Monday, December 9, 2019

Chinese borscht

I've recently partnered with the folks at Greatest Tomatoes from Europe to celebrate what have to be the most amazing canned tomatoes I have ever tasted. They are so good, in fact, that over the next couple of months I'll be sharing recipes with you that put the spotlight on these tomatoes. Disclaimer: I was provided with a delicious array of these European canned tomatoes as an incentive, and I have to admit that I've been happily incentivizing ever since!

Today is an easy dish for these blustery days: the Chinese version of borscht, Mother Russia’s quintessential soup. 

Even the name in Chinese tells you that: Luósòng means (and sounds like) “Russian.” But as soon as you taste it, you know you've wandered over the border into Manchuria, as those rich, Slavic flavors have been tempered and emboldened by ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, and (yes) sometimes even catsup.
The most flavorful meat soup yet

But what really launches this soup into culinary heaven are two things: really great canned tomatoes plus the oxtail that forms the backbone (sorry) of the broth. 

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the canned tomatoes of Europe, and I am officially hooked. Full-flavored doesn't even begin to describe them. These taste of pure, ripe tomatoes - nothing else, not even salt. 

And while most canned tomatoes I've used have swum in a thin juice, these are nestled in almost a puree of more tomatoes. Good canned tomatoes are what give this soup the depth it needs to become the perfect bowl of Chinese borscht. If you for some reason  you must use a lesser quality canned tomato, don't despair, because you can always add catsup to the soup for a touch more oomph. But that being said, snag a can or two of these imports when you see them because they just might make you smile a bit more.

Now we get to the meat: Criminally underused in the States for no good reason that I can ascertain, oxtails are on my list of best beef cuts ever. Tendons give the cow the opportunity to whisk this appendage around with considerable expressiveness, and those tendons are exactly what give any oxtail soup worth its salt that incredible body. 

If cooked well – and by that I mean that just the right amount of time and heat and moisture are applied – those tendons disappear into the soup, while the muscles become almost custardy, the marrow leaking out of the bones and making the soup that much richer.

Manchurian Russian soup 
Luósòng tang 羅宋湯 
Northeast
Serves 6 as a main dish

Beef and broth:
Glorious oxtails
1 oxtail (2 to 2½ pounds | 1 kg) cut into rounds by the butcher (see Tips)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 inches ginger, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
1 large onion cut into 1-inch | 2 cm chunks
6 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 bay leaves
6 cups | 1.5 liters water
¼ cup | 60 ml Shaoxing rice wine
¼ cup  | 60 ml regular soy sauce

Vegetables:
3 small Yukon Gold or other potatoes
3 carrots, peeled
1 (28 ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably European (see headnotes)
Water, as needed
Optional: up to ½ cup  | 125 ml catsup if your canned tomatoes are underwhelming

Handfuls of parsley or cilantro, chopped, for garnish

1. Ideally, start this recipe a day before you plan to serve it, although you can also prep and cook this within 90 minutes. Rinse the oxtail sections and pat them dry. Heat the bottom part of the pressure cooker on high and then add the oil. Toss in the ginger and fry it for a few seconds to release its fragrance. Add the oxtail and let it sear on one side before turning the pieces over with some metal tongs. Let each side brown and caramelize before turning it (see Tips). When the oxtail has been completely browned, remove it and the ginger to a plate or something, but leave the oil in the pan. Add the onion and garlic cloves and toss them around in the hot oil until the onion is lightly browned. Return the oxtails and ginger to the pan along with the bay leaves, water, rice wine, and soy sauce. Cover the pan with the top of the pressure cooker, lock it, and place the pan over high heat to bring it to high pressure. Adjust the heat to maintain this high pressure and cook the oxtail for 55 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the pressure drop naturally for around 10 minutes before opening the lid away from you so that you don’t get scalded.

Roll cut carrots
2. While the oxtail is cooking away, prepare the vegetables: Wash the potatoes and cut each one into eighths. (You leave them unpeeled, if you like. I do.) Wash and trim the carrots, and then roll cut them into pieces about 1 inch | 2 cm long. Place the potatoes and carrots in a medium saucepan. Open the can of tomatoes and drain the juices into the saucepan. Slice each tomato into pieces about ¾-inch | .75 cm thick and add them to the saucepan. Pour just enough water into the saucepan to cover the root vegetables and bring the saucepan to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the vegetables until they are done to your taste, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

3. When the oxtails are done, pour the pan full of vegetables into the soup, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Add the catsup to taste, if you like. In the best of all worlds, let the soup come to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate it overnight. Then, remove most of the fat before simmering the soup for around 15 minutes to heat it up again. Ladle the soup into individual soup bowls or serve it in a terrine; garnish with lots of chopped parsley or cilantro and serve with bread or rice.

Tips

If you don't have a pressure cooker, simply brown the meat and onions, etc., as directed in Step 1 and then simmer the meat until it is tender, which should take around 3 hours. The rest of the recipe needs no adjustment.

This is a cold weather soup, so tomatoes are not going to be at their best. That’s why I recommend really good quality canned tomatoes. 

Pumpkin bread for this season and every day


Just in time for the holidays is this gorgeous—and gorgeous tasting—bread. Pumpkin has gradually become more than a bit beloved in Chinese bakery goods over the years. 

This vegetable is, of course, an all-American native, but everything about it seems to appeal to the Chinese aesthetic, especially when it’s used in a food that ostensibly is as nutritionally empty as white bread, because then—voilà—your kids are eating vegetables!

Pumpkin has a gorgeous color going for it, which doesn’t hurt in the least. This reddish cast is auspicious. Until modern times, Chinese didn’t have a word for “orange” in Chinese (one of life’s many mysteries), and so the color “gold” was traditionally assigned instead, which is even better when you’re trying to describe something with more cachet. So there’s that.

Pumpkin schmear
And melon seeds are a big deal with the Chinese. Teatime has always included a little saucer of salted, roasted watermelon seeds on the side for nibbling. It’s a female art, though. 

My old girlfriends in Taipei loved this snack so much that many (most?) of them had a little notch in one of their front teeth from cracking zillions of them over the years. I never quite mastered this, and often ended up with a mush of shells and kernels in my mouth that I would then try to inconspicuously get rid of, usually failing grandly in the process.

But anyway. I’ve been playing around with the idea of making a pumpkin bread that wasn’t cakelike, but truly a bread. I didn’t want it too sweet or buttery, but finely textured and full of flavor, with just enough pumpkin to turn the bread into, well, a lovely shade of gold.
Fold over the long edges
I was thinking of a ribbon of pumpkin winding its way around in the bread, both because it would be so darned pretty, and also because it would lend a wonderful moistness to the affair and completely use up the can of pumpkin puree, which I did not want to see moldering away in the back of the fridge. 

Tastewise, I put my foot firmly down on there being no pumpkin spice. But a dash of ginger is nice, as is the coconut sugar that lends a slightly honeyed aroma without turning things too saccharine.

The crowning touch is the coating of pumpkin seeds. I mean, the loaf looks bejeweled when you get done with it! Their jade color contrasts perfectly with the loaf itself, and they brown just the right amount while the dough is cooking. Full of crunch and flavor, I’ve come to adore the end pieces because then I get a ridiculous amount of the toasted seeds in each mouthful. Yet another reason to be in charge of the bread knife in your house.
A Pullman pan

Again, I’m calling for a Pullman loaf pan. This will ensure that the loaf’s surface is completely embedded with the seeds and the top doesn’t get away with bald bits. It makes a whole lot of difference here, so try it out and see.

Pumpkin times three Pullman loaf
Nánguā nánguā nánguā tŭsī miànbāo 南瓜南瓜南瓜吐司麵包
Makes 1 (9 x 4 inch | 22 x 10 cm) loaf

Dough:
1 teaspoon active yeast
3 tablespoons | 45 ml warm water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
⅔ cup | 180 g canned pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie filling—see Tips)
2 cups | 300 g Chinese flour, plus about ½ cup | 750 g for kneading
Patting on the seeds
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 60 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

Filling:
1 cup | 265 g pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons coconut sugar, or packed light brown sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
¾ teaspoon powdered ginger

The rest:
Spray oil
1 cup | 150 g untoasted, shelled pumpkin seeds
Water for sprinkling

Ready to rise
1. Sprinkle the yeast on the warm water and sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Theoretically, you can make this bread by hand, but the dough ends up being so soft and sticky that it’s definitely easier to have the mixer do all the work.) Let the yeast bloom for about 20 minutes, and then add the egg, pumpkin puree, flour, and salt. Mix these together and then knead on medium-low speed for about 10 minutes, until the dough is elastic and silky. Add the butter and continue to knead the dough for another 5 minutes or so to really build up the gluten. Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm area until the dough is at least double in size, around 1 to 2 hours. Punch it down and then let it rise another time until at least double in bulk. Dump the puffy dough out on to a board covered with flour and knead it by hand until it is not very sticky. Cover it again and let the dough rest for around 20 minutes.

Risen to the top
2. To make the filling, mix the puree, sugar, salt, and ginger together in small work bowl.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board, sprinkle some flour on top, and use a rolling pin to roll it out into a long strap around 18 x 8 inches | 45 x 20 cm. Use a silicone spatula to spread the filling all over the dough up to around 1 inch | 2 cm from the edges. Fold the long edges over toward the center to completely hide the filling, and then fold the short edges over each other to give you a squarish shape about 9 x 4 inches | 22 x 10 cm, which (ta-da!) is the size of your pan.  

4. Spray your Pullman loaf pan and lid with oil. Pour half of the pumpkin seeds in a large, rimmed dish. Wet your hands and smear this all over the loaf before placing it in the seeds. Pour the rest of the seeds over the top of the loaf and pat as many of the seeds into the wet dough as you can, but don’t stress if some of them fall off or refuse to fuse. What you do is sprinkle half of these renegade seeds into your pan before laying the seed-studded dough on top of them and then dust the top with any remaining seeds. Flick some more water over the dough and cover the pan with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it almost reaches the top of the pan. (Remember that you must be able to slide the lid on top, so don’t let it overproof.)

Fresh from the oven
5. Set a rack just below the middle of your oven and set it for 350°F | 175°C. When the oven is ready, sprinkle some water over the dough to create steam inside the pan. Slide the lid onto the pan, set the pan in the oven, and bake for around 40 minutes. When you open the pan, the loaf should be a lovely golden brown and sound hollow when you tap it in the center. Remove the pan from the oven, turn the loaf out onto a cake rack, and let it cool before cutting it into slices. This freezes well, of course.


Tips

Use pumpkin puree here, not pumpkin pie filling, which has sugar and spices added.

This recipe uses up one 15 ounce | 425 g can so that you don’t have any leftovers. Yay.

Monday, December 2, 2019

What your life needs right now: Taiwanese scallion buns

I have always loved Taiwanese bakeries. Even back at the beginning of my life in Taipei, I often indulged my passion for cakes and pastries by making the rounds of my favorite baked goods shops. These buns were one of my most memorable crushes. And now you get to taste why.

If you like things like scallion pancakes (cōngyóubĭng 蔥油餅), where the fragrant green confetti of chopped green onions collides against a dab of oil, a sprinkle of salt, and enough starchy goodness to spread out the flavors in a perfect pattern, then you are going to adore these little breads.

And the thing is, these are super, super easy to pull together. The fact that they are drop-dead gorgeous just makes them irresistible.

Even if this is your first attempt at making raised bread, you will be successful. The actual hands-on time is minimal, as for the lion’s share of the prep you’ll simply be waiting around for the yeast to wake up, the dough to rise, and the buns to bake.

Really foamy yeast is important
If you want, you can make these in a stand mixer with a dough hook or a food processor. It doesn’t really matter. But I like to just whip these up in a bowl and then quickly knead everything on a counter, since I find it’s even faster and simpler that way.

I’m not sure of their history, but I’m guessing that these started out as one of Hong Kong’s many variations on the Parker House roll theme that has worked its way into so many Chinatown bakeries and dim sum teahouses. Perhaps Japan had a hand in this somewhere along the way, as its influence on Taiwan’s Western-style baked goods has always been pretty strong and, admittedly, delicious.

But no matter what their provenance, these buns really took off as culinary stars once they took root in Taiwan. Fortunes have been made with bakeries specializing in these soft breads—both savory and sweet—and many a Chinese market on this side of the Pacific will have a beloved satellite bakery attached to it, or at least very close by.

Fully risen dough
Taiwanese baked breads tend to be much softer and lighter than what we make in the West. There are eggs and shortening in the dough to make the bread even fluffier, but the key to the perfect texture is (as with all Chinese pastas and breads) the flour. Try to find good Korean wheat flour, since it has the right amount of gluten and tends to be of excellent quality. The ones with the polar bear somewhere on the bag are my favorite brand. If that’s not an option, just use my go-to recipe for Chinese flour: 2 parts all-purpose plus 1 part pastry flour.

Although the dough recipe is my own, the source for the shaping of these buns is an excellent blog called The Woks of Life. The ones they showed there were so beautiful that they really caught my eye. This blog deserves a lot of credit and is worth bookmarking, so here’s a shout out and a whole lot of thanks to this adorable family of food writers and bloggers!

These freeze and reheat incredibly well, so make a big batch and stash them away for breakfasts and snacks. If you’re a vegetarian, leave out the pork fluff and you’ll still have amazing buns on your hands.

Mayo as glue = yum
Green onion and pork fluff buns
Xiāngcōng ròusōng miànbāo 香蔥肉鬆麵包
Taiwan
Makes 16 (6-inch | 15 cm) batons

Dough:
1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk (nonfat or regular)
1 tablespoon bread yeast
¼ cup | 60 g sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading and shaping 
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil

Filling:
2 cups lightly packed | 150 g finely chopped green onions
About 1¼ cups | 100 g homemade pork fluff (see Tips), optional
1 cup | 240 ml mayonnaise

Toppings:
Slit the cigar down the middle
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon sugar dissolved in 1 tablespoon boiling water

1. Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in a large work bowl. Give the yeast time to wake up and become very foamy, which should take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t get a good head of foam, buy fresh yeast and start over.

2. Stir the egg, flour, salt, and oil into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. Flour a smooth work surface and dump the dough out on top. Quickly knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is smooth and bouncy. Roll the dough into a ball lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, invert the bowl over the top to help keep the dough moist, and wait until the dough has risen to at least twice its original size, which will take about an hour.

Ready for the oven
3. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to keep them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat a convection oven to 350°F | 175°C (regular oven 375°F | 190°C) and set 1 rack near the center. Working on one piece at a time, roll a piece into a rectangle about 2 x 4 inches | 10 x 5 cm in size. Spread 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise over the dough and sprinkle it with about 2 tablespoons green onion and an optional 1 tablespoon of pork fluff. 

4. Roll the rectangle up from a long side into a cigar, gently flatten it, and then cut it down the middle, leaving one end uncut. Lightly twist these two pieces together with the cut sides out so that they look pretty. Pinch the cut end closed. Place the bun on a prepared baking sheet. You should be able to fit 8 of these buns on each sheet, but be sure to leave around 1 inch | 2 cm between them on all sides, as they will rise. Repeat this step with 7 more balls of dough in order to fill up the sheet.

5. Brush the egg wash all over each of the twists, and then sprinkle them generously with the sesame seeds. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 13 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 4 and 5 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking.

6. Once the buns have baked, brush them with the sugar-water glaze, which will not only add an edge of sweetness, but also make them beautifully shiny. Refrigerate or freeze in resealable bags. To reheat, set them in a 250°F |120°C oven for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Tips
Yes, please

You can of course use store-bought pork fluff. It is much lighter and flossier than the homemade stuff, and also has less flavor but a more delicate crunch, so feel free to use more. If you don’t eat pork, be on the lookout for chicken (jīsõng 雞鬆) or fish (yúsōng 魚鬆) or even vegetarian fluff (sùròusōng 素肉鬆).

Nowadays you can find all sorts of pork fluff on the market. One is called ròusū 肉酥 and seems to be more or less the same thing as pork fluff, or ròusōng 肉鬆. Often stacked nearby will be containers of ròupú 肉脯, and from what I can figure out, these are more or less the same thing, just longer and consisting of slightly coarser threads than rousong.

Again, you can use fluff of some sort here or leave it out. These buns will be fantastic any way you do them.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Dried orchid blossoms

The name alone of this dish is enough to make me smile. In Chinese it’s simply “dried orchid blossoms,” with no other clues as to what is involved. Does it look like an orchid? Or taste like a flower? Or even possess a single petal? Nope.

What this is is a uniquely delicious dish with the most marvelous texture, something that I’ve never found in any other bean curd creation. The secret lies in the fancy knife work, which actually is not at all fancy once you get to know the secret.

We used to buy plastic bags of this when we strolled around downtown Taipei. Certain shops were known for their braised dishes – called lŭwèi 滷味 – and this is a code for the soy sauce marinade. Just about any protein can be turned into luwei, including meats, poultry, eggs, gluten, and bean curd, and the key to making something special lies in a) how the protein is prepared and b) what goes into the marinade.
Up close you can see the beauty

Soy sauce really is the common denominator, and the other usual suspects are ginger, green onions, spices like star anise and cinnamon, rice wine, and sugar. Meats and birds tend to be blanched before they are tossed in the pot, while eggs are hardboiled and peeled, but gluten and bean curd often have unique little steps added to the procedure. This makes complete sense when you think of how many Buddhist vegetarians and vegans there are in China and how Chinese people love to eat, so something had to be done to make meals delicious even if they are meatless.
The luwei braise

Case in point: Dried Orchid Blossoms. They really are nothing more or less than pressed bean curd, those leathery little squares that honestly have little flavor on their own. But with the proper preparation – as here, of course – they turn into something amazing. Again, the key is knowing how to cut these into intricate latticework, as they become not only beautiful, but this opens up each morsel to the hot oil, which in turn puffs the bean curd up into a glorious sponge.

The marinade is open to interpretation. Use whatever spices and aromatics you like. Make it spicy, make it mild, make it how you want. If you are a strict Buddhist, leave out the wine and aromatics. Whatever you do, be sure and add a bit of sweetness to the mix, as this plays well off the slightly sour taste of the bean curd.

I heartily recommend making this a day or two ahead of time, if you can stand the wait. The flavors deepen as the squares soak up the marinade, and each bite becomes memorable. So, make more than you think you want. No matter how much you make, you will end up wanting every last bit, believe me.
Intriguing shapes, delicious all around


Dried orchid blossoms
Lánhuā gān  蘭花乾
Jiangsu
Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer or snack

Bean curd:
24 ounces | 680 g pressed white bean curd (dòufŭgān 豆腐乾), at least ¾ inch | 1.5 cm thick
Boiling water, as needed
Frying oil, as needed

Marinade:
¼ cup | 60 ml regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine
Around 1 tablespoon rock sugar, plus more to taste
1 stick cinnamon
2 star anise
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
5 slices fresh ginger
4 green onions, trimmed but left whole and tied into knots
Parallel chopsticks, vertical cuts

To serve:
2 green onions, trimmed and finely shredded, optional
Chile sauce of any kind, optional

1. Cut the squares apart, if needed. Place the pressed bean curd in a pan and cover with boiling water. Bring the water to a full boil, dump everything into a colander set in the sink, and then place the squares on a clean tea towel to dry off.

2. To shape the dried orchids, first find a pair of chopsticks that are about one-third the thickness of the bean curd. Place a chopstick on either side of one of the squares. Make vertical cuts from the top down to the chopsticks about ¼ inch | 0.5 cm  apart. Turn the square over and place the two chopsticks at a right angle to each other and set the square inside. Starting from the inside corner of the angle, make diagonal cuts down to the chopsticks again about ¼ inch | 0.5 cm apart. When you reach the middle, turn the square 180° so that the uncut portion sits against the chopsticks, and then continue to cut this area on the diagonal. Once you are done, if you gently pull on either end of the square, it will open up into an accordion. This is called the “coir raincoat cut,” if you’re interested. Repeat with the rest of the squares until done.
Perpendicular sticks, diagonal cuts

3. Set a wok with about 2 inches | 5 cm of frying oil over medium-high heat. Slide 2 of the opened squares into the oil, making sure that they do not touch. Fry them on both sides until they are light brown and hard to the touch, which will take about 7 minutes. While they are frying, use your chopsticks to pull on them at each end to open them up, which will turn the squares into lacy rectangles. Remove them to a 2-quart | 2-liter saucepan. Repeat with the rest of the bean curd until all are fried.

4. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan and add boiling water almost to cover. Bring the pot to a full boil and then lower to a slow simmer. Cook the bean curd uncovered for about 2 hours, gently tossing them now and then. Turn off the heat and let this sit covered overnight. They are best if refrigerated for a day or two so that the flavors really seep in, and they keep for at least a week in the marinade. To serve, cut the rectangles into ½ inch | 1 cm wide strips and serve with chopped green onions and chile sauce, if desired.

These are quite beautiful every step of the way. Here's a glimpse of them frying:







Monday, November 18, 2019

Pastries for a dowager empress or a MIL

Here is one of the recipes that will be featured in my upcoming memoir: THE JADE LABYRINTH. W. W. Norton will most likely be publishing it in 2021, and it will be illustrated just like all of my other books. 

One of the stories in there evolved out of a short story called "Good Graces" that I wrote for the online magazine Life & Thyme. "Good Graces" talks about the day I finally broke down my mother-in-laws defenses using the tastiest weaponry around: food from her childhood.

If you haven’t read “Good Graces” yet, here it is again. And if you are wondering what those chestnut thimbles taste like and how to make them yourself without breaking a sweat, I’m here to tell you that, too.

First off, though, let me tell you a bit about what these are and how they evolved. In North China, just about any pastry or starchy morsel can be called a wōwō 窩窩, and tóu 頭means "head" or "tip," so, wowotouer basically translates as pointy little pastries. Which is what they are.

Dry, hard-to-digest millet was the grain of choice for wowotouer until maize was introduced from the Americas, and, as in Italy, the lovely flavor of dried corn quickly upended millet’s standing in that part of the world. (Reliance on this admittedly delicious grain also was a deciding factor in the rise of niacin – aka vitamin B3 – deficiency wherever it was happily adopted and overused, but going down that rabbit hole would seriously derail the topic here.) 
Italian chestnut flour

Wowotouer were mainly eaten by northern Chinese for centuries because they were cheap and filling. And that is where they stayed for endless years.

However, these little thimbles eventually became refined enough to find admirers in the imperial household. Dowager Empress Cixi was said to have loved them, and enterprising palace chefs tried other ingredients to expand their repertoire and please the picky old lady. Much like I was attempting to do with my new MIL.

Back in the day, these were a genuine pain to make. I had to spend many hours soaking the dried Chinese chestnuts and then painstakingly ferreting out the hard red skins that cling steadfastly to the intensely wrinkled nuts.

But ever since I discovered Italian chestnut flour, I’ve happily given up on all that drudgery. The mild, smoky flavor of dried chestnuts is still there – admittedly not as strong as in Chinese chestnuts – and it gives these delicate little steamed pastries a wonderful airiness that makes it incredibly easy to breathe down half a dozen before realizing it. You can find this wonderful ingredient in good Italian delis and markets, as well as online.

Red dates
The addition of dates and milk make this a riff on the traditional recipe, as I never really enjoyed the dry and (I’m sorry, Popo) rather boring and even leaden texture of the originals. However, the dates offer little sweet-and-sour jolts in every mouthful and increase the moistness to a delicious degree, while the milk powder offers a subtle sweetness that amplifies the natural flavor of the chestnuts. 

You can easily put these together in half an hour, but they are just as easy to make ahead and freeze. I like them for a simple breakfast with black tea (lychee tea is incredibly good here) and fruit, or in the afternoon with green tea and a couple bowls of sweet sesame soup.

Beyond suitable for feeding a dowager empress or a terrifying Chinese mother-in-law, they are also perfect for feeding your homesick Beijing friends.

Chestnut thimbles
Lìzĭ wōwōtóuer  栗子窩窩頭兒
Makes 16 to 18
 
Ready to be steamed
10 small (or 5 large) Chinese dates
Boiling water, as needed
1¼ cups | 115 g Italian chestnut flour (farina di castagne)
1 cup 120 ml boiling water
Spray oil (if you are using paper steamer liners)
2 tablespoons cake or pastry flour
1 tablespoon powdered milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon sea salt

1. Stem and rinse the dates before placing them in a heatproof bowl. Cover them with boiling water and set a plate on top of them so that they plump up quickly. When the water has cooled down enough for you to handle them easily, pit the dates and chop them finely.

2. Pour the chestnut flour into a medium mixing bowl and stir in the boiling water to make a thick, bouncy dough. Let the chestnut mixture cool down while you prepare the other ingredients and your steamers. Line 2 steamer racks with either moist cheesecloth or steamer paper and spray oil on the paper, if you are using that.

Shape it on a finger
3. Stir the chopped dates, flour, powdered milk, sugar, baking powder, and salt into the chestnut dough to make a moist mass. Set a work bowl with cool water next to your work area so that you can shape the wowotouer without the dough sticking to your hands. Pick up a golfball-sized wad of dough (around 2 tablespoons) and shape it into a ball. Repeat with the rest of the dough, which should give you around 16 balls.

4. To shape a wowotouer, wet your hands once again and then stick one of your smallest fingers into one of the balls, and then smooth the paste around it to form a thimble with a pointy tip. Smooth the exterior so that it looks elegant, and place the thimble in a warmed-up steamer basket. Repeat with the rest of the dough until done. Cover the steamer and steam the wowotouer over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Serve these thimbles hot or warm with tea as an afternoon. These can be made ahead of time and even frozen in resealable bags. Steam to reheat, rather than microwave, because as with all pastries, microwaving them gives them a tough texture.

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