Chinese Crispy Egg Roll Cookies
aka Biscuit Rolls or ‘Love Letters’
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New year, new eggs! This post is brought to you in collaboration with BC Egg.
All opinions are my own.
The pig is upon us.
The year of the pig that is. Happy 2019 – 豬年大吉 萬事如意! The lunar new year is without a doubt the most important date in the Chinese calendar, with friends and family coming together to share good tidings and celebrate new beginnings. Food plays a huge roll in the new year, with many auspicious (and delicious!) dishes being trotted out. In the past I’ve written about Chinese Tea Eggs, Egg Noodles, and Stir-fried Rice Cakes – but this year I decided to take a step in a sweet direction with these crispy, flaky, wonderfully shareable egg roll (or biscuit roll) cookies. Tins of these are extremely popular gifts to give at the New Year (and around other holidays), and its easy to see why. They’re light yet substantial and like many Chinese treats, they’re not overly sweet (more on that in a moment).
Biscuit rolls are something of an interesting recipe to whip up at home. The ingredients are common and easy to work with and the batter is simple to make, but if you’ve ever seen street vendors whipping these up fresh then you’ll know that they’re generally made with a very specific two-sided pan or press. Picture two medium-sized flat cast iron disks (sometimes embossed with a pattern) that hinge together and close around the dough to create a wafer-thin cookie. Dough goes in, the whole thing is quickly closed up to cook a delicate, lacy cookie, that’s thin quickly and expertly rolled up around a metal rod or dowel. Voila, perfect cookies. You can buy these pans to make the cookies at home, but I wanted to develop a more accessible version that doesn’t require any special gear. I waded through multiple techniques and instructions in order to come up with the most user-friendly way to go about this, and I’m pretty excited to share the results with you.
Just to clarify, these cookies go by a number of different names, and they have counterparts (usually without the sesame seeds) around the world. They’re sometimes called ‘love letters,’ which is a sweet little name that adds to their gift-y, shareable character. But the Chinese name (香酥蛋捲) literally translates to crispy egg rolls, which causes some confusion for English readers. The term ‘egg roll’ is more commonly used to refer to the savoury deep-fried appetizer commonly served at American Chinese restaurants. Western savoury egg rolls are an adaptation of fried spring rolls (蛋皮春卷), which are themselves important during Chinese New Year because they symbolize wealth or gold.
A Little Sweetness
Those characters read bù tài tián – meaning ‘not too sweet.’ This is pretty much the highest praise that my mother-in-law can heap on a dessert. Sweetness is valued and enjoyed in Chinese cooking (in savoury dishes and desserts), but almost never to excess. In fact, Chinese desserts are generally quite low on the sweetness spectrum, especially by Western standards. Many of the most classical of Chinese desserts barely even resemble sweets to the uninitiated outsider. Red bean soup and snow fungus soup are my two favourite examples. I mean – those don’t even really sound like desserts. Beans and fungus don’t exactly hold prominent places in the echelons of Western dessert ingredients.
But the less-sweet sweets of the Chinese culinary pantheon have a wonderful charm that really grows on you, and when it comes to sharing food with friends and loved ones, there’s something delightful about treats that take it easy on the sugar. In fact, there are a number of sweet treats that are specifically popular for sharing around the New Year, and you’ll frequently find them gifted and/or hauled and served (usually with a great deal of insistence that you have ‘just one more’) whenever company comes visiting. Almond cookies are a popular choice, and something I’ll probably take a stab at in the future given my abiding love for shortbread. Compartmentalized boxes of candied fruits, seeds, and vegetables are also an essential treat for sharing. Yes, I said vegetables – lotus root and winter melon are particular prominent (and tasty!) examples. In large cities, you’ll often find street hawkers making tanghulu (candied hawthorn fruit skewers) and crispy biscuit rolls like these. I think the biscuit rolls, with their light and flaky yet somewhat cake-like texture, are one of the most agreeable and shareable snacks out there. They’re sweet enough to be a treat, but light enough to have at any time of the day (especially with tea – I love these with tea). For the record, you can make them a little sweeter if you like (add 1-2 teaspoons of sugar to the batter), but I personally like them they way they are.
Now if I had a street hawker outside my house making and rolling these cookies with the glorious expertise borne from years of practice, I might just buy a batch to take over to a friend. But a) I don’t, and b) I think that what I like most about them is the gesture that goes into making and gifting them. Everyone loves getting cookies after all – but these involve that extra layer of care and attention in their making that says “I was thinking about you and I wanted to give you something a little special.”
I’m going to open with a very important point: this is not a difficult recipe; it is a specific one.
If you read the notes, follow the tips, and prepare carefully, then these are actually quite easy to make. But if you wing it (something I am admittedly prone to when I cook) then all kinds of things can go wrong. I tested multiple techniques (often translated from Chinese) in order to make these cookies and I can tell you quite confidently that the version I’ve given here is the most fool-proof method for making them without a specialized two-sided press/pan. I’ll explain the various steps below, as well as how best to follow them.
This recipe doesn’t require any specialty equipment (that’s kind of the idea after all – but if you have a specialized pan for making these then great, have at it!). That being said, you will make things far, FAR easier on yourself if you’re able to make use of the following (fairly common) cooking implements. But of course, I’ve given options and alternatives wherever I can to make this as accessible as I can to everyone.
You can use a large skillet or crepe pan to cook these, but it is easiest to adjust and tweak the temperature of an electric griddle (or electric crepe maker, if you have one). If you use a pan or skillet on the stove just make sure you watch the temperature carefully and that you use something that conducts heat evenly.
Regardless of what cooking surface you use, you’ll want to make sure you can keep the heat even and fairly low (see below for notes on the temperature). If possible, use a griddle or pan without much of a lip or edge around the outside, as it will make it easier to roll the cookies up while they’re still on the hot surface.
A large, broad spatula/flipper will make flattening the cookies easiest, but you can make do with a smaller one if it’s fairly stiff. Avoid slotted spatulas, as they’ll press the cookies unevenly. If possible, try to avoid metal tools as they’ll conduct heat into your fingertips.
You’ll need some parchment paper to go between the cookie and the spatula too. I’ve seen recipes that suggest using the spatula directly on the dough to spread it flat but I promise this is easier. Much easier. Soooooo much easier.
This is perhaps the most important item, so don’t be put off if you’re unsure about what to do. I promise I’ll help you figure it out.
You need something to roll the cookies. I tried numerous items and a small, thin, clean wooden dowel is absolutely ideal. If you have a spoon or other kitchen utensil with a detachable wooden (or other heat-proof material) handle, use that. I mostly used the wooden handle from a spatula. It was rectangular in cross-section, but it still worked nicely for rolling the cookies. If you don’t have anything that you can use, I would suggest making a quick trip to a hardware store and buying a small length of hardwood dowel. Sand the ends clean and wash it well and just use that.
I found a lot of recipes that used chopsticks as a sort of makeshift central rolling pin, but no matter how I tried this it was a gigantic pain. The difficulty is that the chopstick method necessitates two individual sticks held some small distance apart, and this is exceptionally difficult to do with one hand against a hot, flat cooking surface. You can see from the picture in the rolling section below (second cookie from the right) that my best chopstick efforts ended up way too loosely rolled.
You’re rolling hot cookies on a hot pan. Your fingertips are going to get toasty. I didn’t have any gloves and even my usually-heat-proof hands were a little tender by the end. If you have silicone gloves, great. If not, a pair of clean cotton gloves is generally enough insulation to help you out. If you have a pair of thin cotton winter gloves but you’re not comfortable having them on your food, simply wear a pair of latext or nitrile gloves over top of them.
If you’re reallllly good at rolling these cookies you might not even want to wear the gloves, but for anyone trying this out for the first time you’ll be glad to have them. I will also note that having a good dowel for rolling your cookies very much reduces how much you need to touch the cookies, meaning that you’re less likely to need the gloves overall.
These cookies are meant to be quite pale, without browned, crispy edges. That being said, they still need to be cooked, meaning that you need to get the temperature of the cooking surface just right. As mentioned above, an electric griddle makes this easier, but as long as you’ve got a good, heavy skillet that distributes heat well you should be able to get the temperature right on a stove top too.
So what temperature are you going for exactly? I could say ‘medium’ but that’s not terribly helpful when you really think about it. It’s difficult to describe the temperature that you’re aiming to get the griddle/pan at, but I will give you a helpful metrid: a drop of water placed on the cooking surface bubble should evaporate quickly, but not sizzle violently. If you’re at all in doubt, try out a cookie or two and see if they’re browning too much for your liking. They’ll still taste good even if they’re too dark, and odds are good that your first one or two won’t exactly be lookers anyway.
Each cookie will need to cook for about 4-5 minutes, but this will vary depending on how thin you can get the dough and how hot your cooking surface is. The cookies become paler as they cook (unless you burn them of course), so use that as your guide.
You might be tempted to flip the pancake-like cookies in order to speed up cooking. DON’T. I tried it and you end up with a too-dry cookie that cracks horribly when you roll it. Pictures below if you don’t believe me.
I have seen recipes using specialized pans that claim these cookies only need to cook for about a minute. This may be true if you’ve got the gear, but it definitely wasn’t the case for me. It’s possible that a higher temperature pan will make for a faster cooking time, but then you risk burning the cookies… and your finger. Just remember what the Beastie Boys said: slow and low, that is the tempo.
Forming the Cookies
This is probably the most important part to get right in the recipe. If you mangle the rolling you’ll still have tasty, flaky cookies, but if you don’t get them thin enough they’ll be overly cake-y and crumbly.
A few of the recipes that I read recommended using a spatula to basically thin the dough out into a large, flat round. The problem is that the batter is quite thick and relatively sticky. It was difficult to spread the dough evenly this way, and I had to keep adding oil to my spatula to keep the dough from sticking to it. Worst of all, when I finally did get the dough thin enough (bear in mind it’s cooking while you work so you don’t have tons of time), it suddenly became way too easy to tear a gaping hole in the cookie and ruin the whole thing. Parchment paper to the rescue. Laying a large sheet of parchment paper on the dough allowed me to use a large, heavy spatula to spread the dough as thinly as I could manage without added oil, or sticking, making the whole process far easier, and far less messy.
You can flip through the slider below to see the process, but I’ll highlight the most important steps here too:
- Don’t use too much dough. You’re pressing the cookies quite thin, and a tablespoon or so goes a long way.
- Use a fairly large piece of parchment paper over the dough. You’re going to flatten the cookie out quite a bit and you don’t want it spilling out under the edges.
- Use a heavy spatula/turner that won’t conduct heat into your fingers
- Press from the center out to the edges and repeat in order to flatten the cookie as much as you can without leaving little hills of dough.
- Step 1 – place about one tbsp of dough directly onto the cooking surface.
- Step 2 – Cover the dough with a large piece of parchment paper.
- Step 3 – Press firmly in the center of the dough with a large flat spatula in order to begin flattening the cookie.
- Step 4 – Working from the center to the edges, continue to press the batter into a very thin, even layer.
- Step 5 – Gently peel away the parchment paper, checking for any areas that are too thick. If necessary, try to put the paper back down and continue flattening any of these spots before the batter cooks.
- Step 6 – Cook that cookie!
Rolling the Cookies
Before I cover rolling up the cookies, let’s talk about when they’re done cooking. If you contrast the slider below with the one above you’ll see that the cookies become much paler as they cook, with the yellow fading to a pale straw colour. This will vary depending on how yellow/orange your egg yolks are, but the visual aspect is nonetheless a great way to gauge the doneness of the cookies. The thinner the cookie the faster it will cook. If you’re unsure, err on the over-cooked side; the heat of the pan keeps the cookies fairly pliable even when fully cooked, so you should still be able to roll them without much difficulty.
Now, let’s get rolling. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
As I mentioned above, a dowel, handle, or other wooden stick makes rolling far easier. I tried the chopstick method that I’ve seen on other recipes and found it to much too finicky. Likewise, gloves make it easier too – though as you can see I made do without them.
The most important steps are the first ones. You want to get the lip of the cookie up and over your stick and tucked in a bit so that it will stay in place as you roll. Because the cookie is round it’s easy to have a few little cracks or breaks appear as you start to roll up more and more of the edge – this is ok, but you have to make sure to catch it. Have you ever torn a piece of tape off of a roll only to realize that it tore through the middle and left a long, skinny strip of tape behind? It’s like that. If you keep rolling without tucking in torn pieces then the cookie will just continue to tear through as you roll.
It’s tempting to try transferring the cookie to a cutting board before rolling, but don’t do it. Not only are the cookies extremely thin and delicate when unrolled, but it’s nearly impossible to work fast enough. The cookies lose their flexibility as soon as they cool off even a little, meaning that they’re far more likely to crack when rolled off of the griddle or pan. I don’t want you to burn your fingers of course, but I also don’t want you to end up with shattered cookies and shattered dreams.
- Step 1 – Lay your rolling stick at one end of the cookie. Starting from the less attractive (i.e. more cracked or uneven) end, lift gently with a spatula and fold over the stick.
- Step 2 – Lift the edge of the cookie and roll it over the stick. It’s ok if you get a few little cracks as this end will be hidden inside the cookie.
- Step 3 – Gently begin rolling the stick and the cookie together, keeping it relatively tight. Note in this photo that the bottom of the cookie cracked a bit as it started rolling. That’s ok, as it’s hidden inside the finished product.
- Step 4 – Hold the two ends of the stick and gently roll it forward until you’ve rolled up the whole cookie. Remove it from the pan/griddle, carefully remove the stick, and put the finished cookie into the low oven.s
Once you get on a roll (SORRY) these get easier and easier. To get the best looking finished cookies, you want to make note of which side of the cookies is uglier. No offense to your lovely cookies of course, but you want to start where the cookie is cracked or uneven, as you’ll roll up and hide that part. Likewise if you’ve got thin spots or small tears in the cookie that’s ok – just carefully roll them up and hide them inside the cookie. Lastly, if you’ve got a jagged or flimsy edge at the end of your cookie don’t be afraid to cut it off with a spatula instead of trying to roll it up. You get to eat the little bits that fall off or don’t roll up. Yay you!
Flattening and rolling the cookies takes a bit of practice. I did some trial and error in order to give you the best instructions possible. That also made for some ugly cookies. Left to right: too thick so I tried to flip it (don’t), better rolling but still too thick, pretty thin but rolled with chopsticks, & finally a success!
One Crispy Secret
The oven step is optional (and as far as I can tell, this is the only recipe for these cookies that suggests it), but I highly recommend it for two reasons. First of all, you get crispier, flakier cookies. Second, using a low oven to dry and finish the cookies can correct for any overly thick or slightly under-cooked cookies (undercookies?).
I set my oven to the lowest temperature setting it could go to and simply added each finished cookie to a baking tray as I worked. This is a funny dough, as it will retain some flexibility as long as it’s hot, meaning that the cookies will still feel a little soft even after a long time in the oven. This is ok, as they’ll firm up a lot as they cool. That being said, they’re ready to come out of the oven when they’re much less flexible and stiffer feeling than they were at the get-go. Don’t be afraid to leave them for a long time, as you’re not really at risk of over-cooking them. As long as your oven is at a low temperature the cookies won’t really brown, and will just continue to lose moisture.
Lastly, make sure to protect your hard work by getting these into an air-tight container. They’ll absorb moisture from the air quite quickly, so you want to seal them up as soon as they’re cool.
Full disclosure: I haven’t tried these variations yet, but I do want to make you aware of the possibilities.
Dairy free variations of these cookies replace the butter with vegetable oil. As a starting point, I would replace the butter with about 80 g (about 85 ml, or a bit under 6 tbsp) of oil. Not having tried it, I can only guess – but I would imagine the batter would be a little runnier. That might be a good thing when it comes to flattening the cookies. If you give it a try, let me know.
If you’re feeling extra fancy, you can also fill the finished cookies with a sweet or even savoury filling. Sweet versions with chocolate ganache, custard, or citrus curd would all be fantastic. As for savoury versions, I’ve seen Taiwanese versions filled with pork floss (a very light, airy, shredded pork product). Then again I’ve seen Taiwanese versions of pretty much everything that incorporate pork floss.
Lastly, you can omit the sesame seeds if you want, though I personally think that the recipe looks and tastes better with them in.
Note: the nutritional information given is per cookie, assuming 18 cookies per batch.
These are quite low in sugar for a cookie. The individual cookies are fairly light (yet surprisingly filling), so the the egg yolk and butter don’t actually add up to that much fat per serving.
Not much really! They’re obviously not very nutritionally dense, but hey, they’re cookies. Just keep the serving size to one or two.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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Crispy Egg Roll cookies (aka biscuit rolls, or 香酥蛋卷 [xiāng sū dàn juǎn] in Chinese) are a delightful, light, crispy treat, often given as a gift and popular around the holidays. They're usually made using specialized pans, but this recipe allows you to make a delightful version of your own without specialized equipment.
Note that the cooking time is PER COOKIE - total cooking time will vary depending on how many you can make at once, but plan for about 1-1.5 hours minimum for a full-sized batch.
<strong>Equipment needed: (See note 1 below)</strong> Griddle or large well-seasoned skillet or pan, parchment paper, large (ideally non-heat-conducting) spatula/turner, and a small stick, handle, or dowel for rolling the cookies. Heat-resistant cotton or silicone gloves are nice to have too.
- 7 tbsp butter (100 g) softened
- 1/4 cup sugar (100 g) see note 2
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
- pinch salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 tbsp black sesame seeds (~10 g)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour (~130 g) or cake flour, sifted
Cream the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl.
Whisk the eggs in a small bowl, then combine them with the creamed butter mixture. Whisk together.
Add the sesame seeds and the flour and thoroughly combine. Allow the batter to rest for 15 minutes before you start cooking.
Preheat a griddle or large flat skillet to a medium temperature (see note 3 below). If you use a non-stick or very well-seasoned pan you shouldn't need to oil the surface, but you can use a little light vegetable oil in the pan if necessary.
Place a tablespoon of batter on the griddle/skillet. Place a piece of parchment paper over the batter and flatten it thoroughly with a large spatula/turner. Work from the center of the batter out to the edges, taking care not to push batter back into the middle. This step may take a bit of practice, but you're aiming to get the batter as thin as you can while still keeping it intact.
Lift the parchment paper from the batter and cook the batter until it is uniformly pale whitish-yellow; about 4-5 minutes (see note 4)
Place your dowel/stick/handle at the least attractive end of the cookie. Use a spatula or chopsticks to gently lift the edge of the hot cookie (still on the griddle/pan) and curl it around the stick. Once you've tucked the cookie in place (with your fingers of steel or heat-resistant gloves), start gently rolling the dowel/stick to curl the cookie into a tube.
Remove the cookie from the pan and carefully slide the stick out. If you find this step difficult, it can help to gently hold the cookie and dowel with an oven mitt until it's cool enough to more easily coax out the stick.
Transfer the finished cookie to the baking tray in the oven (see drying steps below)
Preheat an oven to 175°F (80°C).
Place a heavy baking tray in the middle rack of the oven.
As the cookies are finished, gently transfer them to the pan in the oven, one at a time. Let them bake/dry at this low temperature until completely dry and crispy - about 60-90 minutes, depending on how thin you were able to get them. Be aware that the finished cookies will be delicate.
Allow the finished cookies to cool for a few minutes, then transfer them to an air-tight container or bag. They will absorb moisture from the air and become softer if left out for more than 30 minutes or so.
Finished cookies will keep in the container for 5-7 days at room temperature.
1 - Equipment: This recipe doesn't require any specialty equipment, but it is easiest to adjust and tweak the temperature of an electric griddle. If you use a pan or skillet on the stove just make sure you watch the temperature carefully and that you use something that conducts heat evenly. A broad spatula/flipper will make flattening the cookies easiest, but try to avoid metal ones as they'll conduct heat into your fingertips. Lastly, but most importantly, you need something to roll the cookies. A small clean wooden dowel or handle from a spoon (etc.) will make it easiest. A round handle is ideal, but something flat and thin will work too. The cookies can be rolled with chopsticks too, but it's not as easy to do.
2 - Sugar: These cookies, like most Chinese desserts, are not terribly sweet. If you want them a little sweeter you can an additional 1-2 teaspoons of sugar.
3 - Temperature: It's difficult to exactly describe the temperature that you're aiming to get the griddle/pan at, but a bit of trial and error helps. A drop of water placed on the cooking surface should evaporate quickly, but not sizzle violently.
4 - Cooking Time: Each cookie will need to cook for about 4-5 minutes, but this will vary depending on how thin you can get the dough and how hot your cooking surface is. The cookies become paler as they cook, so use that as your guide.
5 - Rolling the Cookies: This is the trickiest part of the recipe, though it is made much easier if you have a good dowel and some clean cotton or silicone gloves to protect your hands from the heat. Don't try to transfer the cookie to a cool surface before rolling it; the heat of the griddle/pan is the only thing keeping it flexible enough to avoid cracking.