Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tastes of Childhood II: Making Fish Cookies in Taipei

In my younger years, whenever I'd go to a family gathering my Aunt Rose (who has since passed on) made these cookies. They were sweet, filled with a soft walnut center and, justifying their namesake, were cut into a herringbone pattern. They were coated with a sugar syrup and were so tooth-achingly sweet that you could only eat one or two.

Aunt Rose would show up with a Tupperware in hand, or, too frugal to buy tupperware, a regular baking tin that she'd wash and bring home. Inside would be layers and layers of sticky-syruped parchment paper separating layers of buttery walnut fish cookies. She'd set them out on a side table and through the gathering people would walk by and swipe a few.

Most of my relatives didn't care for them - too sweet - but as a kid I loved them (exactly because they were so sweet)!

Having recently obtained the recipe or something along the same lines from my mom, I tried to make them today, knowing that they should keep until next week's party if refrigerated well.

Mine turned out delicious, although much softer and more crumbly than Aunt Rose's cookies (and slightly less overwhelmingly sweet - I think my aunts and uncles would like my version more, in fact).

I can't link to a website for this, so I'll give you the recipe. 

The ingredients are: 

Filling: 3 cups of walnuts, finely chopped (cups of walnuts before chopping, not after)

5-6 tablespoons of sugar

1 flat tablespoon ground cinnamon

Mix together and set aside (and walnuts are easy to chop if you can't find pre-finely-chopped ones).


4 1/2 cups of flour (you could make very buttery cookies with 4, but the extra 1/2 lends them needed cohesion)

2 cups of butter (yes, you read that right)

3 tablespoons of sugar

A dusting of cinnamon powder to taste

1 cap-ful of vanilla extract (my own addition, not in the traditional recipe)

1 egg

1 cup milk (I used goat's milk)

2 teaspoons baking soda


3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

Some lemon juice to taste (don't overdo it)

pastry brush (silicone ones are best)


One egg and 1/3 cup milk beaten together

                                                                                    Different pastry brush

First mix the walnut mixture and set aside.

Then mix dry dough ingredients. Mix sugar into softened butter and then beat an egg into that. Slowly add the dry ingredients and when added and well-mixed, add milk. Mix and knead longer than you usually would for cookies (usually you don't want the gluten in the flour to do that thing it does when you over-mix cookie, cake and muffin dough but for these it adds cohesion). Don't knead as long as you would for bread, though. Allow to sit in a cool place or in the refrigerator as you would sugar cookie dough.

Preheat oven to 375F, or 190C.

Now, make the cookies by rolling small balls (a little smaller than golf balls but larger than walnuts) into ovals, flattening them with your palm and sprinkling a line of walnut mixture down the middle. Then push the ends together to create a dough "packet" filled with walnuts. Like this:

Take a pastry brush and brush them generously with the egg glaze. Take a small pair of scissors, like manicure scissors, and cut thin, close herringbones across the top - pull up a bit as you go to really get the right look (as you can see I was not entirely successful - I think I'll get better with practice).

Bake for 15-20 minutes and, while baking, mix the water, sugar and lemon and boil for 5 minutes. Allow to cool and set aside.

The old recipe calls for you to use tongs and dip the cookies into the syrup while hot, but if you make them super buttery they'll fall apart easily (as with the one above). You can do just as well brushing them with syrup with a pastry brush while still hot. 

What I love about these is that the sugar in the walnut mix melts in the heat and creates a sort of sweet walnut paste filling that is just delectable and not bitter (as walnuts can be).

Allow to cook and separate with parchment paper (you do not want to be wrapping plastic wrap around these babies).

And voila! Mediterranean sweet walnut cookies! 

And while my Aunt Rose's cookies always looked spectacular, not all falling apart like mine, I'd say that mine taste pretty damn good.

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