Every few years the Presidents' Day weekend coincides with Valentine's Day or with the Chinese New Year (aka the lunar new year). There is a confluence of the three this year which means my three day weekend will not be exclusively for rest and relaxation, but for observing Chinese New Year traditions.
The house must be cleaned and all laundry must be done before our Chinese New Year's Eve's dinner on Saturday. I have to wash away any bad luck that might have accumulated over the past year. The dinner signifies the beginning of the lunar new year so I don't want to do any sweeping after the meal or on New Year's Day. Otherwise I will sweep away the good luck of the new year.
There must be a new sack (or at least a significant quantity) of rice in the house so that we won’t go hungry in the new year. A big bowl of candy or sweets would be nice too so that the new year will be a sweet one. The traditional sweets are candied lotus root, melon, coconut, water chestnuts, and lotus seeds displayed in a lacquered candy box, but any candy will do. This year I'm setting out a bowl of almond torrone imported from Italy.
I need at least one pomelo, a large pear shaped yellow grapefruit, which symbolizes prosperity. Another necessity is tangerines with the stems and leaves still attached. The Chinese word for tangerine sounds like "gold" and will invite luck and wealth in the new year. The stems and leaves signify growth and longevity. Navel oranges are welcomed too since their round shape signifies wholeness and the golden color represents wealth. I'm not too strict about the citrus tradition. As long as I have one pomelo surrounded by any leafy citrus, I will be fine. This year I found some gorgeous blood oranges with stems and leaves at the farmers' market, but in the past I have used meyer lemons with leaves and stems from my backyard tree since they are also golden and round-ish. Blood oranges are extra nice since they are red on the inside. In my opinion, nothing is better than something that is red and gold for Chinese New Year.
Which leads me to the best tradition - red envelopes. The red envelopes are decorated with symbols and images in gold. The color red symbolizes good luck and vitality. The envelopes are filled with crisp bills since the use of brand new money symbolizes a new beginning. The red envelopes are usually given by the married to the unmarried. Although some families, like mine, take a generational approach to red envelope giving during Chinese New Year. Even though I am married, my parents, and other relatives who are a generation older than I am, still give me red envelopes for Chinese New Year.
So what do these sesame coins have to do with Chinese New Year? Tahini isn't a particularly Chinese ingredient, but it's really just sesame seed butter and, well, sesame seeds are used a lot in Chinese cooking. And these cookies are sweet and look like golden coins (wealth and prosperity) and they are round (wholeness and longevity). So make some and have a prosperous new year!
(about 4 dozen cookies)
(from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich)
2/3 cup (3 ounces) all purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup unsalted tahini (pure ground roasted sesame seeds)
4 tbsp (2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 tbsp natural sesame seeds
Sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, mix tahini, butter, sugar, egg yolk, and vanilla until smooth. Add the flour mixture and work with your hands until blended. The dough will be a bit crumbly so you might have to push or squeeze the dough together.
Divide the dough in half and form half each into a patty. Wrap each patty in plastic food wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 325F. Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly. Roll between 2 pieces of waxed paper or plastic food wrap to about 1/4-inch thickness. If the dough crumbles, just push it together. Sprinkle the dough with half of the sesame seeds. Using the rolling pin, gently roll over the seeds to secure them to the dough.
Using a 1.5-inch round cookie cutter, cut as many rounds as possible, trying to minimize the scraps. Place rounds on your prepared cookie sheets spacing them 1 inch apart. Repeat with second patty of dough. Press all the scraps together, roll out, and cut additional cookies.
Bake at 325F until the edges of the cookies are golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Set the cookie sheets on wire racks to cool completely.
Note: Instead of rolling out my chilled dough and using a cookie cutter to cut out rounds, I chilled the dough and then formed 3/4-inch diameter balls of dough with my hands, rolled them in the sesame seeds, placed them onto my cookies sheets, flattened them with the bottom of a glass and baked them. They aren't as perfectly round as when you roll and cut them as instructed above, but they are just as tasty.