The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which began Sunday, Feb. 10. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.
Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.
I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat – pineapple tarts!
Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the United States but that might change!
Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.
The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.
Since moving to the US, I haven’t indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my! Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time – each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.
I asked my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!
Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the US. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.
I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister, who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.
I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!
Indonesian pineapple cookies (Kue Nastar)
Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.
Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours
500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams (1/2 cup) sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablespoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder, too)
Pineapple filling (recipe below)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar, and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.
Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.
Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams (5 cups), but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams/6 cups).
Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about 1/2-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.
Scoop about 1/2 teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.
Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.
Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.
Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about four hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.
Time: 4 hours
3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar
Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).
Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.
The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.
Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.