I baked over 1000 peanut cookies using various recipes before I came up with these tips to make the Ultimate 5-ingredients Chinese Peanut Cookies (naturally vegan too!).
In case you’re not familiar with Chinese peanut cookies, they’re a snack usually seen during Chinese New Year and are not the same as American peanut cookies. Both are easy to make but the latter uses peanut butter whilst the former uses ground peanuts. Due to the shortening in peanut butter, American peanut cookies are flat & puffy whilst the ideal Chinese Peanut cookie is simultaneously crunchy yet still melts-in-the-mouth.
Chinese peanut cookies only require 5 ingredients: peanuts, flour, fat, sugar and a tinge of salt (which boosts the flavour exponentially). If you’re not vegan, an egg yolk wash also makes the cookies more attractive. Since there are only 5 ingredients, slight changes in the proportions or ingredient (eg using all-purpose flour versus rice flour) affect the cookie substantially and I baked 11 variations of these recipes to come up with this recipe for the perfect Chinese New Year peanut cookie:
- Rasa Malaysia
- Roti&Rice (pretty similar to the MalaysiaChineseKitchen recipe so I’m not sure why I used it too- bad planning on my part, I must confess.)
Roasting your own peanuts is worth the effort
Since we are making peanut cookies, I figured I should pay more attention to the peanuts used and experimented with several types of peanuts (listed from worst to best, as rated by blind taste testers):
- grated peanuts from a speciality baking store
- grated peanuts from a general supermarket
- peanut powder from the store
- home baked peanuts
- snacking peanuts from the supermarket (Roasted and salted)
- home fried peanuts (3 different batches fried for 7, 8 and 9 minutes consecutively)
I did blind taste testing with several testers and the home roasted peanuts won hands-down. Probably because so few ingredients are involved, everyone could unerringly differentiate which cookies were made with home roasted nuts and which weren’t. Interestingly, the grated peanuts purchased from the baking shop did not taste as good as regular supermarket grated peanuts- so the speciality shop doesn’t always offer the best quality products!
Fried peanuts were tastier than baked (you don’t say): when frying, you want to take the peanuts to the edge of burnt such that they almost taste burnt when eaten alone, but somehow this only enhances the peanut-y taste when blended and baked into a cookie. I found that frying for 8 minutes worked best for me but this may vary depending on the size of your peanuts. I’m sure it’s possible to get nice tasting nuts through baking however both the MalaysiaChineseKitchen and Roti&Rice recipes called for baking the nuts at 180C for 12-15 minutes to get light brown nuts: 18 minutes later, my peanuts were still white and soft. I had to fry them for am extra 4 minutes to get them to crisp up. (Perhaps adding some oil would have helped but neither recipe stipulated the usage of oil.)
Grind the peanuts as finely as possible (but not till they become peanut butter)
The first recipe I tried merely said to use ground peanuts and didn’t specify how finely they should be ground. I used shop grated nuts and the resulting cookie was way too loose and pretty much crumbled once touched. They could barely be picked up off the baking mat! Lesson learnt: the peanuts need to be in powder form- if you’ve bought grated peanuts, blitz them in the blender before making the cookies. However, don’t overblend as this will result in peanut butter- blend small batches of peanuts at a time to have better control over the fineness of the peanuts.
In addition, recipes which used proportionately more peanut were more popular: people can taste the difference when you use more peanut than flour in each cookie (in terms of weight).
What kind of fat to use in Chinese peanut cookies?
Traditionally, these cookies were made with pork lard. Interestingly, none of the recipes I referenced used lard in their cookies and I, too, decided to forego lard due to health considerations and hassle. (Moreover, using nut oil should enhance the peanut flavour!) Be careful that you’re using the right kind of nut oil- most nut oils in the supermarket are actually nut-scented vegetable oil! I only realised this after my Aunt. who has worked in the edible oil industry for decades and was 1 of my testers, told me- when I checked the fine print on my bottle, lo and behold, it was indeed a nut-flavoured oil. (You can still make the cookies with nut-scented vegetable oil, sunflower oil, canola etc but the majority of my testers preferred cookies made with 100% pure groundnut oil.)
Rasa Malaysia was the only recipe that called for the addition of shortening (as well as oil) and I was curious as to its purpose so I tried the recipe with shortening and without shortening. Unanimously, all the testers strongly preferred the version without shortening although they couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason why: some said the version without shortening was sweeter and others said it tasted “less peanuty.”
Some recipes call for peanut butter, which I find weird. You don’t find peanut butter in traditional Chinese recipes! However, if you really must use peanut butter, make sure it’s pure peanut butter and not something like Skippy’s (which has shortening etc in it)- if not the texture of the cookie will change and become puffy. The addition of an egg, as called for in the GuaiShuShu recipe, was also not well-received: perhaps the leavening effect of the eggs compromised the cookie texture?
What type of flour?
Some of the recipes say the rice flour makes the cookie more melt-in-the-mouth and indeed the cookie was more crumbly- however, all the tasters preferred the texture of a cookie made with 100% all-purpose flour to a cookie made with 100% rice flour. Nonetheless, if you want a gluten-free cookie, you can substitute the all-purpose flour with the same quantity of rice flour, keeping everything else the same.
Note: my Aunt says she used to make peanut cookies from lard and peanuts only- no flour at all!
What sweetener should I use?
The cookies made with icing sugar were slightly softer whilst those made with granulated sugar had a crunchier taste. I use either sugar interchangeably depending on who I’m baking for (and their preference).
Note I would not recommend substituting sugar with honey as honey has a strong natural flavour which impacts the taste of the cookie. It’s not that the resulting cookie tastes bad but it just isn’t a Chinese Peanut Cookie. (It’s also no vegan FYI) If making these cookies for a vegan friend, make sure you use vegan sugar as a lot of white sugar is made from bone char and thus is not vegan.
How big should the cookies be?
If you’re weighing the cookies individually, don’t go above 10g per cookie as you want to keep them bite sized. (The crumbly nature of the cookies makes it challenging to bite them into half without making a total mess.) Personally, after my first few batches, my meticulousness waned and I started finding the weighing process tedious. Instead, I now use a 1/2 Tablespoon scoop to scoop the dough before rolling it into a ball. (You want curves on your cookies as straight lines/ hard edges would break more easily.)
Decorating the cookies
To jazz up the cookies, you could use a straw to poke a whole in the centre of each cookie or, as is my preference, press half a peanut into the middle of each cookie. If you’re not vegan, I strongly recommend washing the cookies with egg yolk as they look much more attractive when dark brown. (I tried 6 washes: whole egg wash, egg yolk wash, whole egg with milk wash, whole egg with nut oil wash, whole egg with water wash.)
The Ultimate Chinese Peanut Cookies for Lunar New Year
- 320 g peanuts (0.7 pounds) You will need an additional (approximately) 50 peanuts if you are decorating the top of each peanut cookie with half a peanut
- 180 ml pure groundnut oil You will need extra to fry the peanuts
- 1 teaspoon salt You may get very salty pockets in your cookies if your salt isn't fine enough, so blitz the salt with the peanuts to get a more consistent taste.
- 280 g all-purpose flour (0.62 pounds)
- 150 g icing sugar (0.33 pounds) Can be substituted with granulated sugar
- 2 egg yolks beat together for egg wash. Add a few drops of water if the consistency is too thick to brush on smoothly
- Place all the peanuts in a colander and rinse well. Spread them out in a single layer to air dry till they're dry to the touch. (This may take several hours. I tend to wash mine in the morning and fry in the afternoon.)
- Pour enough oil into your wok/ pot to cover your nuts and heat on medium-high. When hot enough, the oil should wave slightly- if it is smoking, it is too hot! Once the oil is hot enough, add enough peanuts to cover the bottom of the pan- do not overcrowd as this will cause the oil temperature to drop too drastically. (You may have to fry the nuts in several batches.) If the oil is hot enough, the nuts should sizzle and bubble. Stir the nuts constantly for about 7-8 minutes before removing them from the oil and placing them on kitchen towels to drain the oil. (Note the peanuts will continue darkening once removed from the oil) Repeat the steps till all the nuts have been fried.
- Let the peanuts cool and once cool enough to touch, remove the skins. (This is indeed a tedious process so if you can get good quality shop roasted snacking nuts, you may want to use those instead. The only negative is that they can cost quite a bit more!)
- Once the nuts are cooled and skinned, take out 50 peanuts, split them into half and cover. Blend the remaining nuts with the salt in your food processor till it becomes a powder. (Do this in batches so you have better control over the texture.)
- Sift the flour and icing sugar together before adding it to the peanut powder. (If using granulated sugar, it is too big to pass through the colander easily so just sift the flour.)
- The amount of oil you will need varies depending on how much oil is produced after you've blended the nuts so add approximately 90% of the oil to the peanut powder, flour and sugar mixture first. Mix well. If the mixture is too dry, add the rest of the oil and mix till homogenous.
- Use a 1/2 tablespoon scoop to scoop out the dough then roll each scoop into a round ball. The cookies don't spread in the oven and may be placed very close to each other on the baking mat.
- Take out the peanuts that you've separated into halves earlier and press half into the centre of each cookie.
- Use a brush to brush the egg yolk wash over each cookie, diluting slightly with water if it is too thick.
- Bake at 350F/ 176C till golden brown (approximately 17-20 minutes) Turn the baking tray around halfway through baking for a more consistent colour (as ovens have hot spots, usually at the back corners)
- Allow to cool then enjoy!
A rather long post for a simple cookie but I hope these tips will come in handy for your Chinese New Year baking. (For menu ideas for your CNY feast that 1 person can cook solo, do check out this Chinese New Year post.) If you have a family Chinese peanut cookie recipe that you feel makes the ultimate Chinese peanut cookies, I’d love to hear about it! Last but not least, thanks to all my testers for dutifully eating 100s of peanut cookies!
P.S. Eating too many peanut cookies is heaty – can lead to a sore throat- so don’t forget to make some cooling foods such as this osmanthus jelly.