Monday, April 18, 2016

Let's revive teatime - this is the reason

The first time I had this was at an elegant Taipei restaurant at the end of an especially impressive banquet. And I must say, I was quite impressed but also dismayed.

You see, the whole meal had been fabulous, and after our table of hungry guests had been stuffed until we could not eat another bite, the chef then wheeled out a plate of these delicate crêpes filled with date paste. I knew was already exceeding my capacity, but took a slice anyway – just to be polite, you know. It was so delicious and I yet was so painfully full that it was a horrible dilemma. And so I nibbled on it slowly, completely unwilling to let it go to waste. And after a decent interval had elapsed, I then used the tips of my chopsticks to mop up all the little crumbs and smears left behind on my plate.

Whip up the batter
It was this dinner that made me fully comprehend the wisdom behind the Chinese preference for serving sweets at tea time, rather than after a full meal: When you already are so packed with food that you just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a couple of years, that is not the best time to be confronted with something insanely delicious.

Afternoon tea, on the other hand, is ideal. You’ve already digested lunch and dinner looms on the horizon, so you are not starving, but a cup of hot tea and a couple of sweet snacks will be wholeheartedly welcomed by your eyes, mouth, and stomach. This is one meal where you’re not supposed to fill up, but rather satisfy your senses and find ways to complement the tea. If you can have a good friend or that certain someone to share it with, that turns teatime into one ideal way to spend a leisurely hour or two.

Lightly oil your pan
Grilled crêpes with date paste is inspired for so many reasons. The exterior is crispy (as long as it’s fresh off the fire), and this contrasts with a slightly spongy interior that is bathed with a thin layer of sweet date paste. It’s also a snap to make. You first make the filling and let it cool off before wrapping it in thin pancakes. These are then rolled up, and then they are gently fried a bit longer to crisp the exterior. You slice it crosswise to make it easy to manage with chopsticks, and then let your diners serve themselves.

I seriously think that teatime is a custom we should resurrect post haste.

Grilled crêpes with date paste 
Zăoní guōbĭng 棗泥鍋餅
Serves 6 to 8

Date paste:
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1½ to 2 cups/300 to 400g canned date paste (see Tips), or you can used homemade and skip the oil here and all of Step 1

1 cup/150g Chinese flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Bird’s Custard Powder, optional (see Tips)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup/125ml whole milk
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons/280ml water
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

Place the filling in the center
1. Place your wok over medium heat and add the sesame oil when the iron has turned hot. Scrape in the date paste and then fry it, stirring very often with a silicone spatula, until all of the oil has been absorbed and the date paste is glossy. Scrape the paste out into a heatproof bowl and let it cool to room temperature. (This can be done weeks ahead of time; just refrigerate the paste covered.)

2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and optional custard powder in a work bowl. Use a whisk to combine the egg, milk, and water until smooth, and then gently whisk this into the dry ingredients until they are barely mixed; it is all right if there are some small lumps in the batter. Let the mixture sit for 20 minutes or so, as this will give the tiny flecks of flour time to expand. Gently stir it just before using, and if it is thicker than heavy cream, mix in a little bit more water.

3. Have a toaster oven or oven set to 275°F/135°C/Gas Mark 1 and set out a small baking sheet or pan. Set an 8-inch/20cm frying pan on medium heat. Pour in the oil and then use a paper towel to smear it around the inside of the pan and remove most of the oil; keep the oiled paper handy, as you will use it to grease the pan between crêpes.

4. Once the frying pan is hot, swirl one quarter of the batter into the pan to create a thin layer that covers the bottom. Shape a quarter of the date paste into a thin patty about 2 inches/5 cm wide and almost 8 inches/20 cm long. As soon as the outer rim of the crêpe turns dull, lay the date paste down the center of the crêpe. When the edge of the crêpe loosens itself from the pan, fold both side of the crêpe over the date paste and continue to gently fry the crêpe until it is a golden brown on the bottom. Use a spatula to flip it over and fry the other side until it too is golden brown. Remove to the baking pan and keep the crêpe hot in the oven. Repeat with the rest of the batter and filling until you have 4 filled crêpes. Quickly slice these crosswise into pieces about ¾ inch/1 cm wide, arrange on a serving platter, and serve immediately while still hot.
Edge of the crêpe fluttering up


Red bean paste is delicious here, too, and you can also toss in about 1 cup/130g chopped toasted walnuts or shelled pine nuts for more texture.

Bird’s Custard Powder is a British invention that is beloved in South China for the extra depth of flavor it adds to pastries. If you don’t have this on hand, add a touch of vanilla to the batter instead.

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