Monday, March 18, 2013

Stoned breads, aka circling a square

The Chinese northwest has a stunning variety of breads that are almost unknown outside of the area. Ranging from huge loaves as in this recipe to dainty stuffed biscuits called 白吉饃 báijímó, they probably descended from the breads travelers brought with them on the northern Silk Road, but once in China these recipes started to morph into things that had that distinctive Chinese stamp on them, with soy sauce and spices and alternative ways of cooking the breads setting these apart from their ancestors.

That is why, in addition to the previous recipe for traditionally thin crackers grilled on stones, local cooks have found that layered breads cook very nicely this way, too. Puffy and smoky, they end up with a crisp crust that cradles the delicate layers seasoned with sesame paste, green onions, or simply oil and salt. 

Secret ingredient: patience
Be advised that there is a distinct learning curve involved in making these addictive stone-grilled breads because timing the grilling depends upon the quirks of each individual stove and patience is called for once the dough hits the hot stones, because just like Goldilock's porridge it has to be juuust right

What I've done here is fool around with the traditional recipe for the layered, round loaves called 鍋盔 guōkuī (literally “wok helmets”) in Shaanxi in order to make these breads possible in American kitchens using jerry-rigged equipment. Also, I've added some unbleached cake flour to supply lightness and a tasty wheat edge, as well as a traditional Chinese starter to give the breads more of a rich, tangy flavor, making this more than just a simple yeasty dough, and this slow rising sucks up an extra day. So, more than a bit of improvisation has been involved here.

(Be warned that there is a whole lot of confusion when it comes to the names of the huge spectrum of breads and pastries out here, as some vendors might call, for example, a small stuffed biscuit guokui instead of baijimo, and it all goes downhill from there, which is another way of asking you in advance to not tell me that I have the names wrong.)

Fold in the filling
You can flavor these breads with just about anything you like. I've suggested sesame paste with pinches of ground Sichuan peppercorns and sea salt, but finely chopped green onions, cooked and seasoned chopped meats, or even brown sugar with cinnamon and butter would fit in nicely. The reason for this is that these layers not only season the bread, but also provide the steam that leads to that wonderful flakiness. 

As in the previous recipe, I've turned to a dash of steam to quickly puff up the breads so that they cook faster and more evenly. The happy result (and one I didn't plan for) is that the exterior of the breads turns shiny and crunchy-chewy, making an even lovelier contrast to the gentle interior.

Raised layered breads grilled on stones
Guōkuī shízimó  鍋盔石子饃 
Makes 4 small loaves

1 cup warm filtered water
1 tablespoon yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup unbleached or whole wheat cake flour

1½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil

½ cup toasted sesame paste
1 tablespoon ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns
Sea salt to taste

Spray oil
Filtered water

Folded up around the filling
1. Start this recipe the afternoon before (or about 30 hours) the evening you plan to serve it. First make the starter: Pour the warm water in a medium work bowl and sprinkle on both the yeast and sugar. Give the yeast time to foam up and become completely active, and then stir in the cup of flour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a towel, and leave it to rise for around 10 to 12 hours, or before you go to bed. Stir in the unbleached cake flour, cover the bowl again, and let it rise for another 10 to 12 hours. You should have a bubbly bowl of starter the next morning that should smell strongly of yeast.

2. Stir and then finally knead in the 1½ cups flour gradually to make a soft, supple dough that is no longer sticky, adding more flour as necessary and using your pastry scraper to lift up the dough when it's still sticking to the board. When the dough is as gentle as an earlobe, clean out the mixing bowl with warm water, wipe it dry, and then rub the inside with the oil. Toss the ball of dough around in the oil to coat it completely. Cover the bowl with the plastic wrap and towel again until the dough is at least double in size. Punch the dough down and pull the edges of the dough up and then press them down into the center of the dough so that it the dough is completely deflated. Flip the ball of dough over so that the smooth side is on top, cover the bowl, and let it rise until double once more.

3. Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces and roll each one out into a thin rectangle (the size doesn't matter). Smear the dough with 2 tablespoons sesame paste, a large pinch of the ground Sichuan peppercorns, and a small pinch of sea salt, leaving a 1-inch border clean all around the rectangle. Fold the dough from the left over the center and then the right over the center, sort of like folding a business letter. Then fold the top down over the center and the bottom up over the center to form a square-ish package. Cover with the towel and let it rest while you repeat this with the other 3 pieces.
Circling the square

4. Now, turn each square into a circle by patting the edges with your palms as you turn the packet. Use the palm of your hand to press down firmly on the circle, and then use a Chinese rolling pin to work the dough out into a 7-inch circle of even thickness. Cover the circle with the towel while you repeat this step with the other 3 pieces of dough.

5. Heat the rocks as directed in the recipe for Crispy Rock-Grilled Flatbread, adding very clean pea gravel to the mix so that you have about an inch depth. Stir the rocks around once they are heated to the right temperature (reduce the heat to medium-low once the rocks are warmed up, because this bread will take longer to cook), spray them lightly with oil, and place one of the circles of dough on the hot rocks (but don’t cover it with rocks in this recipe). Pour about 2 tablespoons water into the pan, cover it, and let the bread cook until browned on the bottom. Use tongs to lift up the bread, use a spoon to stir around the rocks, lightly spray them with oil, and put the bread golden-side up on the rocks. Cover and cook until browned on the second side; you can flip the bread over a couple of times as you get used to how much heat is needed. Repeat with the rest of the dough. Serve hot or warm.


Pea gravel can be found in aquarium or craft stores; clean it carefully as directed in the previous recipe. This extra bunch of rocks helps even out the heat, I've found, for the slow grilling.

Err on the side of taking too long to cook the breads as you get accustomed to grilling them this way. You will soon find the correct heat and time needed with your particular stove.

I have added unbleached cake flour to the dough both for tenderness and flavor, but it can be omitted if you prefer all white flour.

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