Monday, November 11, 2019

Chocolate for breakfast

Chocolate for breakfast is my idea of a great way to start a Monday morning. The French certainly have this right in spades, as there chocolate gets stuffed into croissants or spread on slices of bread. How nice it would have been to grow up in Paris…

But that’s not to say that they’ve cornered the market on the perfect combination of bread and chocolate. My personal take on a wonderful Hong Kong-style recipe shows that breakfast can be both beautiful and delicious. Making a luscious loaf like this it will certainly put you in the running for Favorite Adult of the Year if you happen to serve it to kids. And if you are having adults over for brunch, this and a pot of coffee will all but guarantee serious adulation.

Next week I’m going to talk more about this inspired use of a simple roux known locally as “hot dough,” or tāngzhŏng 湯種, to make the bread especially moist and light. I’ll also talk more about making Pullman loaves—something you’ve probably never heard of if you are under a *certain* age—but which means the loaf is baked with a flat cover that turns it into the classic Wonder bread loaf shape. Squarish breads like this are usually called tusi in Chinese, which just means “toast,” since they are designed to be sliced and browned. When you have chocolate and other soft fillings meandering around in the dough, as in here, be sure to toast the slices for only a short time to prevent the fillings from making a getaway.
Klee, Child and Aunt, 1937

By the way, I think this bread looks like something one of my favorite artists, Paul Klee, would have adored.

Hot dough chocolate swirl pullman loaf
Tāngzhŏng qiăokèlì dàlĭshí tùsī  湯種巧克力大理石吐司
Hong Kong-ish
Makes 1 (9 x 4 inch | 22 x 10 cm) loaf
½ cup | 120 ml cool water
3 tablespoons | 25 g Chinese flour

1 teaspoon active yeast
6 tablespoons | 90 ml warm water
3 tablespoons | 35 g sugar
¼ cup | 30 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 cups | 300 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g for kneading
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 60 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup | 100 g chocolate sprinkles (aka jimmies)
Spray oil
Water for sprinkling

1. Start the roux at least 1 hour before you prepare the rest of the dough, as it will need time to cool off a bit. Add the water to a heatproof measuring cup and stir in the flour. Smash any major lumps that rise to the surface, and then microwave this liquid on high for 1 minute until you have a thick roux that is very elastic. Sample the roux, and if you can detect the taste of flour, microwave it for another 30 seconds or so. Stir the roux then let it come to room temperature before you proceed to the next step.

A fat, chocolate-filled snake
2. 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 cool roux, powdered milk, egg, 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. 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 rise until it is again at least double in size.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead it for a minute or so to wake it up. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, shaped these into balls, cover with the plastic wrap, and let them rest for about 20 minutes to fully relax the dough and make it easier to shape.

4. Working on one piece at a time, roll a ball of dough out into a 30 x 6 inch | 75 x 15 cm rectangle. Dust the chocolate sprinkles down the middle of the strip. Fold each of the long edges toward the center, pinch the open edge into the roll to close it, and then roll the rope gently to smooth it out a bit. Repeat with the other ball of dough.

And the snake coiled
5. Spray your Pullman loaf pan and lid with oil. Coil the ropes into the pan so that they are more or less evenly filling the bottom, and so that the top of the dough is more or less even—you don’t have to be terribly accurate, but this step will help the loaf rise more evenly. Sprinkle the dough with water and then cover the pan with plastic wrap and 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 the dough overproof.)

6. Set a rack just below the middle of your oven and set it for 350°F | 175°C. When the oven is ready, sprinkle 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 30 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.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Taro horseshoe buns

One of the homiest, most comforting flavors around has to be that of taro. If you have never enjoyed this lovely tropical root, let me say that you should stop right here, head for an Asian store, buy some taro, and prepare to fall in love.

There is a warmth to taro that you just don’t find in other starchy vegetables. Yes, potatoes are nice in all their permutations, but they are, when you get right down to it, there is not an immense amount of flavor or texture. Sweet potatoes—especially delectable Garnets—are fabulous, but in a totally different way from taro. They are moist and honeyed, and when cooked the Shaanxi way, will ooze out caramel like nobody’s business.

Taro, though, has something else going on. Slightly fibrous, it cooks into a potato-like mass that smells slightly of vanilla and nuts (at least to my nose). My house has the most wonderful aromas whenever I cook with it, summoning my husband downstairs in an anticipatory trot to find out what’s on today’s menu.
Taro with my mighty peeler

Which brings us to today’s menu: baked taro buns. Nobody does baked buns like the Taiwanese. There is a lovely pan-Pacific carnival involved here, a perfect marriage between East and West. Like in those delicious green onion buns from two weeks ago, this is basically a variation on Parker House rolls, for they are rich and yeasty, with eggs and oil in the dough.

But what makes these so quintessentially Chinese are the taro filling and the spectacular shapes. I have, naturally, made these less sweet than what is traditional—you can of course make them as sweet as you want. I’ve opted instead for just a smidgen of white sugar in order to keep the pale lavender hue and a hunk of butter that is there just to keep things properly luscious. And since we have butter in the filling, I also used butter in the dough so that we have some happy harmony in each bite. Do note that I have not colored the taro, as way too many commercial bakeries do. (To be honest, I’m pretty sure that powdered mixes are involved, which sneaks in nasty old vanillin and a plethora of chemicals.) If you want, you can give this a violent violet hue. I’m not judging. Much.

Lavender-specked slices
Also note that the dough here is slightly less sweet than with those used for savory fillings. This will give you the proper juxtaposition between flavors so that you’re not overwhelmed with sugar. I’ve sanded them with coarse sugar, too, which is another reason to dial down the sweetness where you can.

As for the shapes, aren’t they beautiful? They look impossibly hard to make, but in fact are incredibly easy once you do a couple in order to get the knack down. Just fill a piece of dough as if you were making baozi, flatten it, and then slash it before rolling it up. How hard is that?

Fresh from the steamer
Like all of these buns I’m going to be talking about in the near future (I’ve been on a bit of a bun binge lately), these freeze well and heat up deliciously. Get a nice, crisp edge on them when you do that, and they might even be better than fresh out of the oven.

Taiwanese taro horseshoe buns
Yùní miànbāo 芋泥麵包
Makes 16 large buns

Around 1½ pounds | 700 g taro
½ cup | 115 g sugar
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons cream or milk
½ teaspoon sea salt

1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
Filling the dough
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk (nonfat or regular)
1 tablespoon bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water
¼ cup sanding sugar

1. First make the filling: Wear kitchen or latex gloves when working with raw taro unless you are sure you’re not allergic to it. Remove the skin with a potato peeler, rinse the taro, and cut it lengthwise into quarters. Then cut it into ½ inch | 1 cm slices. Steam the taro for 15 – 20 minutes, or until it can be easily flaked with a fork.

2. Mash the taro (make it as coarse or fine as you like), either by placing it in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, or in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or by hand.  Add the sugar, butter, cream or milk, and salt, and mix thoroughly; if you’re using a food processor or stand mixer, you can beat it until it is light and fluffy. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you want to add food coloring, now is the time. Divide the filling into 16 even pieces.

A baozi shape
3. Now make the dough: Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in your food processor, stand mixer bowl, or a large work bowl. (BTW, you don’t need to wash out the bowl before you do this.) 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.

4. Stir the egg, flour, salt, and oil into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the hook attachment; use a metal blade for the food processor, of it you’re doing this by hand, 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 and lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, stick 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.

Slash the dough
5. 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 (375°F | 190°C for a regular oven) and set 1 rack near the center.

6. Working on one piece at a time, and working on a lightly floured surface, roll a piece into a disc about 5 inches| 13 cm in diameter. Place one ball of filling in the center and bring up the edges around it to seal the filling well. Gently flatten the ball with the heel of your hand. Roll it out into a rectangular-ish shape about 8 x 4 inches | 20 x 10 cm.

7. Flip it over so the smooth side is on top, and then slash it horizontally about every ½ inch | 1 cm so that you just cut through the top layer, but not all the way through the dough. Flip it back over. Starting at the long edge, loosely roll the dough up so that the cuts are on the outside. Gently shape the bun into a horseshoe and use a pastry scraper to lift the bun onto  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.
Roll it up

8. Brush the egg wash all over each of the twists, and then sprinkle them generously with the sanding sugar. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking.


Use the large taro for this sort of filling, since it is very flavorful and starchy. Baby taro bulblets are much too moist and vegetal for this.

Some taro will be larger than footballs, and some will be cut into chunks. It doesn’t matter. Feel them all over and attempt to locate any soft spots, which indicates bruising and spoilage. Peel them with a heavy-duty potato or sugar cane peeler, remove any discolored or soft spots, and trim off the cut ends.

Prep more taro than you can use, as it will come in very handy once you become a taro addict. Simply place the cut-up slices in freezer bags and freeze. Use them before there’s a frost buildup, but otherwise these are ready to go when you are.

Reheat the buns before you eat them, if they’ve been refrigerated or frozen. Really try to aim for a crispy exterior, as this will magnify your eating pleasure immeasurably.

Video of the roll-making process

Monday, September 30, 2019

Wontons in chile oil

Wontons appear all over southern China. In the United States, we most often see them served Guangdong-style, as shrimp and pork packets floating in a pork broth. Near the Yangtze, wontons are much larger and usually served in pale broths with shreds of omelet, laver seaweed (nori), and green onions.

This wonderful idea traveled west into the chile-laden embrace of Sichuan, where simple pork-filled packets are tossed in an addictively nose tingling sauce. Bright green rings of scallion ornament the top in this refined street food. I used to eat this on bamboo stools at the sides of busy alleys

This particular preparation from Sichuan is my favorite. It’s basically a street food, and I have very fond memories of eating it in busy alleys, sitting on a bamboo stool, watching the world bustle by, and luxuriating in the searing oil biting at my lips and tongue before the sweet porky juice popped out and doused the heat. I’d sweat and smile and order another bowl.

As in most Sichuanese dishes, the chile-laden sauce packs a punch, but here it is sensu­ously tempered by the juicy wonton filling. The sauce will also be slightly diluted by the water that clings to the soft wontons. So, serve extra chile oil or even more of the sauce on the side for those who want to sweat a bit.

The setup
This is an updated version of the recipe that can be found on page 298 of All Under Heaven. I love this recipe so much that I am always making it and fooling around with it, so here are some suggestions that will make your days much easier and much more filled with wontons, which is a great way to live your life.

Making the filling in a food processor really is the way to go here, and it also makes this dish incredibly easy.

Be sure to use 2 packages of wonton wrappers, which will give you a nice surplus of wontons to freeze.

Place the wontons on plastic wrap as you finish making them, as this is so much easier than a tea towel – it might not be traditional, but hey, I’m all about evolution. Be sure and mark up your book accordingly!

To freeze the wontons, freeze them as they are on the lined baking sheets, just be sure that they don’t touch each other. As soon as they are completely solid, transfer them to resealable freezer bags. You should toss these frozen wontons directly into the boiling water without defrosting them first.
Lots of seasoning... yay
Wontons in chile oil
Hóngyóu chăoshŏu  紅油炒手
Makes about 180 wontons and serves a whole lotta people

2 inches | 5 cm fresh ginger, more or less
1½ cups | 360 ml unsalted chicken stock, divided into ½ cup | 120 ml and 1 cup | 240 ml
1½ pounds | 500 g ground pork, preferably around 30 percent fat cut of pork, chilled
Sea salt to taste
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
3 green onions, white parts only, trimmed and finely minced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Wonton wrappers:
2 (1 pound | 460 g) packages thin wonton wrappers
Flour for dusting

Sauce: (may be doubled)
3 tablespoons red chile oil with toasty bits, or to taste
3 tablespoons light soy sauce, or to taste
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced, optional
Sugar to taste

3 green onions, green parts only, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
Ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

1. Cut the ginger into roughly ½-inch | 1-cm pieces, then whirl it in a food processor with ½ cup | 120 ml of the stock. Strain the liquid, squeezing out every last drop of ginger-flavored stock into a bowl before discarding the fibrous mass left behind.
Ready to go
2. Place the pork, ginger-flavored stock, salt, eggs, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, the whites of the green onions, sesame oil, and the black pepper in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse in the remaining 1 cup | 240 ml stock in incre­ments so that the pork absorbs all of the liquid. It will be light and fluffy at this point. Chill the filling for an hour or longer, if you have the time, as this will firm it up and make it easier to wrap.

4. Before you start wrapping the wontons, place 2 baking sheets next to your work area, cover them with plastic wrap, and have a couple of extra towels on the side to cover the filled wontons. Place a couple of tablespoons of cool water in a small bowl next to the filling bowl, as well as a flat piece of wood or a small blunt knife. (You’ll use both to wrap the wontons; see the movie below.) If you are going to cook these right away, pour water (at least 8 cups | 2 liters) into a large pot and bring it to a boil just before you are ready to cook. Wrap the wontons as shown below:

6. Mix together the sauce ingredients, taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and divide the sauce among as many bowls you wish; double the amount of sauce if you really enjoy spicy flavors.

7. To cook the wontons, drop them in small handfuls into the boiling water while stirring with a wooden spoon. As soon as the water returns to a boil, pour in about 1 cup | 240 ml cold water. Bring the pot to a boil again and pour in another cup | 240 ml of cold water. When the pot boils a third time, the wontons should be floating gracefully.

8. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to gently remove the wontons into the prepared bowls, draining off as much of the water as you can. Toss them lightly in the sauce and sprinkle with the chopped green onions and the ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns to taste. Serve immediately.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Strange flavor peanuts

The name alone for this dish makes me happy. The other plusses are that these are dead simple to make and are absolutely tasty and crunchy, and are wonderful to have on hand, so prepare to make a lot after this first batch.

“Strange flavor” is a Sichuanese term that is applied to quite a few dishes. Usually it means that there is a complex number of seasonings going on in there that will fight for your attention. In this case, the toasted peanuts are covered with a crispy sugar shell spiced with all sorts of good things – namely smoked paprika, chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, black pepper, and cumin – and balanced with a nice jolt of salt to keep things on track.

These are, in a word, bar snacks with an attitude. And for the record, my husband refers to them as weird nuts.

It used to be that this recipe was a whole lot more difficult to prep, because back in the day we didn’t have peanuts with the skins removed. That meant toasting the nuts and then rubbing them in a towel to knock off most of the bitter red skins. Yes, it wasn’t backbreaking work, but this extra step always made me think twice about dedicating the necessary time to pulling the ingredients together.

Nowadays, Chinese shops and organic markets often have these nude peanuts for sale, so buy a couple of packages when you run across them.

A gorgeous load of spices
The basic recipe for this calls for toasting the peanuts in an oven (a toaster oven works nicely here), tossing them over the heat with a barely caramelized sugar syrup that evenly coats each nut, and then sprinkling in the seasonings, as well as a bit of starch to keep things tidy. You end up with a nice pile of expertly flavored peanuts that gain serious crunch as they cool down.

Once you master this basic recipe, think about the other flavors you like and start experimenting accordingly. Five spice powder works well in here, as does a bit of curry powder or powdered ginger or even pumpkin spice. You can 86 the chiles and amp up other seasonings, or make them relatively mild when you have kids ready to pounce on them.

The only caveat would be to not add anything moist, like fresh garlic or ginger or green onions. The seasonings have to be absolutely dry so that the crunchy shell doesn’t melt and goo up.

The basic recipe for toasted peanuts is something you should have in your permanent repertoire. It’s super easy and a whole lot tidier to make than fried nuts. I’ll set it off below the main recipe here so that you can refer to it as needed, and it is also included on page 411 of All Under Heaven.

Strange flavor peanuts
Guàiwèi huāshēng  怪味花生
Makes about 3 cups
Caramelization is underway

1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground chiles
1 tablespoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Spray oil, if using foil for the baking tray
1 cup | 225 g sugar
¾ cup | 180 ml water
1 pound | 450 g toasted skinless peanuts (see recipe below)

1. Combine the spices, salt, and cornstarch in a small work bowl. Have a large, rimmed baking tray ready and line it with Silpat or foil sprayed with oil.

2. Place the sugar and water in a wok and swirl them around a few times to ensure that the sugar is wetted all the way through. Bring the sugar water to a boil over medium heat, swirling it now and then. Cover the pan for about a minute so that the steam will wash down any crystals, and then turn the heat up to medium high. Swirl the pan now and then, rather than stir it, and as soon as it takes on a golden tinge (but is not yet caramel), toss in all of the peanuts.

3. Use a spatula to toss the peanuts in the nuts until they are thoroughly coated. Remove the wok from the heat as you rapidly sprinkle the spice mixture over them, and then return to the heat as you quickly toss them to distribute the seasonings evenly.

4. Remove the wok from the heat and wait about 30 seconds for the sugar coating to start to cool down and harden. Then, scrape the nuts onto the lined baking tray. Scoot the nuts around to separate them as much as possible. Cool the nuts thoroughly and store in a closed container.
The sugars turn golden...

Toasted peanuts
Kăo huāshēng 烤花生
Makes about 3 cups
Toasted skinless peanuts

1 pound | 450 g raw peanuts, with or without the skins

1. Heat the oven or a toaster oven to 275°F | 135°C. Place the peanuts in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer – the bottom of the broiler pan that may have come with your oven works well. Put the peanuts in the oven.

2. Slowly toast the nuts for about 1½ hours. Because the edges of your pan will be hotter than the center, you’ll want to shake the pan once in a while and stir the nuts occasionally. When the peanuts start to smell cooked and begin to split along the center, taste one; if the rawness seems to have disappeared, taste a couple more from different parts of the pan just to be sure. It doesn’t matter if the nuts are crisp yet, as that will happen once they cool down.

3. Pour the peanuts into a wide, heatproof bowl and let them come to room temperature. Store in a sealed container.