At the close of the eighteenth century, the Chinese poet-epicure, Yuan Mei, recorded this recipe for a Western Ocean (that is, European) cookie made in the household of one General Yang:
Mix an egg white and some flour to a paste. Forge a pair of metal scissors with two metal discs at the ends, each the size of a small plate. When you close the scissors, there should be less than 1/10 inch between the discs. Heat over a fierce fire [with some batter in between the discs] ... In a moment, the wafer will be done—white as snow and lustrous as glazed paper. On top, add a powdering of frosted sugar and pine nuts.
It sounded to me like the general was baking a version of tuiles—the crisp, nut-sprinkled French wafers that are curled after baking to resemble roof tiles. So I asked my cookie friend Oona to develop a recipe using rice flour, which seemed more appropriately Chinese. The result was a perfectly delicious cookie-wafer, a lovely partner for many of our other “Western Ocean” desserts. Extra-crisp, lightly sweet, and rich with the scent of almonds, they are an elegantly simple ending to many Chinese meals.
To grind the almonds, add them to the dry work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Process together with 1 tablespoon of the premeasured flour until finely ground. (The flour will prevent the nuts from turning to nut butter.) Put the mixture aside.
Cream the butter and sugar in the food processor, or with a mixer, or by hand. When fluffy, add the egg whites, and process briefly to combine. Add the flour, ground almonds, and vanilla and almond extracts. Process 5–10 seconds, just until homogenized.
Line up your equipment: the batter, the buttered baking sheets, a teaspoon measure, a tablespoon, a wide metal spatula, a rolling pin or wooden spoon if you are curling the cookies, and a cooling rack.
Prepare and bake only one sheet at a time. Drop the batter by slightly rounded teaspoons onto the first sheet, then use the back of the tablespoon to spread the batter into 3-inch rounds, evenly ⅛–1/16 inch thick. Leave about 2 inches between the cookies. Lightly sprinkle several sliced almonds or pine nuts on top of each cookie. Do not press them into the batter.
For best taste and texture, bake shortly before serving. Be diligent to guard tuiles airtight against moisture, as they will rapidly become limp in a damp or warm kitchen. Store airtight in a tin, freeze, or hold in a 100° warming oven until ready to serve, to insure that they will be crisp.
Serve the cookies as a crisp aside to ice cream, sorbet, or fresh fruit, or arrange the cookies on a plate as a sweet touch with tea.
Leftover batter keeps well 2 days, sealed airtight and refrigerated.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.