakers, most of the time I cooked alone. But I remember making almond cookies with my goong goong. Back in Hong Kong, my grandfather was a teacher. He taught reading and writing to elementary school children. It was a job he really loved, but wasn’t able to do in the United States. It was then that he started working in restaurants. One of his first jobs in the restaurant business was making almond cookies, which were served as dessert in the restaurant where he worked. Since he made almond cookies every day, he was really great. Goong Goong’s Almond Cookies were truly the best.
Once we made the almond cookies together at home. It was actually the only time we did them together. At that time, Goong Goong had his own restaurant, and he no longer made almond cookies. In fact, they just served fortune cookies instead because they didn’t have time to make fresh almond cookies every day. For a very long time, goong goong did not make almond cookies. That is, until that day, just before I left for college, when I asked her to do them with me. It’s such a sweet memory for me to make almond cookies with my goong goong and then enjoy them with the whole family.
When I started thinking about what recipes I wanted to include in my cookbook, I knew I had to include them. The problem was that I didn’t have the recipe; goong goong never wrote it down and died in 2009. All I needed was a crumpled piece of paper with ingredient measurements for a quantity of restaurant cookies. I had to figure it out on my own, just remembering how it tasted. I called on other members of my family to help me. “What do you think, a little more sugar?” A little more salt? I would ask my mother, after preparing a test batch. I wanted it to be as close to his recipe as possible. After a few tries, I think I succeeded.
It is so special for me, seeing people making almond cookies from my goong goong now. I wonder what he would think of it. My goong goong was such a humble guy that he would probably blush and smile. He might say something like, “wow, that’s crazy!” but I think it would be very sentimental for him. After all, baking almond cookies was never really part of her plan. He was a teacher. But like many immigrant parents, my goong goong came to the United States to create a better life for his children, grandchildren, and all who came after. In a way, baking almond cookies became a small part of that. And I’m so glad it did.
The recipe for almond cookies by Kristina Cho Goong Goong
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
3/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 large egg yolk
15 sliced almonds
Flake salt, for garnish
1. In a medium bowl, whisk to combine flour, baking soda and salt.
2. In another medium bowl, stir to combine the butter and sugar with a flexible spatula until smooth. Add egg and almond extract and continue mixing until fully incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and mix until a thick batter forms (it will be sticky). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until slightly firm but scoopable, about an hour.
3. Preheat oven to 350°F and line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a 1 1/2 tbsp cookie scoop, measure out 1 1/2 tbsp of dough and place it on the prepared sheet. (Or use a spoon to scoop and roll the dough into a smooth ball, wetting your hands if the dough is still sticky.) Repeat with the remaining dough, spacing them 3 inches apart. Wet your fingers with water to prevent the dough from sticking and gently press the balls of dough with your fingers until they are half an inch thick.
4. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk and use it to lightly brush the tops of the cookies. Place an almond slice on each cookie.
5. Bake until the cookies are golden brown and crispy around the edges, 16 to 18 minutes. Transfer the sheets to a wire rack, sprinkle with flaked salt and let the cookies cool on the sheets for five minutes. Transfer the cookies to the wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
As said to Emily Laurence
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