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When leaves have started to litter the ground, days are growing ever shorter, and sweaters become inevitable, I begin to want pecans rolls from the Old Mill. They’re a Thanksgiving tradition in my family, and there’s nothing else I’ve found quite like them in the world. I won’t eat more than one or two over the course of the holiday (I can only handle so much in terms of sweets), but they taste like making up little turkey dinners for the cats, listening to the high school football game on the radio, and the beginning of real snow. Like home. Living so far from where I’m from, and having in general such a tenuous connection to ‘normal’ American food, little things like that are especially important to me.
Thanksgiving this year put me in mind of this more than it usually would. Normally, my Taiwanese friend, A, and I would buy a turkey, order all of the fixings ahead of time from Whole Foods (they’re a blessing for Americans ex-pats at the holidays), make Korean food while we waited, and then eat our meal with sparkling apple cider and Clint Eastwood movies. This year, I went to Russian, and then home. Lockdown meant that we weren’t allowed to have anyone not in our bubble around, and having no one to celebrate with, I couldn’t manage much spirit for the holiday. My celebrations amounted to buying a baby mincemeat pie from Waitrose, and being forced to discuss the meaning of Thanksgiving in Russian with Natasha.
So, when A’s birthday rolled around a few weeks later, I was determined to do something to make her feel more at home. We are both huge fans of 凤梨酥 (fènɡ lí sū), Taiwanese pineapple cakes. She always brings me back two or three boxes of them from a famous bakery in Taipei. Even with the huge proliferation of high-quality Asian food, and groceries, where we live, though, it is very difficult to find good pineapple cakes. Many are made with winter melon, a cost-saving measure, and even those that aren’t often have other imperfections. 凤梨酥, though, are famed for being a pain, and most people in Taiwan wouldn’t touch making them with a 10-foot pole.
Common sense not being something I was ever liberally endowed with, I decided that I would make her Taiwanese pineapple cakes for her birthday. Good Taiwanese pineapple cakes. I ended up combining a couple of different recipes from various English and Mandarin language sources, and making them on a Wednesday night after a 7:15-9:15 Hebrew class so that I could bring them to her during Thursday morning Russian. Let’s just say I made it through a Charles Mingus and a DDT album in the course of that experience, and it looked a bit like a bomb had gone off in my kitchen. I’ve made them twice more since then, though (once for my best friend at home and once for my family), and have grown to love the chaos. They feel like a wonderful bridge between the old and new parts of my life, and they make a unique gift that people really seem to love.
They also come with authentic Taiwanese Friend™ approval.
(A enjoying her gift).
-1 and 1/2 cups of pineapple (once finely chopped and pressed to remove juice)
-1/4 cup cane or muscovado sugar
-1/4 cup light brown sugar
-1 and 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
-1 stick salted butter
-2 small pinches of salt
-1/4 cup powdered sugar
-1/4 cup powdered milk
-1 teaspoon baking powder
-1 large egg
-1 and 1/4 cups flour (cake or AP)
- Combine the finely chopped and drained pineapple with the sugar, and a small pinch of salt, in a skillet. Place over medium heat until thickened and starting to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add lemon juice, and set aside, or in the fridge, to cool.
- In a large bowl with a wooden spoon, or in a stand mixer, cream together room temp butter and powdered sugar. Add egg. In a separate bowl, combine flour, powdered milk, baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Slowly incorporate into the wet mixture, careful not to over mix or leave flour pockets. Hands may be helpful if you lack a stand mixer. (Note: some recipes will suggest custard powder as a replacement for milk powder. Do not use this, it yields a different, and less pleasant, result. If you cannot find milk powder, sub in 1/4 cup cooked down whole milk, only use the egg yolk, and add additional flour until a smooth and pliable texture is achieved).
- Pre-heat oven to 330 degrees F.
- Roll the filling into 9 balls, about 1 heaping tablespoon in size. Do the same with the dough. Flatten out the dough with your palm into a rough square, big enough that the jam can be placed in the middle and the sides with comfortably fold over. Once you’ve placed the jam, fold the sides over into the best approximation of a square shape you can make, and seal with your fingers. If you have square molds, use these to finish the shape, and cook the pineapple cakes in them.
- Place the cakes in a non-stick or greased baking tray, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, flip, and allow to cook for a further 5-7 minutes, until the upward-facing side has achieved the same golden brown color as the bottom did. Allow to cool for at least 35 minutes before serving.