Chinese New Year

Ammama's Semolina Butter Cookies

November 27, 2019
8 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine.
  • Prep time 5 minutes
  • Cook time 13 minutes
  • Makes approximately 20 cookies
Author Notes

In Singapore, where my mother grew up and where her extended family still lives, we do the holidays a little differently. Come Christmastime, banana trees and birds of paradise bushes in the yard are strung with twinkly lights. The weather is usually about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and it thunderstorms at least once a day.

Our family from around the island gathers at my Ammama’s house to share an Indo-Singaporean-Malay-Chinese feast: vats of richly spiced coconut curry with tender rounds of fried eggplant, accompanied by fragrant basmati rice; unthinkably large bowls of rojak, a refreshing cucumber-pineapple-tofu salad dressed with a sweet soy and chile–inflected peanut sauce; serving platters piled high with Teochew-style spring rolls, or popiah, and potato-stuffed curry puffs.

The setup is cornucopian (and our appetites big enough to match) on this day, and other festive days of the year (like Deepavali, Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and Singapore’s national day). The pattern is the same: We eat, then pause, then dive in again—and end up slouched over on the couch, holding our stomachs, wondering how we’d ever have room for dessert.

We always manage, of course. Ammama’s dessert specialty, gulab jamun, is generally the center of the table, displayed in a large punch bowl filled with the golden-brown fried milk balls floating in a sugar syrup scented with saffron. But there are also eggless sponge cakes, or creamy cheesecakes that have been artfully decorated by my cousin Mira.

And there is always an assortment of biscuits and Indian sweets: kaju barfi; bright-pink coconut candies with evaporated milk (bearing a consistency and flavor much like the inside of an Almond Joy); malted chocolate fudge made from Milo (a powdered drink mix much like Ovaltine); and the ever-present, universally beloved sugee biscuits, aka semolina butter cookies. (We loved the latter biscuits so much, we’d regularly send tins of them as gifts on festive occasions.)

To make these cookies, mix together softened ghee and finely ground semolina in a bowl, using a wooden spoon to combine. Then add golden caster sugar, all-purpose flour, and a pinch of baking soda until you’ve got a pliable dough. Form the dough into small balls, then bake them for a relatively quick stint until they reach a pale yellow color (no golden-brown here, due to the lack of milk solids). Some families top each cookie with a tiny piece of glace cherry for a bit of color, but ours prefers them without.

As they bake, the biscuits don’t spread much, but are punctuated with a few charming little cracks down the middle as they valiantly try to puff up. Baked, their texture is something like a crumbly, nutty, buttery shortbread, with a distinct melt-in-your-mouth quality—which is why my family also refers to these cookies, lovingly, as Old Man Biscuits. The recipe is utterly simple, perhaps one reason Ammama and her siblings prized it so much. —Brinda Ayer

Test Kitchen Notes

Featured in: Food52's Holiday Cookie Chronicles —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • 100 grams (1/2 cup) ghee, softened (you can also use salted butter, for crispier, browner, and saltier cookies—in a good way!)
  • 100 grams (3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
  • 100 grams (1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons) fine semolina flour/sugee
  • 100 grams (1/2 cup) caster sugar (if you can't find it, use superfine sugar)
  • 1 pinch fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  1. Heat your oven to 325°F (165°C).
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the butter and sugar until they're well combined.
  3. Add the flour, baking powder, semolina, and pinch of salt to the butter-sugar mixture and mix everything together, until it forms into a soft dough. You can use your hands to coax the mixture together.
  4. Form the dough into balls of 1 to 1.5-inch (2.5 to 3.8cm) balls and place them on a baking sheet, spaced at least 1 inch (2.5cm) apart.
  5. Bake the cookies for 13 to 18 minutes, or until you see small cracks start to form on the top. Remove the cookies from the oven. They will still be fairly soft, but will turn crisp on cooling.
  6. When the cookies are completely cool, store them in an airtight container for up to two weeks (if they last that long!).

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • Esther Bunny Tang
    Esther Bunny Tang
  • Brinda Ayer
    Brinda Ayer
  • Brendah
Brinda is the Director of Content at Food52, where she oversees all site content across Food52 and Home52. She likes chewy Neapolitan pizza, stinky cheese of all sorts, and tahini-flavored anything. Brinda lives in Brooklyn with 18 plants and at least one foster pup (sometimes more). Find her at @brindayesterday on Twitter and Instagram.

7 Reviews

Smaug December 8, 2023
It is worth noting that a 1 1/2 inch ball is more than 3 times the size of a one inch, a pretty wide range.
Brendah November 2, 2023
Love this recipe! The cookies came out so perfect! I'm in love..I did alter the recipe by a lot though.
So I used whole wheat flour instead of the all purpose flour.
The dough was still sticky so I kept adding a bit flour until it became the consistency of cookie dough. So about 1 cup extra of semolina flour.

Due to the extra flour, the sweetness was majorly lost. So I added 1/2 teaspoon of honey for sweetness.

Also, I had some fruit fiber left from juicing some fruits, including beetroot. I added that since I didn't want to waste them and for tha sweet fruity touch. The dough was reddish/pinkish when I put it in the oven but while & after baking they came out perfect brown colour and so soft like cake. As it cooled, the edges became crispy.

The aroma is so much better than adding any vanilla essence!

I love them! Thanks so much for this recipe. Finally, something that works. Even though I altered a lot.
Privetha October 31, 2023
Is there any substitute for all purpose flour,like wheat flour/rice flour/corn flour?
Anjeleca L. August 15, 2023
First try, these biscuits are delicious. I had double cream whipped firmly to butter, melted it as if to make ghee and added the sugar to melt. I did not have superfine or castor sugar available, so this was the next best. They did not spread too much at all.They kept their shape very well. The cream I used is very high-quality double cream. I am low on supplies and butter so this was an alternative for the first try – and next run through I will do things more to the recipe.

I feel I have found the kind of biscuit that I would like to make regularly and I have on hand for visitors and for my children when they visit.

The nicest part about this recipe was reading Bhi
Esther B. January 31, 2021
I just made this and the cookies were no doubt delicious, I reduced the sugar to 80g n was perfect for me. But my cookies were super crumbly n spreaded alot after baking. What should I do to prevent this? I could not shape my dough into balls immediately cause it was too soft n wet and had to place it in the fridge for a couple of hrs. Should i increase the quantity of the flour or semolina?
baimao December 8, 2019
I tried these at the NYC event and was impressed. I did not have ghee so I made brown butter from a stick/113 g of unsalted butter. I needed to add 2 tbsp of softened butter to get the dough to stick. Also, the recipe is missing the step of forming the dough into 1.5-2 inch balls...the flavor with brown butter is possibly even better than with ghee.
Brinda A. December 10, 2019
Thank you for the catch (and thank you for coming to the event)! That step must've gotten cut off as I was uploading the recipe. I think because the stick of butter lost water/evaporated as you were browning it, the overall volume reduced, so it makes sense that you had to add a bit more to get the dough to come together. This note will be be helpful for anyone else making them this way! And, by the way, brown butter sounds absolutely divine here, especially with the nutty semolina—I'll be trying that next time.