Bake

Almond Cookies (Bánh Hạnh Nhân)

December  2, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine
Author Notes

I don’t usually have a huge sweet tooth, but during the holidays I can’t resist homemade cookies. It all started in the early 1990s, when I was sharing a small apartment in Los Angeles with my boyfriend and would go on annual cookie baking binges. I worked an administrative job that had me sitting in traffic five days a week, but creaming butter and sugar, forming dough into little morsels, and tasting a few perfectly baked cookies were the perfect antidote to my tiresome routine, and a nice way to get into the spirit.

It quickly became a thing. On a nightly basis for several days straight, I just baked cookies—eight to ten different varieties according to a schedule devised to match their optimal shelf life. I would store them all over the apartment as they were finished, until it was finally time to pack them up in tissue-lined tins. Then we would proudly present them to family, friends, and colleagues.

And our cookie recipients were delighted, returning empty tins for future holiday seasons. But my approach changed when I met Diane, a self-described year-round cookie lover who told me this: A cookie is at its best soon after it’s baked—after that, it starts going downhill.

I didn’t think my cookies were stale or anything less than delicious, but her comment made me rethink how I could be making—and giving—the best cookies possible. The answer was simple: freezing cookie dough.

So I started making cookie dough and freezing it in small packages labeled with shorthand baking instructions. That way, I could bake off a batch for dinner guests, or take the dough with me to someone’s home and bake them with others (group participation means less work for me and perfect cookies for everyone!). Nowadays, there’s often a few kinds of cookie dough in my freezer.

And if you rummage through my freezer during the holidays, chances are you’ll see Chinese-style almond cookie dough. I developed the recipe for my first cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen (2006), and my family loves it. Viet food takes a lot of cues from Chinese cuisine, and the almond cookie (bánh hạnh nhân in Vietnamese) is a good example of that.

To create an excellent cookie that everyone enjoys (including my mom, who adores almond anything), I use butter instead of lard and punch things up with a lot of almond goodness (that means ground almonds, almond extract, and whole almonds as garnish).

Weeks before the holidays—Christmas and Lunar New Year for me—I make a double or triple batch of dough and wrap up frozen kits of it with blanched whole almonds. Then I drive them to my parents’ house seven hours away, and a few hours before dinner, I assign my nieces and nephew to shaping balls of dough and baking. That way, we can all enjoy the almond cookies at their peak (not a day later), and celebrate our family’s blessings.

Reprinted with permission from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen copyright ©2006. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. —Andrea Nguyen

Test Kitchen Notes

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

  • Prep time 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • Makes 30 to 36 cookies
Ingredients
  • Almond Cookies
  • 1 cup (114g) slivered blanched almonds
  • 3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick, 1/4 pound, or 113g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 whole egg, plus 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tablespoon almond extract
  • 1 1/4 cups (156g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon Caramel Sauce (recipe below)
  • 36 whole blanched almonds
  • Caramel Sauce (Nước Màu)
  • 3/4 cup (180ml) water
  • 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Almond Cookies
  2. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Spread the slivered almonds on a baking sheet and toast, stirring every 3 to 4 minutes, for about 10 minutes, or until fragrant and light brown. Remove from the oven, let cool, and then transfer to a food processor or electric mini-chopper. Add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and process to a fine, sandy texture. Set aside.
  3. In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft and creamy. Gradually add the remaining sugar and beat until well blended, about 2 minutes. Add the whole egg and almond extract and beat until smooth.
  4. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix with a rubber spatula until smooth. Add the ground almonds and mix well until a soft dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes, or until the dough has firmed up. (The dough may also be transferred to an airtight container and frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw before continuing.)
  5. Reheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Pinch off 1-inch chunks of dough and lightly roll them between your palms into smooth balls. Place the balls on the prepared baking sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart. Use your thumb to make an indentation in the middle of each ball, reducing it to about half of its original thickness.
  6. To make the glaze, in a small bowl, lightly beat the egg yolk with the caramel sauce. Brush a little of the glaze on each cookie, and then place a whole blanched almond in the center of each indentation. Bake the cookies, 1 sheet at a time, for 10 to 11 minutes, or until they have spread out, cracked on top, and the glaze is golden brown. The cookies themselves will have just a touch of color. Remove from the oven and let cool on the pan for 10 minutes. Transfer the cookies to racks to finish cooling before serving Store any leftover cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.
  1. Caramel Sauce (Nước Màu)
  2. Select a small, heavy saucepan with a long handle. Use one with a light interior (such as stainless steel) to make monitoring the changing color of the caramel easier. Fill the sink with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the saucepan.
  3. Put ¼ cup (60ml) of the water and all the sugar into the saucepan and place over medium-low heat. To ensure that the sugar melts evenly, stir with a metal spoon. After about 2 minutes, when the sugar is relatively smooth and opaque, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. Small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan and gradually grow larger and move toward the center. A good 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles will cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear. If a little sugar crystallizes on the side of the pan, don’t worry. After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. You will see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, around the 20-minute mark, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big, bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel is the color of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the sink to stop the cooking. The hot pan bottom will sizzle on contact. Add the remaining ½ cup (120ml) water; don’t worry, the sugar will seize up but later but dissolve. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.
  4. Heat the caramel, stirring until it dissolves into the water. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. The result will seem slightly viscous, while the flavor will be bittersweet. Cover and store the sauce indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.

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Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard award-winning author, cooking teacher, consultant and editor. Her latest book is "Vietnamese Food Any Day" (Ten Speed Press, 2019). She edited "Unforgettable", the biography cookbook about culinary legend Paula Wolfert.