Monday, March 2, 2009

Almond Joy

In keeping with my recent Asian food kick, I can't help but delve a little into the finer points of my happy box of souvenirs from my most recent of Epicurean Adventures. I sought out Vietnamese Village in New Orleans East in the neighborhood of Village de l'Est (otherwise known as Versailles) and had the distinct pleasure of having lunch at restaurant and bakery Dong Phuong on Chef Menteur Boulevard. With the scent of freshly baked goods coming out of the adjoining bakery on the other side of the dining room, we looked forward to exploring the offerings after the hefty lunch we were prepared to tuck away.

The bakery didn't disappoint. Boxes of puffy French bread that more resembled hoagie rolls than Leidenheimers were being scooped up by the half dozen by hungry customers, and more sat behind the po-boy counter, where for under $3, you could have a nicely packed out sandwich. Cinnamon rolls, slices of cake, milk buns, bars of dense pastries, steamed buns filled with pork (commonly known as Chinese char siu bao), soft croissants, and flaky stuffed crescents filled every corner of the little shop. Inside a glass case sat Asian-style yellow cakes (drier and a little less sweet than Western cake batters) and swirled rolls. Little plastic boxes packed out with cookies, toasted breads, and other goodies lined the shelves in front of the case, and it was to these that I was drawn.

For a mere $3.50, I was able to bring home a dozen thick, light, and buttery almond cookies, a steal for what you get. These Vietnamese almond cookies are slightly different than the two varieties of Chinese cookies usually in circulation. The dark orange cookies, uniform, packed densely, and obviously machine-made, are one of my favorites, with a longer, sweeter finish, and a bigger capacity for getting stuck in your teeth. The other Chinese type (CookingForEngineers.com has a great recipe; results shown above) are similar to the Vietnamese ones I'm obsessing over, but a little denser and usually quite a bit smaller. Both are typically topped with a whole almond and not hand-formed and individually baked like these are. But as a person with a much less demanding sweet tooth, this subtle flavor is vastly preferable to your typical dessert. Throw these almond cookies on top of some sweet cream gelato or dip them in a nice cafe au lait and you've got yourself the perfect snack.

Soft and a little powdery to the touch, the surface layer crumbling at the slightest contact, this initial impression is deceptive. When you bite into these cookies, the pieces break off in large chunks with a satisfying crunch once the bite gets past your front teeth and back towards your molars. The first sense that is awakened is that of feel, even before taste, since the falling apart of the cookie is so initially gratifying as the crumbs scatters through your mouth. Tasteless until your saliva moistens the bits, the sudden burst of sweet butteriness is a pleasant sensation. The light taste--partially kept that way with the air pockets that puff up randomly in the cookie--is fleeting, leaving you wanting more as you continue to dive into the plastic box. Twelve cookies quickly turn into ten, then eight, as you seek to hold onto that flavor.

Almond paste is deliciously addicting in its effortlessly sweet and light taste with a nutty earthiness that keeps it from being overly sugary, and in these cookies, it's no different. Thin streaks of an egg wash provide shiny toasted lines across the bumpy, irregular surface of the cookies, and broken almond pieces decorate the landscape of the cookie as well. The appearance resembles a flattened bo lo bao, a Chinatown treat also known as a pineapple bun ... although in what context (appearance, topping, optional filling, or ingredient) is questionable.

With only nine ingredients, including the nuts, this is store-bought home-baked goodness at its best. No preservatives (no need--these'll go fast!) makes you feel less badly about how fatty I'm sure these cookies are, but no dessert is as fun without the guilt. Staring at the half-dozen I have left, my only regret is that I have less to eat tomorrow. Yum.

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