Monday, November 29, 2010

The rolling donkeys dinner

Way back a couple of months ago, I described a traditional palace sweet called Rolling Donkeys to Deborah Madison

These donkeys are actually chewy little bundles of mochi-like rice dough wrapped around red bean paste and covered in ground roasted soybeans. Always up for something new in the food department, Deborah said that she really wanted to try it, and I was eager to whip up a batch. (See the recipe below.)

As with so many things in my life, one thing led to another, and soon we were talking about her coming over for dinner at the end of November, since she was looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with her mother and family here in California. She planned to drive over from New Mexico with her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, and join up in Mill Valley with two other friends, author Elissa Altman of Poor Man's Feast and her partner, book designer Susan Turner. Elissa and I have been pen pals for ages, and she's also a remarkable foodie and food writer, so this was great news. To round out the dinner party, I invited baking great Flo Braker and her husband, Dave, because Flo is just too fun not to invite and I'll take any opportunity I can find to have her over.

So... was I a bit nervous about this? You bet!

Me, Flo, Elissa, & Susan
The dessert was already a given, of course, which led me to wonder whether I should do an all North China feast. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do dishes that were centered around my very own true love (at least for the present, for mine is a fickle love indeed) in the grand pantheon of Chinese cuisine: the dishes of Jiangsu. Yes, that was my plan, and I knew these folks would approve. 

Our local Dungeness crabs had just barely come into season. Duck is good in cold weather, and Jiangsu's way with duck is lovely, so on the menu went duck. Gingko nuts had just hit the Chinese markets, which meant that they would be perfect with the sweet napa cabbage and bamboo shoots I was pondering. Chinese ham. Fresh shiitake mushrooms. A nice piece of pork. Everything was coming together easily. All I needed were bottles and bottles of Shaoxing rice wine. Good. After weighing all the contestants, the final lineup was this: 

Appetizer platter
Drunken chicken with wolfberries
Snow peas with sesame sauce

Crispy duck with lotus buns
Bean curd custard with crabmeat & roe
Steamed clams with fresh garlic leaves
Ham, chicken & bean curd shreds
Napa cabbage with gingko seeds & bamboo
Cherry pork with fresh pea sprouts
Dungeness crab legs in bean sauce
Rice crumb sole in lotus leaves
Bamboo pith mushroom soup

Rolling donkeys (Beijing)

Patrick, me, Deborah, & Dave
I am sure that lots of this looks unfamiliar, particularly the one called Bombs over Tokyo. Also known as Crispy Rice with Shrimp, I'll talk about that recipe soon, as it's a real winner. And I should also discuss Cherry Pork, which has no cherries in it, its gorgeous color and heady flavor provided instead by red wine yeast. 

Here's my recipe for Rolling Donkeys, the odd man out in my menu. This Beijing native was a palace favorite during the times of the emperors. I've been told that these little sweets are called Rolling Donkeys because they look like they're covered in the fine yellow dust that blows around northern China. Donkeys are also part of the local scenery, so it's only fitting that these little morsels are called donkeys instead of, say, alligators or marmots, neither of which show up much in and around Beijing.

The traditional recipe calls for a red bean paste filling and a dusting of ground, roasted soybeans. However, I've never been a big fan of ground, roasted soybeans, as I've found them seriously lacking in flavor and possessing so dessicated a texture that I usually end up coughing quite a bit. JH suggested peanut dust, and that I thought was a fabulous idea. 

Susan, JH, Patrick, Deborah, & Dave
And instead of everyday red bean paste, I cooked up some pitted, chopped Chinese dates with rock sugar, a bit of sesame oil, and a dash of salt before stirring in a handful of toasted pine nuts. This added the final exotic touch I was seeking, as the dates and pine nuts lend a wonderful perfume to the filling, and the pine nuts are used throughout Jiangsu cuisine, so they tied this final sweet to the rest of the meal. (The following recipe calls for red bean paste, though, since that is a lot easier to find and use.) 

This dish doesn't keep and turns hard within a day, so make it the morning that you want to serve it, store it covered at room temperature, and enjoy this excuse to lots eat more than you should.

Steaming the dough
Rolling Donkeys 
Lü dagun 驢打滾
Makes about a dozen pieces 

1-1/2 cups rice flour (Mochiko brand sweet rice flour recommended)
1-1/2 cups filtered water
3/4 can bean paste (Ogura-an brand recommended)
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1-1/2 cups skinned peanuts, roasted
Looking like a jellyroll
1. Mix the rice flour and water together to form a dough, and then knead the dough until smooth, adding just a bit more water if needed. Form the dough into a smooth ball. Wrap the ball in a piece of cheesecloth and steam it for about 40 minutes, adding more water to the steamer when necessary. At the end of the steaming time, remove the dough from the steamer and let it cool down until you can work with it without burning your fingers, but don't let it get cold.

2. While the dough is steaming, gently fry the bean paste and sesame oil together until the bean paste absorbs the oil; sprinkle on the salt and mix well, and then remove the bean paste to a plate to cool off completely. Grind the peanuts until they are a fine powder, but don't let them turn into peanut butter; the best way to do this is in small batches so that the peanuts don't heat up. Pulse the peanuts in a small processor or blender until they are chopped very fine, remove to a bowl, and then process the rest in small increments until done.

3. Spread about a cup of the ground peanuts on a smooth, clean work surface, like the underside of a cutting board. Place the warm dough on top of the peanuts and use wet hands to pat it out into a square. Shape the dough into a rectangle that's about 12 inches on one side and 8 inches on the other, scooting the peanuts under the dough as you shape it so that the dough doesn't stick to the board. 
A dusted-up donkey

4. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the bean paste over the dough, leaving an inch strip on a 12-inch edge, which will eventually be the outside of the roll. Starting from the other 12-inch edge, roll up the dough over the bean paste so that it looks like a jellyroll, using a pastry scraper as needed to encourage the dough to turn over. Gently pinch the long edge into the roll. 

5. Use a thin, sharp knife to take a thin slice off of both of the rolled-up ends to even it up and then cut the roll into 12 pieces. Dust the pieces with the remaining ground peanuts and serve with hot tea. You can eat these with little bamboo skewers as shown in the photo at the top of this page, offer small forks, or eat the rolling donkeys with your hands.


  1. You should link the recipes you've already given on the blog in that menu -- and return to link the ones you add in the future.

    Just sayin'.

  2. Excellent idea, Ed. Will do! (And I'm envious of your rabbit seal there.)

  3. Thank you! I haven't had a rolling donkey in years! It never occurred to me to make them myself.

    1. You are quite welcome! It is amazing how easy so many of China's tea treats really are. And, as you know, delicious...