Monday, November 17, 2014

One-upping the sugar doughnut

Continuing the theme of my obsessive interest in having a great breakfast whenever possible, today’s recipe for a morning bread comes from the unappreciated culinary goldmine of Anhui, which is located upriver (the Yangtze, that is) from Shanghai. Many of Shanghai’s delicious pastries came from the Huangshan area of southern Anhui, including such glorious creations as crabshell pastries, which have no seafood, just a savory mixture of meat and green onions stuffed inside the baked puff pastry.

Those of you who love Chinese food have probably enjoyed different versions of the scallion breads that have made their way into just about every restaurant nowadays. Crispy, with good-sized bits of green onion knocking around in the dough, these are terrific with soups and casseroles and just about anything else that could do with a little crunchy contrast.

Specialty of Tianchang
Anhui goes scallion bread one better and makes it like a sugar doughnut was tossed in the mix. The result is heavenly. In fact, the Chinese name for these is literally "the sweet dew pastries of Tianchang." With that dusting of sugar setting off the savory green onions and super-flaky bread, this is the ideal item to put on the table for breakfast, particularly if you have some hot soybean milk or even a nice latte on hand. 

But these breads are also different in that instead of the usual simple layer of fat rolled into the dough to form those many layers, this bread relies on the powdery mixture of flour and fat that the Chinese call yóusū 油酥, which is also used as a filling for many of East China's most delicious and popular pastries.

The idea of sugar and green onions may seem like an odd combination to you, but be assured that this happens a lot around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River for no better reason than it is downright good.  Anhui's sister to the east, Jiangsu, offers a huge array of pastries in its traditional teahouses, and this marriage of sweet and savory is a lasting one.

Cut the fat into the flour
It should therefore come as no surprise that this version hails from the town of Tianchang on Anhui's southeastern flank, in the little finger of land that is poking felicitously into the neighboring province of Jiangsu. And this isn't just anywhere in Jiangsu; Tianchang is just up the highway from Jiangsu's culinary capital of Yangzhou, home of some of the best cooking in the world.

I have specified white Chinese flour in this recipe because it has less gluten than American flour; Korean flour is particularly excellent and of high quality, and it is what I usually use. (See the October 3, 2010, post on hand-pulled noodles for more discussion and recommendations.)

Feel free to leave out the sugar if you want to serve this with dinner or lunch; it is good either way. Count on one bread per person as part of a meal, or two breads per person if serving this as the main offering at breakfast.

Sprinkle on the filling
Tianchang's sugared fried bread 
Tiāncháng gānlù bǐng  
Makes 4 breads

¾ cup Chinese flour, or ½ cup all-purpose plus ¼ cup pastry flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or lard, cut into small pieces

4 tablespoons cool water
Flour for rolling out the dough

¼ cup flour
1½ tablespoons cold unsalted butter or cold rendered chicken fat, cut into small pieces
½ teaspoon sea salt

1 green onion, trimmed and finely chopped

Finishing touches:
Vegetable or peanut oil for frying
3 tablespoons sugar
Roll over the edges

1. Make the dough first since it will have to rest a bit before you form the breads: mix the flour, fat, and water together in a medium work bowl to form a dough. Knead the dough until smooth and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes to relax the gluten.

2. Next, make the filling: cut the fat into the flour using either a pastry knife and a small work bowl or a small processor. When the mixture looks like wet sand, toss in the salt and green onion, and mix these together well.

3. Roll the rested dough into a foot-long stick, and then divide it into 4 equal pieces. Dust your work surface with flour as needed and use a small rolling pin to roll out each piece into a rectangle about 3 inches by 6 inches in size. Sprinkle a quarter of the filling down the length of the dough, leaving all of the edges clear. Roll the dough over lengthwise and pinch the edges together to seal the filling inside the dough. Roll the dough edge over the filling again and then coil up the dough into a snail. Set the snail aside to rest while you roll out and fill the rest of the dough the same way.

Go almost to the edge
4. Lightly sprinkle your work surface with flour and dust the snail a bit, as well. Gently squash the snail and then roll out the snail to a 6-inch circle. (The best way to do this without making the filling burst out of the dough is to roll the pin out almost to the edge of the snail, turn the snail, and then roll it out again almost to the edge; if you don't roll over the edge itself, the filling has less incentive to pop out.)  The breads can be frozen in a single layer on waxed or parchment paper at this point, packed in freezer bags, and stored for weeks in the freezer; there is no need to defrost them before frying.

5. Have tongs and a plate covered with a paper towel ready at the side of the stove, and heat up the oven to 225°F.

6. Heat a few tablespoons in a flat frying pan over medium-high heat until the oil is sizzling hot. Gently lower one of the breads into the oil, and fry it until it is golden on one side, then flip it over and fry the other side, too. 

7. Drain the bread on the paper towel and toss it in the heated oven it to keep it warm.

Ready for breakfast
8. When all of the breads have been fried, cut them into quarters, arrange them on a serving platter, and sand them with the sugar. Eat them while they are hot, and don't count on any leftovers.


Cover the frying pan with a lid when frying both sides of the bread, and carefully regulate the heat so that the bread fries quickly but doesn't burn. Covering the pan allows the filling between the many layers of dough to steam and thus separate the dough into thin layers, which then cook rapidly, too.

As always, use the lower gluten Asian wheat flours for Chinese pastries since you will end up with a tender crumb that way.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I love the sound of crunch in the morning...

Popular all over the coastal north, these breakfast rolls probably are most beloved in the port of Tianjin. These offer all sorts of pleasures, both in terms of flavor and texture. A slight sweetness offsets the tang of the chili sauce, but these form little more than a gentle background for the main attractions: a chewy crêpe-like wrapper, a crunchy fried cruller, a fried egg (see the vegan option below), and a crispy leaf of lettuce. 

Perfection — even early in the morning — can easily be achieved.
Ready to roll

Tianjin breakfast rolls
Jiānbǐng guǒzi 煎餅果子
Tianjin, Beijing, & Hebei
Serves 4
cup Chinese or Korean flour (or two-thirds all-purpose plus one-third pastry flour)
cup mung bean flour
¾ cup cool water, or as needed
Peanut or vegetable oil
Wheat & mung bean flours

The rest:
1 Chinese cruller (youtiao), fresh or frozen
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chili sauce (page TK)
1 tablespoon sweet wheat paste
½ teaspoon sugar
4 large eggs, optional
1 green onion, finely chopped
4 large leaves lettuce (something crunchy like romaine is good)

Edges curling up
1. Mix the flours together in a large (1 quart, or so) measuring cup. Use a whisk to stir in enough cool water—about 1 cup—to form a thick, pancake-like batter. Let the batter rest while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Cut the cruller in half lengthwise and crosswise so that you have four pieces. Heat it in a 300°F oven (a toaster oven is perfect) until it is crispy.

3. Heat the sesame oil in a wok and add the chili sauce, sweet wheat paste, and sugar. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding whichever more ingredient you want to emphasize. Scrape the sauce into a small work bowl.

Chinese cruller
4. Set a nonstick flat pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, dip a paper towel in some of the oil and wipe it all over the inside of the pan. Gently stir the batter and pour ¼ of it into the pan (about cup batter), swirling the pan around with the other hand so that the bottom becomes evenly covered. Adjust the heat as needed to slowly cook the wrapper. As soon as the top is more or less set and the edges start to curl up, crack an egg on top, use your spatula to break it up and spread it over the wrapper, sprinkle on ¼ of the green onions, cover the pan, and continue to slowly cook the wrapper. When the egg is set, flip it over for a couple of seconds to cook it through, then flip it back over, and brush ¼ of the sauce over the top. Place a lettuce leaf and one piece of cruller on top. Remove the wrapper from the pan and roll it up like a burrito. Serve this one immediately and start to work on the other three. These can be sliced in half or quarters, if desired.


An egg is traditionally added to these wrappers, but vegans can omit it. Instead, sprinkle the green onions on the batter before it sets so that they stick to the pancake. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beijing's chive box pastries

Breakfast is a big deal in China. Unlike the States, the first meal of the day is a lot more than eggs, bacon, bread, and cereal. In fact, it’s a terrific reason to get out of bed any day of the week. 

In most places I’ve visited in China, little stands do nothing but prepare breakfast specialties that are ready from the wee hours of the night until lunchtime. And boy, do they have some tasty things on the menu.

One of my favorites is this, little hand pies whose Chinese name literally means “chive boxes.” Garlic chives are indeed the main attraction, but this being China, a deliciously savory edge completes the flavor range, and so there’s baby dried shrimp for a gently funky, salty layer, some tiny bits of scrambled egg for a meaty feel, and cellophane noodles to lighten up the texture. 

I changed the traditional recipe up slightly by frying the baby shrimp - which are called "shrimp skins" (xiāpí 蝦皮) in Chinese - to broadcast their flavor throughout the filling while tamping down their tendency to turn a tad soggy. These turn into crispy bits that are barely noticed other than a suggestion of xianwei on the tongue.

<=  How-to video included
In spite of all that, what I love best about this recipe is the pastry. It is simply the best one I know of, as it is light, thin, and fries up into a crisp layer that shatters in your mouth. It is easy to master, too.

Here's a video I made that shows you how to make an easy yet pretty coiled edge on your pastries. (A heads-up for those of you who are reading this at work: there's music on the video, so turn down the sound before clicking on the link.) 

Serve these with Millet Porridge whenever you want to start out the day with a smile on your face. 

Chive box pastries
Jiǔcài hé 韭菜盒
Makes 1 dozen

1 small bundle cellophane noodles
Warm water, as needed
Mise en place
¼ cup fresh peanut or salad oil
¼ dried baby shrimp
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
8 ounces (or so) green garlic chives
½ to 1 teaspoon sea salt (see Tip)
½ teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups Chinese flour
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or salad oil
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon cool water
More flour, as needed

Oil for frying
Chili sauce for dipping, optional

1. An hour or two before you plan to serve these, soak the cellophane noodles in warm water until they are completely soft and silky. Drain them well and then chop the noodles into pieces ¼ inch long or smaller.

2. While the noodles are soaking, make the dough: place the flour and oil in a medium work bowl. Use chopsticks to stir in the hot water until large flakes are formed. Work in the cook water, adding more flour or cool water as necessary until it does not stick to your hands or the board. Knead the dough until it is soft and supple. Cover it with a damp tea towel or plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 20 minutes. Roll the dough into an even rope 12 inches long, and then cut it into 12 pieces. Toss these lightly with a bit of flour and let them rest again while you prepare the filling.
Fill the wrappers

3. Make the filling just before you are about to fill the pastries, as otherwise the chives will wilt from the salt. Place a wok or frying pan over medium heat, and add the oil once it is hot. Sprinkle the baby shrimp in the oil and gently fry them — adjusting the temperature as necessary — until they are a golden brown. Scrape them into a small work bowl and return as much of the oil to the wok as possible. Return the wok to the stove and fry the eggs until they are scrambled nicely. Chop the eggs up into small pieces with your spatula and add them to the shrimp. Trim, rinse, and pat the chives very dry. Cut the chives into pieces ¼ long or smaller (you should have around 3½ cups) and add them to the shrimp and eggs. Season with the salt, sugar, and pepper. Divide the filling into 12 portions.

4. Roll each piece of dough into a 5-inch circle, and keep the dough covered whenever you are not using it. Wet your finger with water and draw a circle around the edge, which will help seal the dough. Fill the pastries by placing one portion of the filling in the center of the dough — be sure not to get any oil on the edge, as this will prevent the dough from sealing well. Pinch the pastry into a half-moon shape, and then curl the edge with a decorative braid, if you wish. These pastries should be immediately fried or frozen. (Frozen pastries can be fried later without being defrosted first.)

Half moon
5. To fry the pastries, set a flat frying pan over medium heat. Film the pan with oil once it is hot and add only as many pastries as will fit without touching each other. Cover the pan and let them slowly fry on one side until golden on the bottom, and then uncover the pan and flip them over. Cover and fry them on the other side. When the second side is a light gold, uncover the pan and fry them until crispy. Serve immediately with a side of chili sauce, if you like.


Use 1 teaspoon of salt if you are going to eat these fresh. Freezing the pastries heightens their saltiness for some reason, so it you want to make these ahead of time, use half that amount of salt. If you are eating half and freezing the rest, then use the smaller amount and dust the pastries with a sprinkling of salt as soon as they have been fried.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Quick Shanghainese pickles

Jackson Street in San Francisco's Chinatown used to have a little hole-in-the-wall call the Star Cafe. It was my kind of place.

Star Cafe was only wide enough to squeeze in the semblance of a kitchen in on the right, run a counter down the middle, and stuff a couple of worn tables and chairs in the back.

The toilet was a creaky affair in the far corner that didn't invite anyone to sit and read the paper, and it was obviously treasured more as a place to stash wet mops, extra to-go boxes, and extra chairs than it was as a restroom.

But what this little dive lacked in refinement, it more than made up for in flavor and price. These folks really were from Shanghai, they cooked what they knew, and we would usually stroll out of there completely stuffed for under ten bucks. Not many places in The City have that type of reputation.

What I really loved there were its Shanghai Mustard Pickles. A huge glass jar of them would be perched in their old cooler, the pickles kept crisp and cold, just the way I wanted them. We'd order a bowl of them to munch on while we perused the menu, and I'd usually commandeer the lion's portion of the pickles before washing them down with a glass of cold, sweetened soybean milk that was also homemade. 

One day when we tromped over there for another meal, we found the doors locked and a sign on them saying the owners were away on a trip to China. That trip turned into years while the storefront stayed empty, and I longed in vain for my pickles, as no one else I knew every offered them. Then, one fine day I ran across a recipe for Mustard Stems Pickled in Sweet Rice Vinegar in the wonderful Bruce Cost book, Asian Ingredients. With a little tweaking, his pickles soon turned into the ones in my dreams. (Thanks, Bruce!)

Trimmed jiecai & ginger
This recipe calls for a Chinese vegetable called -- depending upon the grocery store -- gay choyjiecai, or Chinese mustard cabbage. It is a slightly bitter vegetable that's great in a stir-fry with nothing else but lots of ginger and chicken fat seasoned with a bit of salt. But it's in this pickle that this variety of mustard greens really shines. That gentle mustardy fragrance and flavor poke their way out from the sweet brine and spices, and they are strong enough to stand up to some brutal treatment, like being salted and having boiling vinegar poured over them. Make up a batch and store it in the refrigerator. If you like sausages, try stir-frying them with sliced onions and this pickle for a piquant and utterly divine dish.

Shanghai mustard pickles 
Tángcù jiècài  
Makes about a quart

5 medium heads of Chinese mustard cabbage
2 tablespoons sea salt
4 cups sushi vinegar (usually called "seasoned rice vinegar")
8 dried chili peppers
5 crushed cloves of garlic
10 thin slices of ginger
Boiling water, as needed

1. Trim off any flimsy leaves from the mustard cabbage and reserve them for some other use. Cut the stems into 2- to 3-inch lengths and then cut each length into pieces no more than half an inch wide. Rinse the mustard cabbage carefully, shake dry, and place it in a colander. Sprinkle the salt over the vegetables, lightly rub the salt in, and let them sit for an hour or so to remove most of the excess water.

2. Clean a quart-sized glass jar and lid, making sure that there's no oil or soap residue in there, as this could cause the pickles to mold. Rinse the jar and lid with boiling water and turn them upside-down to drain.

3. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a medium saucepan along with the peppers, garlic, and ginger; let the brine simmer for a few minutes. Shake the excess salt and water off of the mustard cabbage and place it in the glass jar. Pour the boiling brine over the vegetables and toss them lightly; add a bit of boiling water so that it almost reaches the top of the vegetables. Stir the vegetables every 5 minutes or so as they cool so that all of them turn from an emerald green to an olive shade. As they turn color, they'll shrink, and the brine should soon cover the vegetables. Add a bit more water as needed to keep the vegetables submerged.

4. When the jar is cool, refrigerate it for at least two days. Use a very clean pair of chopsticks or fork to remove the pickles. They'll last at least a month if kept clean and cold.