Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rockin' on the Silk Road

Some foods, once you hear of them, are simply are too wonderful to ignore, and Rock-Grilled Flatbread definitely falls into this category. How many breads do you know of that are cooked directly on stones? And they look so cool once they are done, with deep welts and bubbles rippling over the surface... a true showstopper.

These crackers – and that is what you actually end up with here – are simply delicious. Flavored with gentle suggestions of fennel and Sichuan peppercorns, they are easily broken into halves or quarters. I especially enjoy the flakiness; this is provided by the gentle rising power of a single egg combined with an easy method for first forming a flaky dough before mixing in the water, as well as a quick steam bath.

Thin, crispy Rock-Grilled Flatbreads are most often seen in the street markets of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, but they are also so commonplace there that they can be bought in supermarkets. However, as in both Henan and Shanxi provinces, some people make them into true breads that are larger and thicker; these end up as more traditional soft flatbreads with that rounded waffle pattern, and they are cut into wedges before serving (see the next post).
Form the dough into flakes first

The Chinese name for this bread is shizi mo because shizi means “rocks” and mo is the northern Chinese word for all sorts of pastries and breads. 

Of course, since these have been around a long time – they look like the happy results of experimenting with a campfire somewhere on a desert trail – shizi mo have many other names, such as 石頭餅 shítou bĭng (rock breads), 河卵烤 héluǎn kǎo (river egg [i.e., rock] bake), and 餑餑饃 bōbōmó (pastry bread).

Some people add milk to the bread instead of water, or let the dough ferment, or grill it on the coals by shoveling more hot rocks on top of the bread. (I will show this second way of cooking Rock-Grilled Flatbreads in the next blog post, and include a variation on the size of rocks used and flavors, too, as this is too good and weird a recipe to discuss only once.)

This is one of those ancient, delicious treats that offer all sorts of ways to make and enjoy it. (My current favorite: using it to scoop up hummus drizzled with lots of harissa, making this a sort of Silk Road jaunt from North China to the Levant on one plate.)
Beautiful & delicious

Crispy rock-grilled flatbreads 
Shízi mó 石子饃 
Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi
Makes 10 large, crisp breads

2 teaspoons fennel or anise seeds
1 teaspoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups Chinese flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons (or so) cool, filtered water
Spray oil
Water as needed

1. Before you start making the dough, set up your pan on the stove and place a layer of clean, smooth, rounded rocks on the bottom (see Tips). Have the cover nearby, as well as a pair of tongs and a plate for the finished crackers.

Roll out the spice-flecked dough
2. Grind the fennel seeds in a small food processor until they are a fine powder (see Tips). Empty the ground fennel into a medium work bowl and add the ground peppercorns, salt, flour, and sugar. Toss these together and then mix in the egg and oil to make a flaky dough. Pour in the cool water and stir this in to make a soft, supple dough, adding tiny dribbles of more water as needed to get the dough to come together. Knead the dough on a smooth surface for about 5 minutes; you should not need any more flour while kneading unless you added too much water, as the dough should be fairly tensile at this point, yet not in the least sticky or wet. Cover the dough and let it rest for about 20 minutes.

3. Cover the pan containing the rocks and place it over medium heat to warm up the stones while you roll out the dough.

Lay the dough on the hot rocks
4. Cut the dough into 10 even pieces. Form each piece into a ball and then use a Chinese rolling pin to roll each ball into a circle about 7 or 8 inches in diameter. (It doesn't matter if the circle looks more like an amoeba, as cooking the dough on the rocks will hide its actual shape.) Splash the pebbles with some water, and if the drops immediately hiss and evaporate, hold your hand about an inch above the rocks: your hand should feel very warm, but not hot (see Tips). Spray the rocks lightly with some oil and lay one of the flat pieces of dough loosely over the rocks so that it drapes over and around the stones. Pour in 2 tablespoons of water around the dough and immediately cover the pan. As soon as the steam slows down, use a pair of tongs to lift up the edge of the cracker; when it is done, it should be nicely browned in spots – sometimes even a bit charred, which is all right – and the dough will look dry rather than opaque. At this point turn the cracker over and cover the pan again for about a minute so that the dough is completely cooked (see Tips). Remove the cracker to the prepared plate and repeat this step with the rest of the dough, spraying the rocks as needed if the dough begins to stick.

5. The crackers can be served immediately or allowed to come to room temperature before being sealed in a plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator. Heat the crackers, if you want, in a 250°F oven for about 5 minutes, or until heated through.


Use whatever size rocks you like, from ½-inch to a bit more than an inch wide. The main requirement is that they be hard and smooth.

Small & smooth river rocks
Clean the rocks by scrubbing them under running water, place them in a colander, and then set them in the dishwasher whenever you are about to run a load; use hot water, if at all possible. Otherwise, wash the rocks carefully in a colander with soap and water, rinse thoroughly, and then boil them in plenty of water for 20 minutes or so.

If you don’t have a cache of nice pebbles hanging around your house, look for them in craft stores and aquarium supply places; nurseries often have them, but only in enormous bags.

Use a pan here that doesn't have a nice patina, as the dry heat will ruin it. I haul out my trust old smoker for this, as it is about 10 inches wide and is used to being abused with only dry heat.

Be sure and use a pan with a cover; this, forming the dough into oily flakes first, and the use of steam were my discoveries, as I tried to find a way to cook the dough evenly while promoting the formation of flaky layers. Here's to the mother of invention!

Supreme flakitude
Small amounts of spices can be hard to grind no matter how tiny your food processor is, so add some of the flour from the recipe to the processor (a couple of tablespoons should do it) to help move the fennel into the processor blades efficiently.

The amount of water used here may vary slightly according to how dry the flour is, the weather is, and so forth, so use the recommended amount and then only sprinkle on a bit more if the dough doesn't come together easily or is too stiff. You want the dough to become just soft enough that it can be kneaded without adding any more flour, and after it is rested you should be able to roll it out as is, with no additional flour necessary.

Stove temperatures are very different, so adjust the heat underneath your pan to keep the stones hot, but not too hot. Covering the pan as you warm up the rocks helps to lock in the heat quickly, but if you can’t hold your hand comfortably over the rocks an inch away, they’re probably overheated. In this case, simply move the pan off of the burner and let it cool down for a few minutes.

When the bottom side of the flatbread is done, you probably will still see some darker and shinier areas (especially on the edges) that tell you that more cooking is needed. Flip the bread over so that the uncooked areas are nudged up against some rocks, cover, and grill for another minute or two until the entire bread is cooked through.

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