Monday, June 13, 2016

The fermented rice biscuits of Suzhou

It has only taken me about 35 years to figure out how to make these, but it was time well spent.

You see, I became addicted to fermented rice biscuits when I waited for one of Taipei’s buses to ferry me home at the end of a long day at the museum. Cold winter evenings were the worst. Rainy cold winter evenings were absolute hell. My feet would be wet and freezing, passing cabs would splash everyone with muddy puddles, and the gloomy skies made even a 15 minute wait seem like forever.

Fortunately, street hawkers plied the sidewalks with their homemade foods, most of them from every part of China, and I came to know these lovely people on a personal basis after my many years in Taiwan. One of my all-time favorite foods became these grilled biscuits. Lightly sweet and perfumed with fermented rice, a lovely lady from Suzhou used to roll out the dough, fill it, and grill the breads in her portable little kitchen. She had a tiny roof over the work area, and fragrant steam would shroud her wherever she stood, acting as both beacon and an irresistible advertisement.
Crunchy, pillowy, sweet & winy

To her left would be a shiny mound of dough covered with a damp cheesecloth, and as she sold each biscuit as soon as it left the grill, she was a never-ending whirl of activity, gracefully pinching off a fistful of dough, rolling it out, filling it, pleating it closed, and then rolling it out again before tossing it on her black grill.

The anticipation would be intense as I stood there, stamping my feet to keep them from going numb, but almost feverish in my impatience to grab the biscuit with my name on it. She would wrap it in a sheet of brown paper while the bread was still insanely hot, I’d fork over a few cents, and then I would first revel in the heat radiating out into my fingers and wafting up into my face.

Then, that first luscious bite: crunch would yield to tensile bread, with an explosion of wine hitting my nose. An afterthought of red bean paste would be inside, too, but all the mattered to me was the hot biscuit. I would then huddle over it, nibbling it slowly to make it last as long as I could, reveling in the way that even the coldest, most dreary winter might offer a reason for celebration.
Ready to go

Fermented rice biscuits
Jĭuniáng bĭng  酒釀餅
Makes 6
Jiangsu and Shanghai

½ cup/125g fermented rice solids (see Tips)
⅓ cup/75g fermented rice liquid, or mild rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ cups/260g all-purpose flour, plus extra for kneading
1 teaspoon neutral oil (like canola), plus extra for oiling the frying pan
1½ teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons/ 45g turbinado or light brown sugar (see Tips)
3 tablespoons/ 60g toasted pine nuts, optional

Baking powder is my secret weapon here
1. Start this recipe at least a day before you plan to serve it. Mix the rice, water, and sugar together in a medium work bowl, and then stir in the flour to form thick flakes. Knead until smooth, adding more flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Rub the oil inside a clean work bowl and toss the dough around in it. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and keep it in a warm place 8 hours or even a day or two, which will give the wine yeast time to multiply and turn the dough light and fragrant. It is ready when you can poke two holes in the top and they don’t close up immediately. Also, take a nibble of the dough – it should taste strongly of the wine.

2. Place the dough on a smooth surface and sprinkle it with the baking powder. Knead in the baking powder until all feeling of grittiness is gone and the dough feels smooth once again. Roll it into a ball, return it to the bowl, cover, and let it rest for at least 20 minutes to give the gluten time to relax. The dough will have risen considerably at this point, too, as shown in the photo to the right.

The fluffy second rising
3. Cut the dough into 6 even pieces. On a very lightly floured board, roll each one out into 5-inch circles as if you were going to make baozi, which means that there will be a little bump in the center of the disc and thinnish edges – this will keep the top from becoming too thick. Divide the sugar and optional pine nuts among the discs and then gather the tops up, again as if you were making baozi. Roll the filled balls between your palms to smooth out the seams and then lightly press down on each one to form a patty-like object about 3 inches wide. (You may freeze these at this point and then cook them as needed later on.)

4. Set a wide, flat-bottomed pan on medium heat. When the edges feel hot, use a paper towel to lightly film the bottom with oil. Lower the heat to medium-low. Arrange as many of the discs as you wish to serve in the pan, leaving at least an inch between them so that they can rise as they cook without sticking together. Cover the pan tightly so that steam will form, since this will help cook the insides quickly without burning the outsides. When the bottoms are golden brown (about 5 to 7 minutes) and the biscuits have risen, turn the discs over and cover the pan again. Cook until the other side is golden, too, which should take around 5 minutes. Serve hot. (To reheat these, never ever use a microwave, but rather gently grill them again or even heat them in a low oven, as this will keep the bread from turning tough.)
Fill like baozi

Tips

The flavor of this really depends upon the fermented rice. It must be full-flavored for the biscuits to shine. What this means is that you should let your rice ferment for a couple of weeks so that it has a strongly alcoholic aroma and zero taste of fresh rice. Then, use only the thick rice solids for the first ingredient and the clear wine (or a neutral-tasting rice wine) as the liquid, which pack a double punch of flavor.

This is a specialty of Suzhou and other culinarily enlightened places along the Yangtze River, and each area seems to have its own take on what should be hidden inside. I’ve enjoyed these with the usual red bean paste, plain sugar, and sweetened ground black sesame. However, I’ve found that turbinado sugar and toasted pine nuts take this sweet to extreme levels of hedonistic pleasure, at least as far as I’m concerned.

That being said, don’t overdo it in the filling department. These biscuits are easily overpowered by anything that is too sweet or too whatever. Anything you put in the biscuits should simply serve to amplify and complement the aromas of the wine and bread.

Dimple surface from the nuts
What I’ve done different from any other recipe I’ve found for these biscuits is to use wine instead of water for the liquid, as this amps up the flavors quite wonderfully. I’ve also added baking powder, which makes the breads much lighter and less apt to turn leaden. Be sure and cover the pan, as that way the center cooks through thoroughly – there are few things as sad as a delicious biscuit with a raw doughy center.

Serve these at breakfast, afternoon tea, and as a well-deserved snack in front of bus stops. Hot tea is the perfect accompaniment. They are terrific hot, when the crust is crisp and the center molten, but even at room temperature they are amazing, as the sugar then forms a crunchy, caramelly contrast to the tensile dough.

2 comments:

  1. Could brown slab sugar (broken up and pounded) be a suitable substitute for turbinado sugar? Just reading your description makes me hungry. Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Most definitely. You could use just about any sugar here. I just like the turbinado because it's crunchy, but whatever you like will work fine.

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