Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The corn thimbles of Hebei

My late mother-in-law hailed from Tianjin, and although she never lived there after fleeing the invading Japanese in the late 1930's, her palate had been molded by North China's way with food. After marrying in Kunming and then traveling around the country with the children and her Air Force pilot husband, she settled in Taiwan in 1949 before finally making the U.S. her home.

Nowhere, though, was she able to find the food she longed for, and it must have been awfully hard to never taste the flavors of childhood again.

Unaware of this at first, I started to ask her about what she used to eat just because food tends to be on my mind a whole lot. Reminiscences started to flow out, and I was captivated. She was not a terribly good cook, but she loved to dine almost as much as I do, and her taste memories were always right on target. 

Ready for the steamer
One of the things she missed the most were the little corn thimbles called wowotou'er. There is no direct translation for this word, which makes me think that it might be Manchurian, like another Beijing snack called aiwowo. Corn, of course, came from the New World, and from what I understand from all the books I've referred to, wowotou'er were probably first made from millet flour, or mizifen

Millet has a nice stickiness that you will notice if you have ever made millet porridge. But cornmeal can prove to be a little difficult to shape into something like these thimbles. 

That led me to add just a bit of flour to up the stickiness factor, plus some sugar to heighten the corn flavor and a touch of baking powder and salt to lighten the dough. The balance now is just right. 

Later on, I made other thimbles out of such things as chestnut flour, which is even sweeter than corn; my mother-in-law demolished them with glee. 

These thimbles are often made as fist-sized cones for peasant style meals. But I like them smaller, ones that can be enjoyed in two or three bites, something like what used to be served in the imperial Qing palace.

So, these are fit for a king, or an emperor, or even a homesick mother-in-law.

The right consistency

Corn thimbles 
Wowotou'er  窩窩頭兒  
Makes about 12 and serves about 3 or 4 people

1 cup cornmeal (not coarse ground, as for polenta)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons filtered water, plus more as needed

1. Set aside an hour or so the first time you make these; this will give you enough time to practice and redo them a couple of times. Set up a steamer, and line a steamer basket with either a square of damp muslin or a sheet of steamer paper. Turn the steamer on with the covered basket on it so that the inside of the steamer gets hot and moist; steam the basket and liner this way for at least 10 minutes while you prepare the corn thimbles.

Shaping a thimble
2. Mix the flour with the baking powder, sugar, and salt. Add the 6 tablespoons water and mix it into the dry ingredients. Squeeze a piece of dough in your fist; if it forms a cigar shape easily without crumbling, it's ready to go. If not, dribble in just enough water to do this (see Tips). Do note that you probably will need to add a bit more water later on as the cornmeal starts to absorb it, so keep some water nearby.

3. Put a walnut-sized piece of dough in one hand and shape it into a ball. Take the forefinger of the other hand and insert it into the ball to form a thimble shape. Smooth the outside into a cone or dome, whichever you prefer. Sit the thimble right-side up on your work surface; if it crumbles or looks less than steady, pop it back into the dough and try again. Repeat until you have formed a dozen or so wowotou'er

4. Place the corn thimbles on the hot muslin or steamer paper. Cover and steam for about 30 to 40 minutes so that the cornmeal cooks completely through. Remove the wowotou'er from the steamer. You can serve them immediately or freeze them for later (see Tips).


The water content of cornmeal and flour can vary, so it's difficult to give a precise amount here. 

Japanese style steamer paper
Add only as much water as you need at first, and then sprinkle in more as you go along to keep the dough moist and supple. If you happen to add too much water, just add a bit more cornmeal. 

Steamer liner paper is great to have on hand if you do much steaming. It's very cheap and you don't have to bother with washing steamer liners. Plus, it's relatively nonstick. Get a package in the housewares section of a Chinese market.

To prepare the wowotou'er for freezing, put the cooled corn thimbles in a single layer on a small sheet, freeze them until solid, and then store them in a resealable freezer bag. To reheat the frozen corn thimbles, just place them with or without defrosting in a lined steamer and steam until heated through.