Monday, June 24, 2019

Taiwanese pineapple buns

Today's delightful pastries are an inescapable part of any good Chinese bakery’s landscape. They also confuse the heck out of people who try them for the first time because there is absolutely no pineapple in there. 

Pineapple buns get their name from the scored surface, which, you have to admit, does look more than a bit like a pineapple’s skin. 

I’ve loved these ever since I first moved to Taiwan and figured out through repeated tasting trips that they were remarkably good even though no fruit was involved.

It’s really a genius pastry: a crunchy cookie coating hides a soft raised bun, and that’s about it. When done right, the flavors are also super simple, as you taste little more than good butter, sugar, and yeast.
A thing of beauty
I’d like to give Taiwan all the credit for this, but I can’t. I am also unable to tell you that this was the invention of some clever Japanese pastry chefs, even though this bread wound its way to Taiwan via Japan. No, this is a variation on the Mexican concha. Next time you go to a Mexican market, check out their bakery, as you will find all sorts of buns with airy toppings there. Most of them will be shaped like shells, which is what concha means, of course.

Anyway, good things to eat have a way of finding new and appreciative audiences, and these conchas eventually came to look more like little pineapples.

What I like about making these myself is that I get to taste really good ingredients in here instead of too much sugar, cheap fats, and poor quality flour. Since there really are not that many things in here, the best eggs, butter, and flour will turn these into wonderful pastries.

The soft cookie dough
I’ve also put more cookie on top than is usually called for. I mean, a commercial bakery is probably going to cut corners, but when you make these yourself, you should emphasize whatever aspects of that recipe genuinely appeal to you, and that crunchy topping is definitely something that makes me smile.

To be honest, I’ve tried and tried to make these, but they never turned out right. Then, one time I figured out that cake flour had to be used in the bread, rather than all purpose, even though it was a yeast dough. The results were perfection: soft and light, yet just tensile enough to rise into light bubbles, almost like a brioche.

But the cookie dough threw me another curve ball, since I found that bread flour was needed to give this paste enough body to work with it without it falling apart.

None of this makes any sense, if you have much experience as a baker: cake flour for the bread, bread flour for the cookie part. And yet it works. Go figure.
Cookie dough on top of bread dough
So, throw these together soon. They don’t take much time, and if you give one to a Chinese friend, your reputation as a great baker will become a thing of legend.

Pineapple buns
Bōluó bāo 菠蘿包
Taiwanese cuisine
Makes 16

Bread dough:
1 package | 2½ teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons | 30 ml warm water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup | 240 ml very warm water
¼ cup | 25 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Around 4 cups | 560 g unbleached cake flour
1 teaspoon unsalted butter, softened, to grease the bowl

Cookie dough:
2 sticks (1 cup | 120 g ) unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons | 80 g sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Foamy yeast = live yeast
1½ cups | 240 g unbleached bread flour

Water, as needed
1 large egg, lightly beaten, for the egg wash

1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the 2 tablespoons warm water and let the yeast soften and bloom while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Stir the yeasty water after about 10 minutes – it should be foaming at this point, which shows that the yeast is still alive. If nothing is going on in the cup, get some new yeast.

2. Stir the softened butter and salt into the cup of very warm water until the butter melts, and then stir in the powdered milk. Place 3 cups | 320 g cake flour in a medium work bowl and then stir the yeast mixture and the egg to form a sticky dough. Add more flour until it is manageable, and then turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough, adding more flour as needed, until it is soft and tensile. Clean and dry the work bowl, then smear the teaspoon of butter inside. Form the dough into a smooth ball and place it in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place until it is double in bulk. Punch it down, turn it over, and cover again until it is again double in size.
Scoring the top

3. As soon as the bread dough is given a chance to rise, make the cookie dough, since it needs to chill for at least an hour. Use a stand or hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar together until light. Add the egg and flour, and then mix until smooth. Scrape the cookie dough into a smaller container, cover, and chill for at least an hour.

4. Line two baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper. Divide the bread dough into 16 even pieces and roll these into balls. Set 8 balls on each lined sheet. Let the dough rise while you work on the cookie dough.

5. Arrange two racks in the oven toward the center and then heat the oven to 350°F | 170°C. Prepare 2 sheets of plastic wrap and set them on your work surface. Divide the cookie dough into 16 even pieces and roll these into balls. Try to use only your fingers and the heel of your hand, rather than your palm, as these will not warm up the dough. Place a ball of cookie dough on a sheet of plastic wrap, cover it with the other piece, and press down on the dough with the heel of your hand to form a wide disc about 3 inches | 7.5 cm wide. Drape the disc over one of the balls of bread dough and pat the edges against the bread. Repeat with the other buns on that sheet.

6. Dip a plastic pastry scraper in flour and make 4 even lines across the top of a bun, then crisscross these with 4 diagonal lines. Wipe your scraper often on a wet towel and dip the edge in flour, as otherwise it will stick and make raggedly edges. Repeat this with the rest of the buns. Use a pastry brush to dab water over the cookie topping on each bun. Let the buns rise for about 20 minutes.
A water + an egg wash

7. Just before you place them in the oven, brush that last beaten egg over the top of each bun, hitting the whole cookie, so that it will brown evenly. Bake the buns for about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through the cooking time, until the tops are a golden brown. Slide the sheets with the buns onto a counter so that they stop cooking on the bottom, and nudge them free once they have cooled. Eat warm or cooled. They are wonderful with a pat of butter in the middle, too. Store in an airtight container.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Mango pudding for adults

Every decent dim sum teahouse tends to offer little bowls of mango pudding on the dessert menu, but I almost never order it. The problem is, the pale orange stuff generally referred to as “mango pudding” nowadays rarely turns out to be a celebration of one of Mother Nature’s all-time greatest hits. 

I mean, when made correctly this is little more than an inspired combination of dead-ripe mangoes and fresh light cream. So, what you should be reveling in at the end of a dim sum meal or Cantonese banquet should be nothing less than divine, and when you look at the ingredients you'll realize that by all rights mango pudding ought to be awfully hard to mess up. 

Part of the problem is that most restaurants expect to serve this to the kids or to people who just want something on the order of ice cream for dessert. And so, the mango pudding we all get served will be cold, it will be sweet, and it will most likely be made from some mix with canned mangoes added and maybe a maraschino cherry on top, if the place really is trying hard. But that doesn't come near to the required simple perfection of this dish, which will transport devotees like me into a state of shivering ecstasy.

No, for that I have to make a batch of mango pudding by myself. And I’m here to tell you how. And the good news is that it’s not at all that difficult a task, especially when you consider how much gratification is at stake, how short life is, and how few perfectly ripe mangoes we manage to enjoy in various iterations before we shuffle off this mortal coil.

A great mango pudding should be a cool and fragrant bath for the senses. When made correctly, this luscious dessert offers a delicious cosseting for the tongue in between pillowy cubes of fresh, fragrant mangoes.

This is, in short, heaven in a bowl.
A wrinkly ripe Ataulfo (aka Manila) mango

Like just about every other great dessert that I love, mango pudding was not designed with the kiddies in mind. Rather, this can and should be a dish of great sophistication, full of flavor, not too sweet, capable of surprise, and immensely satisfying, especially after a long and filling dinner.

The one really important thing you have to do if you want success is get ahold of some very tasty, perfectly ripe, and not at all fibrous mangoes.

Right now is a good time in the Bay Area for Ataulfo or Manila mangoes, which are very aromatic, creamy, and relatively small. But any good mango will do. Learn to discern the varieties that you like (my other go-to mangoes are Kent and Haden, but that’s not at all a complete list) and keep an eye out for them, because this dessert requires careful planning.

What you have to remember is that you almost never can get perfectly ripe mangoes in the market, as they bruise and squish so easily. Instead, hunt down delicious specimens that show great promise (I tend to lug home a whole case of the fruit in greedy anticipation of meals to come) and let them ripen away in the kitchen. When they start to smell fabulous and the skins are a bit wrinkled, give the stem end the very gentlest of squeezes to confirm that the mangoes are ready to be celebrated in style.

Mango pudding was probably descended from India’s mango phirni and was possibly introduced to Guangzhou (Canton) by the British, who had lots of fingers in a whole lot of colonial pies. Nevertheless, this has managed to become inarguably Chinese over the past hundred-plus years.

And yet, in spite of this illustrious history, I really couldn’t leave well enough alone, now, could I?

Diced mangoes
So, you get your half-and-half here instead of condensed or evaporated milk. You have a touch of sweetener instead of lots of sugar. You have way more mango in there than probably is legal in many states. And… I’ve slipped in some rum. You of course don’t need to include it if you’re serving this to children or other teetotalers. But it’s great with this little extra dash of fun.

By the way, this is a fantastic dessert to serve after a fancy dinner at home because it can be made well ahead of time. All you need to do is add the garnishes and serve.

Mango pudding chez Huang
Huángjiā māngguŏ bùdīng 黃家芒果布丁
Guangdong cuisine
Serves 4

1 packet | 6 g unflavored gelatin
¼ cup | 60 ml cool water
Around 1½ pounds | 750 g ripe mangoes, which would be about 3 Manilas or Ataulfos (see headnote)
1 cup | 240 ml half-and-half
¼ cup | 60 ml mango rum, passion fruit rum, or dark rum, or you may add agave syrup or sugar to taste

To serve:
¼ cup | 60 ml half-and-half
Mint sprigs

Easy but delicious
1. In a medium work bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the cool water and let it soften while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Peel and pit the mangoes. Puree enough of the mangoes in a blender or food processor to give you approximately 1½ cups | 360 ml. Cut the rest of the mangoes into small (½ inch | 1 cm) cubes.

3. Pour the half-and-half into a 1 quart | 1 liter heatproof measuring cup. Microwave the half-and-half for a minute, stir, and then microwave again in short bursts until the liquid is very hot but not boiling over. Stir the softened gelatin into the hot liquid and swish things around gently with a small whisk until the gelatin is dissolved. Then, stir in the mango puree and either the rum or the agave syrup.

4. Divide the pudding among 4 (1 cup | 240 ml) dessert bowls and chill for about an hour, by which time the pudding will have thickened a bit. Reserve a couple tablespoons of the cubed mango for garnish, if you wish, and then divide the rest among the bowls, stir very gently to mix in the fruit, and refrigerate the pudding for at least 2 more hours and up to 3 days. Serve chilled with a small puddle of half-and-half on top, as well as a couple of mango cubes and a small mint sprig stuck into the edge to snazz things up.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Cold spicy sweet tart nutty noodles from Sichuan

When the weather starts to heat up, I begin looking forward to making this super easy dish from the delicious province of Sichuan in central China. 

A land of muggy summers, Sichuan is the place where chili lovers make themselves sweat even more by consuming fiery foods. 

This might seem counter-intuitive, but it's all in tune with the thinking of traditional Chinese medicine, since this releases the pent-up heat in the body through perspiration, and so you feel cooler than before.

One such dish is called simply Cold Noodles and is nothing more than cooked, chilled noodles piled on top of blanched bean sprouts, topped with lots of veggies and either pressed bean curd or poached chicken strips, and then ornamented with lots of the spicy sauce known as "strange flavor" in Chinese.
It's all about balance

I don't know the origin of this name. Perhaps it is because it is an amalgam of every almost type of flavor there is: sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and nutty. You could throw some bitter in there and make it a home run, I guess, but I like it just the way it is.

This is another recipe that is open to interpretation, messing around, experimenting with. There really is no bad way to make cold noodles if you use good ingredients and make sure everything goes well with each other.

The classic ingredients here are -- in addition to the cold noodles -- blanched bean sprouts and shredded poached chicken. But even those are really subject to what you like and what you have in the fridge. 

Fresh mung bean sprouts
Here I've substituted baiye bean curd (like a softer pressed tofu) for the chicken to make a meatless version, and it was great. As for the veggies, just about anything is fine as long as it is refreshing and preferably slightly crunchy. If you can have some contrasting colors, so much the better.

Things like tomatoes wouldn't go very well in here because of their assertive flavor and soft texture. But shredded carrots, cucumbers, green onions, celery, sweet red peppers, and so forth get along quite well with the noodles and bean sprouts without overpowering all of the other flavors going on in the bowl.

Why blanched bean sprouts under the noodles? It may be hard to imagine just from the description, but they add a wonderful lightness to the noodles. Crisp and juicy, they mingle delightfully with the starchy yellow strands and add complexity and refreshment to each bite.

Assorted veggies and tofu

I've incorporated the Citrus Chili Oil with Black Beans in the previous post here, and it is amazing how much it adds to the flavors. The tiny bits of fermented black beans provide pungent, salty notes while the orange peel and ground chili tantalize the taste buds. Then, the sugar, vinegar, and soy sauce round out the nutty flavors of sesame oil and paste, while finely ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns tingle the nose.

Dishes like this make living in a hot, sweaty climate something worth enduring!

Cold noodles Sichuan style
Sichuan liangmian 四川涼麵
Sichuan cuisine
Serves 4 as a main dish

Noodles and toppings:

24 ounces (about 4 cups) | 700 g mung bean sprouts
Water, as needed
About 1 pound | 500 g fresh Chinese noodles of any kind
Around 1 cup | 125 g shredded poached chicken or julienned pressed bean curd
2 or 3 green onions, trimmed and shredded
2 Persian or other tender cucumbers and/or
1 carrot, shredded and/or half a sweet red pepper and/or 1 large stalk celery and/or
handful of blanched snow pea pods and/or any other vegetable you'd like here


10 to 12 tablespoons | 150 to 180 ml goop from the Citrus Chili Oil
6 to 8 tablespoons | 90 to 125 ml oil from the Citrus Chili Oil
4 tablespoons | 50 g sugar
4 tablespoons | 60 ml balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons | 90 ml toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame paste or peanut butter
2 teaspoons toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns

1. Blanch the bean sprouts by putting them in a 2-quart saucepan, covering them with water, and bringing the pot to a boil. The sprouts are ready when they have lost that "beany" flavor but are still crispy; do not overcook them. Immediately dump the pot into a colander place in the sink and run cold water over the bean sprouts to stop them from cooking any further. Drain and shake the sprouts in the colander to get rid of most of the water. Divide the cook sprouts among 4 large noodle bowls.

Loosen the noodles before boiling

2. Fill the saucepan halfway with water and bring it to a boil. While it is heating up, open the noodles and run your fingers through them to break up the clump. (I dump them in a big bowl if they are particularly knotted up and work the clumps loose.) Add the noodles to the boiling water in small handfuls, and stir the noodles as you add them. Stir occasionally until the water comes to a boil again, and then lower the heat to medium. The noodles will cook quickly, and you should start tasting them as soon as they rise to the surface. When they have cooked through but are still chewy, dump the water and noodles into the colander place in the sink and run water over the noodles until they are cool. Shake them dry and divide the noodles among the 4 bowls.

3. Shred or finely julienned the rest of the toppings and arrange them on top of the noodles in a decorative manner.

4. Mix the sauce ingredients together until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour an equal amount over each bowl and serve. Let your diners toss the noodles themselves.

Rinse the boiled noodles

Fresh noodles taste best here, but dried can be substituted if you like. 

Buy bean sprouts no more than a day before you want to use them, as they spoil quickly. They keep best in a container covered with water and stored in the refrigerator.

Use other chili oils if you like; just make sure that they are fresh and very flavorful, as they make or break this dish.

If your sesame paste or peanut butter is hard, microwave it to make it smooth.

To make toasted ground Sichuan peppercorns, follow the directions for Toasted Sichuan Peppercorn and Salt, but don't use the salt; just toast the peppercorns, grind finely, and sift to remove any hard pieces.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Taiwanese peanut tamales

This Friday - June 7 - is Dragon Boat Festival, and there's still time to get ready with this really delicious version of rice tamales from Taiwan.

Taiwan has an absolutely fabulous range of foods, as you’ve probably already figured out from my endless ravings on the subject. Really, though, the culinary creativity of just about every corner of China found a home on this island and then blossomed.

Case in point: Chinese tamales.

Also known as zòngzĭ 粽子, you are able to enjoy an immense variety in Taiwan, including the enormous sweet bean paste or savory pork ones from Hunan, delicately hued amber tamales that probably hale from the Hakka regions, sticky rice paste ones that also lay claim to Hakka ancestry, and lovely Shanghainese tamales with sweet bean centers.

But the list goes on and on, and we’ll most likely be enjoying more recipes each summer as Dragon Boat Festival rolls around again.

Today’s recipe is simple, and so I won’t keep you in suspense for long, since I really want you to try it as soon as you can. The ingredients are absolutely minimal, but they combine to form one of my favorite types of tamale, since it can be eaten sweet or savory, hot or chilled, with toppings or as is, and are beloved by everyone who tastes them.

Honestly, these should be part of your regular repertoire all year around.

Taiwanese peanut tamales
Táiwānshì huāshēng zòng  
Taiwanese cuisine
Makes 16 tamales

2 cups | 400 g round sticky rice (try brown sticky rice, if you can find it)
16 large dried bamboo leaves (zòngyè
粽葉), plus a few extra just in case
1 cup | 150 g raw peeled peanuts
Lots of cotton kitchen string

Boiling water

Peanut sugar (optional):
½ cup | 75 g toasted shelled peanuts
Yup, that's it
3 tablespoons (or more) sugar of any type
½ teaspoon sea salt

or some plain old dark brown sugar

1. Start this recipe at least 8 hours before you want to serve the tamales. Pick over the rice for any foreign matter or stones, rinse it twice, and then soak the rice and peanuts together for at least an hour and up to overnight with enough cool water to cover it by at least 2 inches | 5 cm. Use your fingernail to test the rice and peanuts to ensure they’re ready: your fingernail should be able to split them easily.

2. An hour or so before you want to start wrapping the tamales, drain the rice and peanuts in a strainer over the sink and then clean and soak the bamboo leaves as directed in this recipe for Hakka tamales. Trim off the stem ends of the leaves and then cover the cleaned leaves with a moist towel.

3. If you have a slow stove, take a moment to set up about a gallon of water in a 2 gallon | 8 L pot on your stove over high heat so that it has comes to a boil while you are busy wrapping the tamales. 

5. Fold a leaf as directed in the Hakka tamale recipe with the shiny side on the inside and a slight fold at the bottom to keep the rice from squirreling out. Use a Chinese soupspoon to place 2 scoops of the rice-peanut mixture into the cone. Fold the leaf ends over the cone, allow about a half inch of slack in the fold (see the illustration and description in the previous post). Gently tie it up with 2 or 3 simple loops around the center and tie it off, keeping one end long so that you can tie 4 to 6 of the tamales together.

A personal source of happiness
6. When all of the tamales have been filled and tied, lower them gently into the boiling water, cover the pot, and boil them for about 5 minutes to set their shape. Then, remove the cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the tamales for about 90 minutes; add more boiling water if needed to completely submerge the tamales, and check them at 15 minute intervals just to make sure they don't need a bit more water.

7. Remove the tamales from the boiling water and drain. Eat them right away or cool down and store. They can be sprinkled with brown sugar, which is how many people like them. To make the optional peanut sugar, finely crush the peanuts and mix with the sugar and salt; adjust the seasoning as you like. You can then sprinkle them with this for a double peanut whammy, if you are so inclined. Children and children-at-heart will love you for it.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Super light Taiwanese orange cheesecake

Taiwan’s cheesecakes are sublime. They’re light and fresh, plus they’re not very sweet, but the taste is off the charts.

These are nothing like New York cheesecakes, which are dense and creamy and very cheesy. Rather Taiwanese cheesecakes are almost like chilled soufflés.  

When I worked in Taipei, my girlfriends in the office would often take me along to a bakery whenever they needed an afternoon pick-me-up, and there these exquisite cheesecakes would beckon. 

Part of the allure would be the mirrorlike glaze that contained shimmering bits of colorful fruit. They looked so decadent, and yet turned out to be (almost) diet food because of their cloudlike texture.

These cheesecakes often are baked without a graham cracker crust, which lessens the sweetness by many decibels. This also means that all of the focus in this dessert is aimed at the cheesecake and whatever topping is slid on top.

Pretty as a picture
Finally, these are even more sensible because they’re make in very small sizes – only 6 inches or 15 centimeters in diameter – which makes a very good case in my mind for commandeering the whole thing for myself. 

I mean, these are relatively lo cal, right?

Taiwanese style orange cheesecake
Táiwān zhīshì júxiāng dàngāo 台灣芝士橘香蛋糕
Taiwan pastry
Makes one (6-inch | 15 cm) cake and serves around 6

Spray oil

2 large egg whites, room temperature
1 teaspoon orange juice
3 tablespoons sugar, divided in half

Rest of the filling:
About 4 ounces | 110 g cream cheese, room temperature
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1½ tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons | 85 ml whole milk, room temperature
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Cracked surface is A-OK
3 tablespoons cake flour
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Finely grated peel of 1 orange

Boiling water, as needed

1 envelope gelatin
¼ cup | 60 ml cool water
1 (11 ounce | 312 g) can mandarin orange segments in light syrup
Orange juice, as needed

1. Start this a day before you plan to serve it. Line a 6-inch | 15 cm springform pan with aluminum foil, spray lightly with oil, and then line it with yet another layer of parchment paper. Set a rack in the center of your oven and heat the oven to 350°F | 180°C.

2. Place the egg whites, orange juice, and half of the sugar in a very clean mixing bow. Whip on high with the whisk attachment until soft peaks form. Sprinkle in the rest of the sugar and beat until the whites are a stiff meringue, but not dry. Scrape this into a clean work bowl. 

Arrange the orange segments
3. Place the cream cheese in the mixing bowl and beat with the paddle attachment until light. Beat in the butter and then the sugar. Slowly beat in the milk, egg yolks, cornstarch, flour, salt, and orange peel. 

4. Use a balloon whisk to fold a quarter of the meringue into the batter, and then gently fold in the rest. 

5. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan. Set this into a deep baking pan and add enough boiling water so that it comes up at least 1 inch | 2 cm around the cake pan. Bake the cheesecake in the water bath for 15 minutes, at which time the surface should start to barely turn brown. Reduce the heat to 250°F | 120°C and continue to bake for around 35 to 40 minutes. The edges will pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean when it is ready. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and set it on a rack to cool for about 10 minutes.

6. Release the cake from the rim. Pull the parchment paper gently away from the cheesecake and then let the cake cool down to room temperature. 

Jeweled topping
7. Next, make the jelly top: Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and give it about 10 minutes to swell up and bloom. Drain syrup from the orange segments into a measuring cup and add enough orange juice (from that same one you used for zest) to get ¾ cup | 190 ml. Microwave this juice for a minute or two so that it almost boils, and then stir the gelatin into this hot liquid until the gelatin dissolves.

8. The cake will shrink as it cools, so the easiest way to mold a jelly top is to line the cake pan you just used with plastic wrap and use this as your jelly mold. You will then cut away any extra jelly later on. So, arrange the mandarin orange slices in the bottom of the pan in an attractive pattern. Pour about ¼ cup | 60 ml of the gelatin mixture over the orange segments and chill. When this has firmed up, pour in about ½ cup | 125 ml over the jelly and chill again.

9. When the jelly is very firm, remove it from the plastic and flip it over onto the plastic wrap and return it to the pan so that the oranges are on the top – this will give you a shiny surface on the finished cake. Pour in the rest of the gelatin mixture and then set the cheesecake on top. Cover and chill overnight.

10. Unmold the cheesecake onto a serving plate and trim off any excess from the jelly layer. Use a sharp knife to cut it into wedges, and wipe the knife with a hot, moist towel between slices to get sharp edges to each wedge.