In preparation for an impending Chinese New Year's party, I decided it would be a good idea to make specialized Chinese fortune cookies by hand, each with messages suited to the particular goals of my friends.
Such as, "May the New Year bring with it the promise of finally finishing your dissertation—so that you can transition from underpaid graduate student to underpaid, uninsured associate professor." And so forth.
Why go through the trouble of making and eating fortune cookies? Because the common takeout Chinese restaurant version just isn't good: overly egg-y and chemical-laden, sickly sweet with a gluey glaze, it hardly deserves the sentimental position it holds in American households. But here, the ritual eclipses the sensory enjoyment.
There's the pleasure of cracking open that shell of retrieving the slip of paper inside and feeling some modicum of excitement in spite of the banal, hackneyed sentences printed on the paper. I certainly can't be alone in confessing this misplaced sense of yearning for fortune cookies.
Making the cookies by hand requires no more effort than any other moderately-difficult baking project. Doing so allows you to say all sorts of interesting things to your loved ones, not to mention the culinary benefit of being able to control what ingredients go into the batter.
The batter for the cookies begins with butter aerated by sugar. Finely ground nuts and flour go into the bowl; a few egg whites bind the batter. The cookies take no more than six minutes to bake in the oven, after which the folding process is, by virtue of the rapidly hardening dough, a quick task. Buttery and nutty with a finely-textured crumb, these cookies are worth making for the sheer pleasure of eating them.
What's more, you can vary the nuts that are finely-ground to make the dough—hazelnuts, pecans, and pistachios work just as well as walnuts. Use a spoonful of matcha powder for green tea fortune cookies, or add an extra dollop of vanilla bean paste (available at specialty baking shops) or chestnut honey for a more floral approach. The dough takes so well to a whole range of flavors, in fact, that I've begun making these cookies on a whim whenever I serve a large Chinese meal to friends.
Finally, I end with a warning and an accompanying parable: while the dough must be pliable in order for the cookies to fold properly, the just-baked circles of dough are actually quite hot, I'm told. This fact was made clear to me by my assistant fortune cookie writer.
It turns out that thinking of pithy statements on the fly is not my forte. So as to speed along the process, I enlisted the help of a friend who's more talented in this area. After what turned into a lengthy period of brainstorming and general hilarity, we set to work making the cookies.
Having subjected my fingertips to the typical abuse that comes with cooking a lot every day, I picked up the cookies straightaway and began to fold. The process for forming a fortune cookie is simple: place the slip of paper in the middle of the circle, fold in half, and crimp the cookie over the rim of a glass cup. Fold and crimp. Fold and crimp.
Then suddenly from the other side of the table came the clattering of metal cookies sheets falling—the cacophony of forks, knives, scissors, and chopsticks tumbling down after.
"Damn!" my friend yelled, flailing his burned hand back and forth.
Except it wasn't "damn." My friend, with his lambent wit, happens to be one of the more gifted cursers I've known in my life. From his lips emanated a stream of vitriol so wrong and so brilliant at the same time that we stood in silence for minutes thereafter basking in the aftermath of his vehemence.
In short, unless you also possess desensitized fingertips, wait a few seconds before you pick up the rounds of freshly baked cookies. Doing so will not compromise the quality of your cookies, but it will certainly prevent unnecessary injury.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.