On repeated visits to 8th avenue over the last two months, I’ve nibbled around the edges of Gaoming Bakery (which is not at all a bad way to approach it). Its chicken sticky rice consoled me after a disappointingly wan bowl of noodle soup elsewhere; its strong, lightly-sweetened iced milk tea was a perfect pick-me-up for the long slog to 5th avenue and the even longer wait for the B63 bus.
But its wife cookies deserve their own post.
Wife cookies (also called sweetheart cakes) are more like turnovers, layers of flaky pastry encasing a sweet, waxy, marzipan-like paste that’s ever-so-slightly gritty with coconut and tastes of sesame. The base for the filling, according to my sources at Wikipedia, is winter melon. It turns out I’ve seen plenty of winter melons at markets without knowing what they were or what to do with them (or realizing that those things that look like fuzzy zucchini will mature into those things that look like albino watermelons). They’re grown and eaten across a wide swathe of Asia, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and Pakistan.
What do I get for educating myself on winter melons? A long list of new foods to seek out and try, that’s what I get. There’s a Vietnamese soup in which winter melon is cooked with pork ribs; North Indian, Pakistani and Filipino winter melon candies; South India winter melon curries; and a Chinese punch that involves winter melon simmered for hours with caramelized sugar.
But back to those wife cookies. The origin of the name is obscure. I found various theories* that ranged from the banal (a wife sells herself into slavery to afford medicine to save her dying father-in-law, her husband invents a pastry to honor her sacrifice, and the pastry becomes so wildly popular that he grows rich enough to ransom her) to the downright boring (a dim sum chef is thrilled when his wife’s recipe receives rave reviews, and so he names it after her).
A really compelling story would have been nice, but even without one, Gaoming Bakery’s wife cookies are terrific.
*This makes it sound as though I did actual research. In fact, I read the (short) entry in Wikipedia.
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Gaoming Bakery, 5110 8th Ave, Sunset Park, Brooklyn 11220