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
- Prep time 5 minutes
- Cook time 13 minutes
- Makes approximately 20 cookies
(1/2 cup) ghee, softened (you can also use salted butter, for crispier, browner, and saltier cookies—in a good way!)
(3/4 cup) all-purpose flour
(1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons) fine semolina flour/sugee
(1/2 cup) caster sugar (if you can't find it, use superfine sugar)
fine sea salt
- Heat your oven to 325°F (165°C).
- In a medium mixing bowl, mix together the butter and sugar until they're well combined.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When the cookies are completely cool, store them in an airtight container for up to two weeks (if they last that long!).