Thursday, December 8, 2011

Eating Butterflies: Festive Treats for Ordinary Days

It used to crack me up how people on TV and in magazines portrayed “four-course banquets” as the very height of festivity and luxury. I was just a boring little kid who never got to go anywhere interesting, and I’d been to more TEN-course banquets than I could count. And as Dad constantly reminded me and my sisters, we were even more fortunate than other people and their trivial roast-beef feasts, for our banquets featured the classic dishes of ancient China, and the culinary traditions of China are even older and more sophisticated and refined than those of France and Italy: Did you know, he liked to tell us, that the Chinese invented pasta, and it only got to Italy because of Marco Polo?

Banquet season for our family was whenever Grandma Lee came to visit us in Los Angeles. She was an expert and prodigious networker decades before the term was even invented, and her week-long visits involved nightly ten-course feasts, each serving seemingly hundreds of friends, relatives, and business associates in the Chinese-American community whom she just had to see. I have no idea who paid for or planned these events, but I was sure Dad was right about the proper place of Chinese cuisine in the culinary pantheon -- the food was luscious: whole, steamed fish topped with scallions and ginger, burnished marinated and roasted chicken or squab surrounded by a ring of crunchy shrimp chips that looked like disks of candy-colored Styrofoam, and tender morsels of quickly stir-fried steak in a peppery sauce, along with seven other, equally appetizing courses. It made the inevitable series of  lengthy Cantonese speeches before each meal (which even my parents said were boring and formulaic) worth it.

Only one course was inevitably disappointing at these celebratory events: dessert. No matter what exotic luxuries had come before, dessert almost always seemed to be an afterthought in Cantonese banquets. There were usually orange slices and maybe some almond or fortune cookies, and very occasionally, some vaguely sweet soup that, like a postprandial bowl of Raisin Bran, really didn’t seem sweet  or decadent enough to count as dessert. The only time when Grandma’s banquets didn’t end  anticlimactically was when the extended family met in San Francisco. This was because younger members of the local clan usually procured a rum-drenched, cream-puff-topped layer cake from Little Italy to end our otherwise authentically Chinese meals. 

Those cakes made me wish I were Italian.

“Chinese food is healthy,” Dad said when I asked him why we didn’t have good desserts like other cultures. “We’ve known for a long time that people aren’t supposed to eat a lot of sweets. Americans are just figuring that out now!”

I learned later that Western-style dessert didn’t exist as its own course in Chinese tradition, and that the few sweets that did exist were more likely to be served as snacks than with meals. (Some of these traditional snacks, such as those mildly sweet soups, got co-opted into playing the dessert role at the banquets I had attended.)  I also learned, contrary to Dad's lectures, that there do exist sweet and shamelessly unhealthful Chinese treats worth pursuing.

One of these was an occasional treat we’d use to get from Chinatown bakeries, called a butterfly cookie. It only bore the vaguest resemblance to a butterfly, and wasn’t really a cookie – rather, it was a twisted, crunchy deep-fried confection drenched in thick, sticky sugar syrup. It was also larger than a normal cookie – about six inches long, the perfect size for getting a grade schooler’s hands completely sticky. Consistent with Chinese tradition, we never had these at the end of meals, but only as snacks – the usual routine was to buy about half a dozen of them after a weekend dim sum lunch in Chinatown, take them home in the standard-for-Chinatown pink cardboard box tied with red string, and munch on them while watching badly dubbed 1950s-era Japanese monster movies on some local independent TV station. Butterfly cookies weren’t officially special-occasion food, but like ice cream cones, they made ordinary days feel a little bit special.

The recipes for homemade butterfly cookies I’ve found differ in a couple of respects from the ones I remember seeing in Chinatown. For one, they’re much smaller (they’re generally made with fried wonton skins, which are only about 4 inches square), and almost always call for a simpler finish of powdered sugar rather than syrup. 

But for me, that sticky syrup is what made the butterfly cookies of my childhood so much fun to eat – both for the decadent sweetness it contributes, and the distinctive stickiness. The great thing about eating a properly made butterfly is that while it’s crispy and brittle, it generates very few crumbs when you break off a piece or bite into it. This is because the syrup coating will form long, almost tensile strings that will keep the shattered crunchy shards securely attached to the rest of the pastry, so none will be lost or wasted. The only mess will be from gobs of syrup on your fingers, but you can alleviate this problem by holding the butterfly with the wax-paper square on which it is typically sold.

Most likely, modern home cooks adapted the powdered sugar route because it’s easier and (arguably) prettier. But the end result will be a lot messier to eat (crumbs and powdered sugar everywhere!) and nowhere near as much fun.

When preparing this post and formulating my recipe, my South-African-born husband mentioned that butterfly cookies drenched in syrup were the standard end-of-meal treat in Chinese restaurants when he was growing up. (He remembers them being called “bow ties” rather than butterflies, but he was definitely referring to the same confection.)

So it turns out that somewhere in the world, there are Chinese restaurants that end meals with memorable sweets. As always, there is wisdom to be gleaned from the customs of others.


24 wonton skins
Canola or other neutrally flavored oil for deep frying
2 cups sugar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons lemon juice

Shape the butterflies. Stack two wonton skins on top of each other (keep the remaining skins covered to keep them soft and pliable) and cut the stack in half lengthwise. Each half of the stack will form a single pastry.
Cut a 2 ½-inch long slit down the center of each stack.

Pick up one of the stacks. Fold one end of the stack towards you, push it through the front side of the slit, then pull it up through the back side of the slit. This will form two twists along the sides of the cookie.
 Repeat the cutting and folding until all the butterflies are formed. Keep the already-shaped butterflies covered with a towel to keep the wonton skins soft.

Meanwhile, heat about 2 inches of oil over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. When it is hot, drop in a test butterfly: if the oil is at the right temperature, the butterfly will immediately rise to the top and start puffing up.

When the oil is the right temperature, add as many pastries as will fit easily without touching (there should be some room around them) and fry, turning once or twice, until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.

Make the syrup: Combine the water, lemon juice, and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. (The lemon juice doesn't add much flavor; it prevents the syrup from getting crystalized.) Cook until the syrup thickens. Test the syrup by placing a small drop of it into a bowl of ice water: the syrup is ready when the drop forms a pliable, sticky ball that can be pressed flat between your fingers. When the syrup is ready, plunge the bottom of the pot into a large bowl of cold water to stop the cooking.

Dip the pastries: Using tongs, take each butterfly and dip it into the syrup, ensuring that it is completely covered. Place the dipped pastries on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper or baking parchment (do NOT put them on paper towels or they'll stick).

The butterflies can be eaten immediately, or stored in an airtight container, with layers of pastries separated by waxed paper. 

This post is part of the monthly #LetsLunch series -- this month's theme is festive sides from your family heritage. Okay, I heard it wrong and just did a random festive dish. My bad.

Here are the fine bloggers also doing lunch today: The list will be updated throughout the day as more terrific posts come in, so stay tuned!

A Cook and Her Books 
on festive  black-eyed peas and greens -- lucky food for Southerners! 

Patrick G. Lee 
(no relation, but he sounds like a fun guy!) on baby pecan pis.

on fruitcake and generosity, two essential components of Christmas.

Spicebox Travels 
on Trinidadan pastelles  - Caribbean Christmas tamales -- and an easy way to make them.

 Free Range Cookies
on crunchy, crunchy salads -- made of baked veggie chips! 

A Tiger in the Kitchen 
on a Singaporean potato-and-sausage casserole, traditional at Christmas. UPDATE: This post also contains the complete, updated list of this month's #LetsLunch participants -- check it out!


  1. These are so beautiful! Thanks for sharing...glad to have another use for wonton wrappers. I always end up having extra!

  2. Cheryl -- This recipe is both a cause of, and solution to, the leftover wonton-skin problem! I opened a fresh package to make these and now have a enough left over of a good-size batch of soup!

  3. Felicia, these look sticky delicious!

  4. how beautiful! would it work with rice paper?

  5. Awesome, Felicia! I'm completely ok with the fact that you made dessert! And I can only dream of a 10-course Cantonese feast - that sounds sooo wonderful!

  6. Linda S.--They are! By no means should you let your kids eat them in the car.

    Cookievore Linda -- Good question! I've never tried it. Rice paper would fry up nice and crunchy, but may be too delicate to withstand dunking in the syrup, which is kind of thick. An experiment may be in order!

    Lucy -- You'd love it! One only eats a few bites of each course, so it's not a total pig-out - though it could be if one is so inclined.

  7. Felicia - I just got immersed in your childhood and I smiled all the while reading this. indeed, we call them bow ties and this reminds me, while we eat Thai often, I haven't had Cantonese in ages...10 course coming up!

  8. Simple, elegant and it rocks! Love this recipe.

  9. Ishay--they do look a bit more like bowties than butterflies, don't they?

    Angsarap--Thanks! They're quick to make, too!

  10. Some great writing in this post and I love the recipe too.