Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sichuan's fried sesame rolls

Yeast breads have traditionally played a big part in the cuisines of North and West China. The reason is simple: this is where Muslim traders settled down centuries ago after traveling along the Silk Road that stretches from Venice through Persia to today's Xi'an in Shaanxi province. They brought new ideas and new art and new religions, and they also carried with them the foods of both the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Sesame seeds were one of these imports, and they became so beloved that they quickly and indelibly became part of China’s many culinary traditions, the most popular incarnation probably being the roasted sesame oil that shows up in almost every corner of the nation.

Use Korean bread flour, if possible
Central China, where Sichuan is located, also has a well-developed fondness for both breads and pasta, partially because of the huge influx of immigrants from other provinces that took place about 400 years ago following a massacre that wiped out most of the local population. From of this sad history rose a great cuisine, though, and the wonderful buns and breads of Sichuan now are the equal of any other province’s.

Flour varies from country to country, which is one of the main reasons why it is so hard to reproduce, say, the breads of France over here. East Asian flours likewise have a different gluten level than American flour, and so accommodations have to be made to make American flour more soft, as this will give the dough a more tender crumb. 

One brand of Korean flour that I use a lot for Chinese baking and pasta works exceptionally well; as shown in the upper-right picture, it has a polar bear at the top of the bag and green print (see Tips). If you can’t find this in your area, try mixing 2 parts all-purpose with 1 part white pastry flour to arrive at an approximate substitute. 

Toss the dough in sesame seeds
Of all the breads in this are, these sesame buns are particularly scrumptious. Round balls of yeast dough are dipped in some sugar water, which glues a layer of the seeds to the exteriors. After that, the buns are steamed into fluffy pillows. 

The crowning step is the quick frying that takes place just before they are served: this both toasts the sesame and crisps up the thin crust. It is a lovely contrast of crunch and softness, nuttiness and yeastiness. 

The fact that they are exceptionally pretty makes them even more of a delight.

Fried sesame rolls
Mábĭng 麻餅 
Makes 16 rolls

2 teaspoons bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1¼ cups warm filtered water
3 cups regular Korean flour (see Tips), plus more for kneading
1 teaspoon sea salt
Peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup hot filtered water
Oil spray
1 cup raw white sesame seeds
Fresh peanut or vegetable oil for frying

Mix the dough to form flakes
1. These rolls can be prepared up to 3 days in advance if they are refrigerated after steaming, or a few weeks if frozen. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm filtered water. Allow the yeast to expand for about 10 minutes; if it is not foaming at this point, discard and get some fresher yeast.

2.  Stir the flour and salt together in a large work bowl. Use chopsticks or a wooden spoon to mix in the yeast solution until flakes form. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured smooth surface, and then use a pastry scraper in one hand and your other hand to scrape and knead the dough. When it is elastic and no longer sticks to the board, check the texture: a pinch of the dough should feel like an earlobe. Form the dough into a ball. 

Pop the dough out of your fist
3. Clean the work bowl, dry it and lightly oil both the bowl and the ball of dough. Place the dough in the bowl, cover it tightly with some plastic wrap and place in a warm place to rise until double in size. Punch down the dough and fold the edges of the dough in on the ball. Cover the bowl again and let it rise until it is once more double in size.

4. Turn the dough out onto a clean, smooth work surface and sprinkle with the baking powder. Lightly knead the baking powder into the dough, cover the dough with the plastic wrap and let it relax for around 10 minutes.

5. Mix the sugar into the ¼ cup of hot water and allow it to come to room temperature while you proceed to the next step.

Place the coated balls in steamer
6. Lightly dust the board and roll the dough into a long, even strip 16 inches long. (Use a ruler at this point for accuracy.) Cut the dough into 1-inch pieces. Cover the rest of the dough with plastic wrap while you work on each piece. Roll each piece into a smooth ball, pop it out through your thumb and forefinger to form a perfect sphere, and cover it with the plastic wrap.

7. When all of the rolls have been shaped, line two Chinese basket steamers with either steamer paper or cupcake liners; spray the paper with oil. Arrange your ingredients so at one end you have the balls of dough, then the sugar water, then a wide bowl filled with the sesame seeds and finally the lined steamer baskets at the other end.

Steam until light and fluffy
8. Working on one roll at a time, use one hand to dip a roll into the sugar water and shake off any excess water. Lightly toss the roll in the sesame seeds with your dry hand, gently knocking off any loose seeds and place it on the steamer paper. Leave about an inch between the rolls as you fill each basket with 8 rolls. 

9. Steam the rolls over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the rolls are completely risen and cooked through. Keep the steamer baskets covered, turn off the heat, and allow the rolls to sit in the steamer for about 10 minutes, as this will keep them from deflating. Cool the rolls to room temperature and either refrigerate or freeze them in resealable plastic bags until you are ready to fry the rolls.

10. If you froze the rolls, keep them in the freezer bag and let them come to room temperature before you fry them. About 20 minutes before you want to serve them, heat about 2 cups of fresh oil in a wok over medium heat until a bit of flour tossed in the oil immediately foams. Have a plate lined with paper towels next to the stove. Add a few rolls to the oil at a time and fry them on all sides until golden. Repeat with the rest of the rolls until done, keeping the fried rolls in a warm oven, if you wish. Serve immediately.
Fry the rolls on one side


Get your sesame seeds from a busy health food store that sells them in bulk, as that way they will be both cheap and fresh. Store the sesame in a closed container in the pantry or in some other dark, cool place. If you don't use them often, buy small amounts and freeze whatever you don't immediately need.

As for that Korean flour, at the time of this writing, the bag with the blue print contains pastry flour. However, packaging changes and some stores carry different brands. Find someone in the store to help you if you don't read Korean; that's what I do, and have found that most of my fellow shoppers have been happy to help, especially if I display a rabid interest in what they love to eat.

Flip and fry on the other side
I don't recommend Chinese flour because of the lack of quality controls and health hazards that have been connected to the bleaching methods used on the Mainland. If you have access to a Chinese market, you can try flours produced in Taiwan, which so far have been problem free.

If all else fails, you can try regular, bleached American flour. Cut the gluten a bit by using 2 parts all-purpose and 1 part pastry; flours vary, so find a brand you like and adjust the levels until you are pleased with the results.

The Chinese names and pronunciation for the different types of wheat flour are:
high gluten (bread) flour: 高筋麵粉 gāojīn miànfěn
regular (all-purpose) flour: 筋麵粉 zhōngjīn miànfěn
low gluten (pastry) flour: 筋麵粉 jīn miànfěn.


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