Sunday, November 27, 2011

Silver thread rolls

One of the greatest delights of northern Chinese cuisine is its breads. We usually don't associate bread with Chinese cuisine in the West, but that is because most of the cooking styles we have become familiar with -- particularly Cantonese and Hunanese -- are southern. And therein lies the answer.

Rice doesn't grow well in cold climes, but wheat does. Not only that, but the whole stretch of North China has been flavored for years by the Muslim travelers who brought spices, lamb, and beef with them, as well as an abundance of pastries, noodles, and breads. For many of them, their journeys on the northern Silk Road ended in Shandong at the easternmost edge of this cultural highway. 

Knead until soft and smooth
People who have traveled to Beijing are usually familiar with the delicious local steamed bread known as mantou. These traditionally are made as large, fluffy pillows that would accompany individual bowls of food, much different from the communal plates of meat and vegetables and small bowls of rice placed in front of southern diners. In fact, if you want to make simple mantou, this recipe is perfect for that; just roll the twice-risen dough out into logs, cut them into whatever size you want, and steam on oiled paper.

What makes these truly different from plain old mantou is that half of the dough is shaped into oil-slicked strands that give a divine lightness to the bread. First your teeth bite into the tensile exterior, and then they hit the tender center, a pile of doughy wisps that have steamed into something pretty close to ethereal in texture.

The secret to wonderfully light and fragrant steamed bread is three-fold: good flour, sufficient rising time, and allowing the bread to sit in the steamer after the heat is turned off, as this keeps the dough from deflating as soon as cold air hits it.

Pull the "silver threads"
As in almost every flour-based recipe here, I like to use Korean flour since it has the right amount of protein. Just as French flour is different from American, Chinese flour is also softer than what we have here, and so a good way to guarantee excellent results is to use the right flour. You can substitute about two-thirds all-purpose plus one-third pastry flour for pretty good bread, too, but try to find the Korean flour if you can.

I have also added milk powder to the mix. This adds a nice fragrance and also makes a more tender crumb. My husband especially loves the taste of milk powder in the bread, as it reminds him of his childhood. I have used goat milk powder with terrific results, too, and it gives a nice "barny" aroma and taste to the bread.

Make the rolls whatever size you like. If you are having an elegant dinner party or buffet, you might want to make them smaller; the cooking time is the same.

The oiled strands of dough
These breads freeze wonderfully. Just allow them to come to room temperature and then freeze them on a baking sheet. Slip the hard breads into a freezer bag, seal, and place in the freezer. You don't need to defrost them; just put them back in the steamer and heat for about 10 minutes until hot all the way through. You can also deep fry the buns to a warm gold color, and this is perfect as an accompaniment to a simple dinner of a hearty soup; these buns are called, of course, Fried Silver Thread Rolls, or zha yinsijuan.

Silver thread rolls 
Yinsijuan  銀絲卷 
Makes 8 rolls

2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1¼ cups warm filtered water
3 cups good quality Korean or Chinese bread flour, plus ¼ cup for kneading (or, 2 cups all-purpose organic flour mixed with 1 cup pastry flour, and ¼ cup all-purpose flour for kneading)
2 tablespoons milk powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
Place strands on dough sheet
Fresh neutral-flavored vegetable oil as needed

 1.  Stir the yeast and sugar into the warm water and let the yeast bloom while you assemble the rest of the ingredients. If the yeast hasn't started to foam after 10 minutes, discard and get some fresher yeast.

2. Place the flour, milk powder, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl and stir in the liquid. Mix the dry ingredients and liquid together until a soft mass has formed. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured smooth surface, and use a pastry scraper in one hand to lift and turn the dough while you knead it with the other until the dough loses its stickiness. Then, continue to knead the dough, adding a bit more flour as needed, until it is silky and smooth. Roll it up into a ball and pat it; it should feel like a baby's bottom.

3. Wash and dry the mixing bowl. Oil it well and toss the dough in, turning it over and over in the oil until it is thoroughly covered. Stretch a piece of plastic wrap over the bowl and place it in a warm place, such as an oven with either the light or pilot light on. Let the dough rise to double its size, and then punch it down. Pull the edges of the dough over onto the center as a form of gentle kneading. Cover the bowl again and let it rise once more. Divide the dough in half. Keep one half covered while you work with the other half.
Roll the strands in the dough

4. Gently scrape half of the dough out onto a clean, smooth work surface. Use a rolling pin to shape it into a rectangle that is about 8 x 12 inches. Cut the dough into ¼-inch strips. Using well-oiled hands, pull the strips one at a time into long strands at least 30 inches long, running your fingers over the strands so that they become coated with the oil; this will keep them from sticking together. The strands don't have to be the same size, and it is all right if they break. Arrange the strands into two bundles that are about 15 inches in length with the strands lying parallel to each other. Cover the strands loosely with plastic wrap.

5. Roll the other piece of dough out into a rectangle that is about 15 x 10 inches in size. Cut the dough lengthwise so that you have two pieces about 15 x 5 inches in size. Lay one of the bundles of strands on one of the flat pieces of dough near an edge, and then roll the dough up lengthwise so that the strands are in the center of the roll. Pinch the dough along the seam to seal it. Grab both ends of the roll and lightly roll it so that it is of even girth and about 18 inches long. Trim off an inch at either end, and then cut the roll into buns that are 4 inches long. 
Cut the ends off of the logs

6. Place the buns seam side down on lightly-oiled steamer paper or cupcake liners. Cover the buns with plastic wrap and let them rise for about 10 minutes. Repeat with the other half of the dough until you have 8 buns. (You can take the cut-off ends and stick them together into a bun or two that will not be especially pretty, but just as tasty as the rest of the buns.)

7. Steam the buns for about 10 minutes over high heat, turn off the heat, and allow the buns to sit in the steamer without peeking for at least 5 minutes to keep them from deflating. Keep the breads covered with a clean cloth napkin so that they do not dry out. Serve as is or deep fry.