Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Beijing's laughing doughnut holes

As the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations looms on the immediate horizon (four days hence), I will take advantage of the time we have left to introduce yet a few more favorite holiday foods.

One that has been a part of our family for decades are these Laughing Doughnut Holes, or kaikouxiao ("open mouth laughs"). Calling them doughnut holes, though, is almost an insult, because none others that I have eaten over the years can hold a candle to these light, barely sweet, ethereal delights.

Traditionally made around this time of year as a treat especially for the young, I've served them to many a Chinese expat who gets a bit misty eyed at the memories these little guys seem to resuscitate. Like your mother's best Christmas cookies or the holiday pastries your grandmother would make only once a year, these tend to be loaded with wonderful connections to the past.

Light and crunchy
But all of that aside, these are very easy to toss together, and there is no reason why they need to be made only during the spring festivities. I have usually seen kaikouxiao coated with white sesame seeds; however, I love the deep contrasts that black sesame seeds provide and so have used them here. They taste the same, so this is more of an aesthetic tossup. 

Absolutely at their prime as soon as they emerge from their hot oil bath, these Chinese doughnuts are optimally made just before you serve them. They can, of course, sit around for a short while, but the crispness evaporates with the heat. While still tasty even an hour or so later, bring them piping hot to the table if you can.

If you are concerned that they will be greasy, they won't. These absorb very little oil, forming a crispy surface as soon as they hit the fat, and this repels any oil absorption.  They also are only barely sweet, meaning that you will probably eat quite a few before you know it.

Serve them with hot tea or even coffee, or milk for the kids.

Laughing doughnut holes 

Kaikouxiao  開口笑
Makes about 20

The balls beginning to "smile"
1 cup Chinese flour, or 2/3 cup all-purpose plus 1/3 cup pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon soft solid fat (unsalted butter, lard, or white shortening) at room temperature
1 tablespoon filtered water
1 large egg at room temperature
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup (or so) raw sesame seeds, either black or white (see Tips)
2 to 3 cups fresh peanut or vegetable oil (see Tips)

1. Mix the flour and baking powder together in a small work bowl. Use a mixer to beat the fat, water, egg, sugar, and salt together to form a thin batter. Slowly mix in the flour and baking powder to form a soft dough.

2. Place the sesame seeds in a medium bowl. Use one hand to scoop out the dough and wet the other one to shape the dough into balls. Spoon a piece of dough about the size of a walnut (see Tips) and drop it into the sesame seeds. Use the other hand to roll the dough around in the sesame until it is completely coated, and then lightly roll the ball between your palms to form a small ball. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have 20 or so small balls coated with sesame.

Roll dough in the seeds
3. Prepare a plate next to the stove, and cover it with a paper towel. Heat the oil in a small saucepan (see Tips) over medium heat until wooden chopsticks inserted in the oil bubble all over. Gently add some of the balls to the hot oil (see Tips), and remember that they will expand to twice their original size as they fry.

4. Lightly shake the pan so that the balls cook and roll over on their own; if any need help, just nudge them with the chopsticks. When the balls are browned all over and have split, remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on the paper towel. Repeat with the rest of the balls until done. Serve immediately, if possible.


The sesame seeds and oil both should be very fresh here. Taste a couple of seeds and discard if they are at all stale. And use only fresh oil here, as that is what makes the doughnuts so light and tasty.

You don't need to be too exacting when scooping out the dough; as long as they all are about the size of a walnut and all are more or less the same size, they will cook evenly.

Adjust the heat as necessary. The oil has to be hot enough to fry the dough quickly, since if it is too cold the dough will just soak up the oil. On the other hand, too hot a fire will burn the dough before the insides have cooked. So, test the oil with your chopsticks and then monitor the heat as you cook the doughnuts.

Get the sesame coated balls as close to the oil as you safely can before sliding them in; this will cut down on splashing. Also make sure there is plenty of room between the balls, since the dough will expand dramatically as it cooks.