General Yang’s Western Ocean Wafers

楊士西洋餅

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.

  • You may serve them flat, like the general did, or curl them into graceful arcs. (In imitation, naturally, of Chinese roof tiles.) Or, roll them more tightly into a cigarette to hold a homemade fortune. Sprinkle with sliced almonds for a delicate, crispy garnish, or use pine nuts for a smooth and luxurious taste.
  • Tuiles should be baked no longer than 12 hours in advance. Bake them in the oven. No special scissors required!

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Ingredients

For the cookie batter

  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) sweet butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • cup rice flour (plain, non-glutinous variety)
  • cup ground almonds (requires ounces almonds; use blanched nuts if you want a whiter cookie)
  • ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon pure almond extract

To garnish

  • ¼ cup sliced almonds
  • or
  • cup pine nuts

Method

Preparations

Preheat the oven to 425° and set the rack in the middle level. Butter 2 baking sheets. If you are using non-stick sheets, butter them lightly.

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.

Baking the cookies

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.

Bake 3–5 minutes, until there is a thin brown rim ⅛–¼ inch wide around each cookie. Use the spatula to lift the cookies one by one from the sheet, moving quickly to shape them while they are still warm and pliable. For flat wafers, remove directly to the rack to cool. For gentle arcs, drape the cookies over a rolling pin. For cigarette rolls to hold fortunes, turn the cookie upside down on your work surface, then roll around the handle of a wooden spoon or cylindrical cookie mold. Once crisp, gently dislodge the cookies from the molds and remove to the rack to cool. Fortunes should be inserted after the cookies have cooled completely. If you have trouble with cookies crisping before you can remove them from the baking sheet, in TECHNIQUE NOTES.

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.