As Americans have grown more sophisticated about Asian food, Chinese restaurants have responded by replacing Chinese-American standbys such as crab rangoon and General Tso's chicken with authentic dishes including tea eggs and turnip cakes. But when it comes to dessert, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Even the most hard-core Chinese restaurants, the ones that serve soup dumplings instead of wontons and zha jiang mian instead of lo mein, seem to still send out a plate of fortune cookies to end a meal.
The first fortune cookies have been traced to Chinese and Japanese bakeries in California in the early 1900s. By World War II, they were a regional specialty of West Coast Chinese restaurants, and by the 1950s they became standard in every takeout place across the country. Today, American manufacturers produce more than 11 million fortune cookies a year.
How to explain the persistence of the fortune cookie? Dessert is not a traditional part of the Chinese meal the way it is in the United States. While Chinese sweets, including jellies, candies and sweet rice balls, are eaten with tea and as snacks, they aren't often eaten after dinner. The fortune cookie stepped into this breach, and remains there in the absence of authentic substitutes.
I once visited a fortune-cookie bakery in San Francisco, where women sat at stools in front of waffle iron-like machines that produced warm, pliable rounds every few seconds. As the cookies came hot off the presses, the women folded and shaped them before they had time to harden.
As I discovered when I tried to make fortune cookies at home, the process is not as simple as these experienced assemblers made it look. The problems start when you try to spread the batter into perfect circles on baking sheets. Not easy. Then you have to bake the cookies to just the right degree of doneness. If they are underbaked, they'll tear as you try to fold them. Overbaked, and they'll crack. Even if you bake them perfectly, if you let them cool past a certain point, they will break into pieces anyway.
After a few frustrating attempts, I decided to skip the temperamental batter altogether and substitute sturdy dumpling wrappers, which I sprinkled with sugar and sesame seeds and baked until just golden. These perfect circles were easy to work with. To get them to hold their shape, I placed each one in the cavity of a muffin tin until cool.
With all of the time you save by not baking real cookies, you will have plenty to write your own fortunes. Customize them to suit the occasion ("Happy Anniversary Bob and Betty"). Or honor a guest ("Everyone agrees; Joe is the best"). If you are having trouble coming up with good ones, check out fortunecookiemessage.com, a database of classic ("Wealth awaits you very soon") and unusual ("Sometimes you just need to lay on the floor") fortunes. I always include my dad's favorite, which never fails to amuse: "Help! I'm being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory!"
DUMPLING SKIN FORTUNE COOKIES
Don't forget to write out 12 (2½-by-½-inch) paper fortunes before you begin.
12 dumpling wrappers
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg
1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange dumpling wrappers on baking sheet. Have a 12-cup muffin tin ready on the countertop.
2. Whisk together sugar, ginger, salt in a small bowl. Whisk together egg and cream in another bowl. Lightly brush each wrapper with egg mixture and then sprinkle with sugar mixture. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
3. Bake until dumpling skins are golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven and, while still hot, shape into fortune cookies: Carefully lift a cookie from the sheet with a thin metal spatula, and lay one half of it, sesame-seed side down, back on the baking sheet, with the spatula inside the cookie and holding the other half up. Lay a fortune in the lower middle of the cookie, and fold in half to make a semicircle. Bend the edges up toward each other to make a crescent. Cool in muffin tins to hold shape until crisp. Repeat with remaining cookies. Work quickly, while the cookies are warm and pliable. If they start to harden, place them back in the oven for a minute to soften up, then continue. Makes 12 cookies.