Monday, December 9, 2013

Grilled beef pastries from Beijing's Muslims

Anyone who has spent a considerable amount of happy time eating along the streets and alleys of Beijing will tell you the same thing: these foods are more often than not the creations of the capital’s Muslim community. Tantalizing aromas of beef and lamb take the place of the usual Chinese preference for pork. Breads and pasta supplant the delight in rice.

Even more important is that the nice person who is cooking up the dish will often wear a small white hat or a scarf, for even though Mecca is thousands of miles away, in the southwest corner of the old city the thousand-year-old Muslim temple on Niujie (Ox Street) still summons the faithful.

Meant to be enjoyed at any hour of the day, I adore these crispy pastries fresh during leisurely weekend brunches and have them in the freezer for easy dinners during a busy week. That is because they are easy to make, freeze beautifully, and only need to be slowly fried to make their fragrant juices come alive.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...yup: 7

Often called “thousand-layer pastries” (qiancengbing) with what must be a salesman’s eye to flogging the daily special, I’ve only been able to find seven in here, which makes these, oh, about 993 layers short. But never mind. Those seven layers are perfect just as they are.

What happens is that the meat—seasoned with a steady hand and hued a rosy pink from the curing salt—is cosseted between thin pastry blankets. 

The outside crisps up into a crunchy brown that contrasts with the soft layers of bread and meat hiding inside. Forming all of these into thin strata ensures that the meat cooks quickly while remaining lusciously juicy, and the thin bread sheets have no time to turn doughy, but rather become like silk blankets.

In Beijing, these are usually served with bowls of thin millet porridge or hot cups of tea, and if a small plate of pickles completes the scene, then just about every food group is represented on your tiny table with a flourish. But up in the desert Northwest, a thin rice gruel, strong brick tea, or even a glass of milk might round out the meal.

In China, you always know where you are by the foods that are in front of you.

Grilled layered beef breads
Qīngzhēn níuròu qiāncéngbĭng 清真牛肉千層餅
Serves 4
Roll the dough into a thin sheet
1 pound organic ground chuck or ground beef (15% fat)
1½ tablespoons finely minced ginger
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon pink #1 curing salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced

1 cup Chinese flour
6 tablespoons boiling filtered water
2 to 3 tablespoons cool filtered water
Extra flour as needed
Oil for pan-frying

1. The day before you make these pastries, combine all of the filling ingredients except for the garlic, place in a covered container, and refrigerate at least 8 hours so that the meat has time to cure and marinate. Just before filling the pastries, stir in the garlic, which would overpower the filling if left in there too long. Divide the filling into 8 lumps.

2. To make the pastry, place the flour in a small work bowl and use chopsticks to stir in the boiling water until large flakes are formed. Then stir in just enough cool water to form a soft dough. Knead the dough on a lightly dusted smooth surface until the dough is supple and passes the earlobe test. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Divide the dough into 4 even pieces. Working on one piece at a time, and keeping the rest of the dough covered, roll it out on a lightly-floured smooth surface into a thin square around 10 inches on each side. Spread one of the portions of filling evenly over the lower half of the square, but keep the edges clean so that they can be sealed later. Fold the top half over the filling and lightly pinch the open edges closed. Then, spread another eighth of the filling evenly over the right half of the pastry—still keeping the edges clean—and then fold the left half over the right like a book. Firmly crimp the open edges closed to seal in the juices. Cover the filled pastry with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 4 filled pastries.
Spread the filling on the dough

4. The pastries can either be immediately cooked or frozen at this point. To freeze them, put them in a single layer on a sheet lined with plastic wrap; as soon as they have frozen solid, pack the pastries in a resealable freezer bag. The frozen pastries can be cooked like fresh ones, only use a lower heat to give the filling time to evenly defrost.

5. To cook them, heat a flat seasoned frying pan over medium heat and then film it with a tablespoon or two of oil. Lay as many pastries in the pan as you wish, as long as they do not touch each other, and cover the pan. Gently fry the pastries until they are a golden brown on one side, and then flip them over and fry the other side. Remove the cover for the final few minutes of frying so that the pastry crisps up on the outside. Cut into pieces, if you like, and serve as is, or with a black vinegar or chili dip.