Butter cookie challenge

Cookbook author and cooking instructor Chris Tan tries his hand at replicating Jenny Bakery's famous butter and coffee cookies

Jenny Bakery from Hong Kong has racked up countless metres of hungry queues and media coverage for its melt-in-the-mouth butter cookies, hand-packed in tins with teddy bear motifs.

When it opened a shop in Singapore in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 on Oct 23, long queues formed here as well, and the shop's entire stock sold out in two days. They are replenished weekly.

Founded in Hong Kong's Stanley area in 2005, the bakery now has two branches, in Tsim Sha Tsui and Sheung Wan, plus a single distributor in China. So addictive and sought-after are its treats that they have sparked a Hong Kong "black market" of bootleggers who buy and resell the cookies with significant mark-ups, or pirate counterfeit cookies in similar-looking tins.

 

People here are willing to queue for hours and pay about double of what they would if they had bought the cookies in Hong Kong.

A large tin of the 4 Mix Butter Cookies costs HKD$130 ($23.35) in Hong Kong. Here, the same tin costs $45. The smaller version costs $25. The 4 Mix is made up of a combination of butter, coffee, shortbread and raisin oat cookies.

Hence my commission by the Life food team: to formulate recipes for plain and coffee butter cookies that are as close as possible to the queue-spawning originals, for a tasting panel to judge and for home bakers who do not want to queue or shell out big bucks to try.

Now, comparing commercial to homemade cookies is like ranking apples with oranges. The ingredients, equipment and kitchen conditions used by professional bakeries are more diverse and more precisely tuned than those available to home bakers, so the homemade cookies will never be like the bakery's factory-produced ones.

But therein lies the challenge, and the fun.

This cookie species should be familiar to anyone who has made or eaten Hari Raya nibbles. Known as biskut semprit, or kue semprit in Indonesia, it comes from northern European spritz cookies, made by pushing a rich shortbread dough through a press or nozzle.

Asian versions are typically more tender and finer-grained than the European originals, thanks to powdery starches such as tapioca starch and corn starch.

The central element of such a cookie is of course the butter. Many old-school semprit recipes use margarine, which softens less at tropical room temperature, but I am not a fan of its nondescript taste and waxy mouthfeel. I opted instead for a high-fat salted French butter to provide a voluptuous flavour with an appetising savoury edge.

Beating too much air into cookie dough makes it puff and lose detail during baking, so rather than creaming the butter first, I chose to work the cold fat directly into the mixed dry ingredients.

For the latter, I began by ruling out a common piped cookie ingredient, custard powder, as it contains artificial flavours and colours.

After a few trials of different ratios, I settled on a mix of low- protein cake flour, plain flour and cornstarch, plus a little milk powder to subtly underscore the aroma of the butter. I chose not to use baking powder, as even a fraction too much caused the cookies to lose their defined shapes.

To bind the plain cookie dough, I used an egg yolk for richness and colour, plus vanilla bean paste to add some perfume without too much liquid.

For the coffee version, brewed espresso was too dilute, instant coffee powder lacked character, and coffee essence was bright but unnaturally vivid.

My nose was finally satisfied by all-natural coffee liqueur extract plus instant espresso powder, dissolved in egg white - not fatty yolk, which I found masked the coffee's subtleties.

To shape the cookies, I tested various closed-star nozzles sold by baking supply shops. None yielded identical results to Jenny Bakery's, though all made attractive "blooms".

A traditional metal kue semprit tip, through which you push dough with your thumbs, was fiddly to use and turned out looser ruffles. A frosting piping tip and bag made more regular but tapered rather than flat-topped shapes.

I finally lit on a rounded plastic semprit nozzle with a plunger. Although holding only enough dough to make them one at a time, it turned out the prettiest cookies.

The final key ingredient is time.

A few hours' refrigerated rest both before and after piping firmed up and smoothened the texture of the raw dough.

Also, I found that letting the baked cookies sit for a couple of days before serving deepened their flavour and fragrance, allowing them to absorb just enough moisture from the air to attain a tender crumbliness.

In the oven, a two-stage bake proved optimal, starting at a higher temperature to set the shape, and finishing at a lower temperature to cook them through. Fan-assisted baking browned the cookies more evenly than did conventional top and bottom heat.

The result: crisp, buttery, flower- petalled biscuits which I would be happy to serve. But would you queue up for them? The only way to find out is to make them yourself.

MAKE IT YOURSELF: VANILLA BUTTER COOKIES & COFFEE BUTTER COOKIES 

INGREDIENTS

65g cake flour

20g plain flour

65g cornstarch

45g icing sugar

5g milk powder

95g cold salted butter, preferably

French, cut into thin slices

1 egg yolk (about 20g)

2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

METHOD

1. Sift cake flour, plain flour, cornstarch, icing sugar and milk powder into a mixing bowl. Whisk well to blend.

2. Add cold butter. With a cake mixer fitted with a paddle beater, mix on low speed until the butter disperses and the mixture looks like fine sand, about 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add egg yolk and vanilla bean paste, and mix on medium-low speed until an even dough forms, about 8 to 10 seconds. Wrap dough in plastic wrap, flatten it into a disk, and chill it for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.

4. Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Divide cold dough into small portions that will fit into your cookie press. Taking care not to form air pockets, fill the press with dough. Holding it vertically above the lined sheet, press out a cookie. As you press, rotate the tip in alternating clockwise and anticlockwise directions to form ruffles, and press down slightly to help the dough spread out. Pull the tip sharply up and away to release it from the cookie. Repeat until all the dough is used up. Cover cookie sheet loosely with plastic wrap and chill cookies for 1 hour, until firm.

5. Preheat oven to 175 deg C using the fan assisted mode.

6. Bake the cookies on the middle shelf for 8 minutes, then reduce the heat to 165 deg C and bake for 11 to 13 minutes more, until golden brown.

7. Transfer baking sheet onto a cooling rack and allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet. Once they have cooled down and firmed up, transfer them to an airtight container and store at room temperature. Let cookies mature for at least 48 hours before serving.

Makes 23 to 25 cookies

COFFEE BUTTER COOKIES

INGREDIENTS

70g cake flour

15g plain flour

65g cornstarch

55g icing sugar

95g cold salted butter, preferably French, cut into thin slices

11/2 Tbs egg white

21/2 tsp instant espresso powder

11/4 tsp coffee liqueur extract

METHOD

1. Sift cake flour, plain flour, cornstarch, and icing sugar into a mixing bowl. Whisk well to blend.

2. Add cold butter. With a cake mixer fitted with a paddle beater, mix on low speed until the butter disperses and the mixture looks like fine sand, about 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Whisk egg white, instant espresso powder, and coffee liqueur extract together until smooth. Add to the bowl and mix on medium-low speed until an even dough forms, about 8 to 10 seconds.

4. Wrap and chill the dough, and pipe, chill and bake the cookies as for the vanilla butter cookies.

Makes 23 to 25 cookies​

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Butter cookie challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe