20 Store-Bought Desserts You Can Bring (or Send!) to a Chinese New Year Celebration
Let’s be real: In a culture where sweet elicits scowls from the elder generation and savory gets all the smiles, it’s hard to default to,“ Sure, I’ll bring dessert,” for a Chinese New Year celebration. Many Chinese immigrants in the U.S. have palates that are accustomed to the more mild, fleeting sweetness of their traditional last courses. Plus, their strong sense of balance is intrinsically at odds with a sugar-first dessert approach common in American desserts.
That’s all well, good, and to be respected, but it does make it rather challenging to contribute to Reunion Dinner, the New Year’s Eve meal that sets the tone for the entire next year. And with the pandemic still upon us, it’s extra difficult to go home for the occasion, which makes things even trickier. After all, you can’t ship traditional homemade desserts like nian gao or red bean soup. And you certainly don’t want to embarrass yourself with something so inauthentic as fortune cookies or specific to a totally different holiday, like mooncakes (those are made specifically for the Mid-Autumn Festival).
Luckily, Asian food in general has become more accessible as it (and food shipments) has grown in popularity, which means there are plenty of tantalizing options out there to appease both generations. I’ve included a few (okay, 20!) to get you started. Let’s take a look at the cakes, cookies, ice cream, fruit, and even a few gift boxes you can bring or ship to the most important family gathering of the year.
1. Mille Crêpes Cake
If you want to impress the hard-to-impress, Lady M’s Signature Mille Crêpes cakes are legendary. They’re pricey, but for good reason, as they’re extremely labor intensive and delicious. Countless layers of thin, perfect, melt-in-your-mouth crepes and rich, buttery cream come together for luxurious bites that are light-feeling enough for Chinese palates, but decadent enough to be universal. And with classics, like green tea, and seasonal specials, like purple yam, familiar flavors get a modern twist. New for the season is the red bean flavor, which I highly recommend. They’re not the only makers of this style of cake anymore, but by golly are they the top of the line.
Buy: Signature Mille Crêpes, $98 at Lady M
2. Lunar New Year Tiger Gift Set
In case it wasn’t clear, this elite boutique bakery knows their Asian audience. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, they partnered with the famous Kee Wah Bakery to make mooncakes — and they were exceptional. The Lunar New Year Tiger Gift Set is equally set to stun. This gift box features crepe biscuits filled with chocolate and hazelnut gianduja cream, a vanilla version, strawberry and apricot jelly mignonettes, and salted caramel and sesame praline orbs. These goodies are going to be sweeter than the typical Chinese parent prefers, but they’ll be wowed by the gorgeous red and gold chest and the stunning red envelopes inside, which are embossed with important symbols like tigers for the year, plum blossoms for hope, clouds for fortune, and fans for unity and happiness.
Buy: Lady M Lunar New Year Tiger Gift Set, $80 at Lady M
3. Laumiere Gourmet Fruits New Year Collection
With zero grams of added sugar, the Lunar New Year Collection by this luxury, family-owned dried fruit brand is a safe bet to skirt that edge between the dreaded, “Too sweet!” reaction and just sweet enough to please all. They’re offering four different treats in each gorgeously giftable box: Ilumino 2022 layers almond marzipan, dates, and almonds into squares embellished with “2022;” a tiger’s ferocious visage graces a round one that features pecans; a delicate edible lily, which symbolizes happy unions, rests on pistachio rounds; and the date with orange peel combines two traditional and beloved Chinese fruits. With no animal products, no preservatives, and no gluten, this box of 24 should be a crowd-pleaser.
Buy: Lunar New Year Collection, $47.95 for 24 at Laumiere Gourmet
4. Happiness Cake Gift Box
If a crowd-pleasing variety pack of sweets appeals to you, DXC makes several different types of cake and pastry gift boxes that are quite thoughtful. The Happiness Cake Gift Box comes embellished with a cute illustration of a multigenerational family coming together in celebration and symbolic imagery, like carps, which regularly adorn the lucky money red envelopes passed out to children for Chinese New Year. In this set, you get a flower-shaped jujube puff cake, hawthorn cake, pineapple cake, and a sesame pastry slice or nut crisp cake.
Buy: Happiness Cake Gift Box, $28.49 for 880 grams at Weee!
5. Chinese Layer Cake
With their light, fluffy, barely sweetened whipped cream icing and fresh fruit embellishments, which may or may not have a fruit tart jelly glaze, Chinese-style cakes are extremely different from Western ones. They’re so mild that some may find the lightweight sponge cake bland, but many more find them refreshing. (They have a following!) People love the medley of fresh — never jarred — tropical fruit, like kiwis, strawberries, and grapes, that decorate the tops and are folded into the plain whipped cream filling. Peaches, blueberries, and mangoes are also fair game, as are chocolate accents. See if your local Chinese bakery delivers on Door Dash or Postmates.
Learn more: Door Dash
6. Japanese Cheesecake
The Lunar New Year isn’t just celebrated by the Chinese — it’s pan-Asian, so why not make your dessert contribution that, too? The jiggly Japanese cheesecakes that went viral on social media were quickly adopted by Chinese bakeries, so it’s not offensive to bring or send one. Wobbly like a soufflé and rich like a chiffon, they’re a world away in terms of density and sweetness than your standard Uncle Tetsu near you, Keki Modern Cakes’ Osaka-derived rendition is shippable from New York’s Chinatown.
Buy: Keki Modern Cakes, $65 for a 6-inch cake at Goldbelly
7. Mochi Ice Cream
Like traditional Chinese desserts, this Japanese hit is made primarily with soft, sweet rice dough. In this case, though, it’s wrapped around spheres — a lucky shape, denoting familial togetherness — of none-too-sweet, rich, and creamy ice cream. You can even find flecks of fruit or bits of chocolate inside the Bubbies branded ones! The green tea flavor is wonderful, and blood orange is right on theme for Chinese New Year. Most importantly, the proportion of mochi shell to premium ice cream is perfect. The brand also offers vegan, coconut-based versions — great for historically lactose-sensitive populations, like East Asians.
Buy: Bubbies Mochi Ice-Cream, Passion Fruit, $6.69 for 6
8. Asian Swiss Roll Cake
The light, neutral sponge Chinese folks love is also popular in this even-less-frosted, Swiss roll-style cake. With these, the squishy, pliant cake is rolled with a thin layer of cream, then served in slices that you can eat with a fork or unroll. It’s a typical-enough breakfast pastry, but it’s just as welcome as dessert. As with the layer cake, see if you can arrange delivery from a local Asian bakery or from a nearby participating international or local market via Instacart.
Buy: Happy Clover Shirakiku Marble Swiss Roll Cake, $5.90 for 7.08 oz at Weee!
9. Pineapple Buns
In the American South, pineapples are symbols of hospitality, dating back to the colonial era. In fact, a sharp eye may spot their inverted pine cone shape built into fence caps and grand home architecture! So what better way to celebrate a merge of two cultures than to bring Chinese pineapple buns, bo lo bao, to Reunion Dinner? Note: These buns are named for the crust’s resemblance, not for the fruit, which isn’t on the ingredient list! Sure, the classic bo lo bao is an everyday morning pastry, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome come dessert time.
Buy: Hong Kong Pineapple Bun Dozen, $75 for 12 buns at Goldbelly
10. Pineapple Shortcakes
These shortcakes are native to Taiwan and called feng li su in Mandarin; unlike the buns, they’re made with actual pineapple (and wintermelon). The buttery outside and bite-sized servings are reminiscent of shortbread. They’re also denser and firmer than the buns, to keep their square shape and very thick jam filling.
Buy: Isabelle Taiwan Specialties Pineapple Cakes, $14.49 for 10 on Weee!
11. Taiwanese Sun Cakes
Bringing moon cakes to the Lunar New Year is akin to bringing Easter bread to Christmas or pumpkin pie to an Independence Day barbecue. It can be done, but it’s a little silly! However, sun cakes, or yaiyang bing, is acceptable for year-round consumption. These condensed malt sugar-filled, flaky cakes from Taichung, Taiwan are quite famous, which makes them a bit more accessible.
Buy: Tachia Master Sun Cake, $36 for six
These Manchurian snacks are made of fluffy strands of fried batter that’s held together with hardened sugar syrup. (Think of these as Chinese rice cereal treats, but with deep-fried egg noodles or dough ribbons.) They’re then pressed to set and cut up into semi-soft cubes for eating by hand, a practice that dates back to their invention in the 1600s when they served as quick energy bars for the Manchu army’s cavalry. Today, it’s a common New Year’s dessert, particularly the Cantonese version, which can feature sesame seeds or raisins.
Buy: Sachima with Raisin, $7.95 for 21.4 ounces at Yummy Bazaar
13. Almond Cookies
Chinese cookies are delightful, with an emphasis on the “light” part. This is especially true of Chinese almond cookies, which are crumbly on the inside, crispy and dry on the outside, mildly sweetened, and topped with a roasted almond. They’re bright orange-yellow and pretty readily available. Plus, like all nuts, they signify longevity; these specific cookies and almonds are considered good luck for a bright future. Sadly, I can no longer find the ones in the plain pink box with green lid I grew up with, but I can recommend Amay’s in their absence.
Buy: Amay’s Almond Cookies, $9.95 for 13 ounces
14. Walnut Cookies
These are a bit less ubiquitous at shops, and, interestingly, the original recipe didn’t even have walnuts despite it being named so early on in its existence! Like the much beloved Chinese pineapple bun, these treats are named for their appearance, not their ingredients or flavor. Walnut cookies are chunky in texture and have a wrinkly, golden exterior, which many now choose to top with the nut, because why not? Some now also have walnut powder in them, too, making it no longer a misnomer.
Buy: Fortune Gathering Shanghai Walnut Cookies, $10.99 for 500g at Weee!
15. Egg Roll Cookies
Nope, these aren’t your local takeout’s egg rolls! Far from the cabbage-stuffed, deep-fried and duck-sauced appetizers, these are eggy, buttery wafers rolled into hollow tubes. The flavors can be baked right into the cookies, or added as a light cream down the center. Delicate and prone to cracking due to their crepe-thin, crispy nature, they’re typically packaged in shiny, decorative tins. That’s part of what makes them such popular gifts, and common for the holidays.
Buy: Taiwanese Wafer Egg Roll Cookie, $18.95 for 18 at Yummy Bazaar
16. Sesame Sticks
On the other hand, there’s no mistaking that sesame seed balls, or jian dui, are named for the toasted tear-shaped seeds that stud the spheres. These are also Cantonese and popular year-round, but more seasonal is the baguette shape, which is fried until the interior is crispy as well, giving it a longer shelf life. They’re crunchy and bar-shaped, and may also come enhanced with other flavors, including peanut.
Buy: HelenOu666 Maltose Sesame Sticks, $22 for 17.6 ounces
17. Butter Cookies
I know. These are in no way Chinese, but the blue-tin cookies from Denmark are so universally loved that they’re not at all an uncommon or an out-of-place offering. Just make sure you get the ones with the butter, as the palm oil makes a noticeable difference in taste, texture, and aftertaste. You don’t want to lose face bringing in cookies without butter, which is the main headline attraction of these cookies! A worthy substitute would be rich Scottish or Irish shortbread cookies, but the Royal Dansk is classic.
Buy: Royal Dansk Danish Butter Cookies, $3.68 for 12 ounces
Similarly, flaky, buttery, and only slightly sweet, palmiers are another European treat that tend to go over well at the new year table. Also known as elephant ears and, particularly to the Chinese, butterfly pastries, these lovely puff pastries are light enough and savory enough to counteract the small amounts of sugar that make them a perfect accompaniment to tea. There’s no lucky superstition to these, and nothing symbolic about the shape, but if you want something simply good and accessible, these check both those boxes.
Buy: Sugar Bowl Petite Palmiers, $9.82 for 32 oz at Instacart
19. Fine Goods Fat Choy Pastries Gift Box
Most of the early emigrants from China to the U.S. were from the Canton or Guangdong province, which is why we’re more familiar with their cuisine and the cadence of this harsher dialect, as opposed to the susurrus of Mandarin. One of the most recognizable phrases, though, is “Gong hei fat choy,” which is a common seasonal greeting as you wish someone prosperity and happiness in the new year. It’s this phrase on this set that got it on this list, even though it’s more accurate to call this a cookie tin than a pastry box! In it, there are eight “hearty butter pastries” (palmiers, actually) and 10 butter cookies — lucky numbers and enough to share.
Buy: MX Fine Goods “Fat Choy” Pastries Gift Box, $21.19 for 134 grams at Weee!
20. Citrus Fruit
Finally, you can also opt to keep it sweet and simple. It’s traditional to bring something as low-effort as a bag of citrus like oranges, mandarins, tangerines, or pomelos to dinner as your dessert offering, because traditional Chinese meals tend to end with fruit as a palate-cleanser. If you want to go gourmet, Cara Cara, jumbo navels, and Sumo Citrus are great picks. For all of these, round shape and gold color denote family unity and fortune, respectively. Make sure they’re unblemished, ripe, and that you don’t bring an amount with the unlucky number four in it (four, 14, 40, or 44). Eight is typically just right!
Buy: Cara Cara Oranges, $ 34.99 for 7 pounds at Harry & David
Did your go-to make the list? Tell us about it in the comments!