Monday, November 18, 2019

Pastries for a dowager empress or a MIL

Here is one of the recipes that will be featured in my upcoming memoir: THE JADE LABYRINTH. W. W. Norton will most likely be publishing it in 2021, and it will be illustrated just like all of my other books. 

One of the stories in there evolved out of a short story called "Good Graces" that I wrote for the online magazine Life & Thyme. "Good Graces" talks about the day I finally broke down my mother-in-laws defenses using the tastiest weaponry around: food from her childhood.

If you haven’t read “Good Graces” yet, here it is again. And if you are wondering what those chestnut thimbles taste like and how to make them yourself without breaking a sweat, I’m here to tell you that, too.

First off, though, let me tell you a bit about what these are and how they evolved. In North China, just about any pastry or starchy morsel can be called a wōwō 窩窩, and tóu 頭means "head" or "tip," so, wowotouer basically translates as pointy little pastries. Which is what they are.

Dry, hard-to-digest millet was the grain of choice for wowotouer until maize was introduced from the Americas, and, as in Italy, the lovely flavor of dried corn quickly upended millet’s standing in that part of the world. (Reliance on this admittedly delicious grain also was a deciding factor in the rise of niacin – aka vitamin B3 – deficiency wherever it was happily adopted and overused, but going down that rabbit hole would seriously derail the topic here.) 
Italian chestnut flour

Wowotouer were mainly eaten by northern Chinese for centuries because they were cheap and filling. And that is where they stayed for endless years.

However, these little thimbles eventually became refined enough to find admirers in the imperial household. Dowager Empress Cixi was said to have loved them, and enterprising palace chefs tried other ingredients to expand their repertoire and please the picky old lady. Much like I was attempting to do with my new MIL.

Back in the day, these were a genuine pain to make. I had to spend many hours soaking the dried Chinese chestnuts and then painstakingly ferreting out the hard red skins that cling steadfastly to the intensely wrinkled nuts.

But ever since I discovered Italian chestnut flour, I’ve happily given up on all that drudgery. The mild, smoky flavor of dried chestnuts is still there – admittedly not as strong as in Chinese chestnuts – and it gives these delicate little steamed pastries a wonderful airiness that makes it incredibly easy to breathe down half a dozen before realizing it. You can find this wonderful ingredient in good Italian delis and markets, as well as online.

Red dates
The addition of dates and milk make this a riff on the traditional recipe, as I never really enjoyed the dry and (I’m sorry, Popo) rather boring and even leaden texture of the originals. However, the dates offer little sweet-and-sour jolts in every mouthful and increase the moistness to a delicious degree, while the milk powder offers a subtle sweetness that amplifies the natural flavor of the chestnuts. 

You can easily put these together in half an hour, but they are just as easy to make ahead and freeze. I like them for a simple breakfast with black tea (lychee tea is incredibly good here) and fruit, or in the afternoon with green tea and a couple bowls of sweet sesame soup.

Beyond suitable for feeding a dowager empress or a terrifying Chinese mother-in-law, they are also perfect for feeding your homesick Beijing friends.

Chestnut thimbles
Lìzĭ wōwōtóuer  栗子窩窩頭兒
Makes 16 to 18
Ready to be steamed
10 small (or 5 large) Chinese dates
Boiling water, as needed
1¼ cups | 115 g Italian chestnut flour (farina di castagne)
1 cup | 120 ml boiling water
Spray oil (if you are using paper steamer liners)
2 tablespoons cake or pastry flour
1 tablespoon powdered milk
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon sea salt

1. Stem and rinse the dates before placing them in a heatproof bowl. Cover them with boiling water and set a plate on top of them so that they plump up quickly. When the water has cooled down enough for you to handle them easily, pit the dates and chop them finely.

2. Pour the chestnut flour into a medium mixing bowl and stir in the boiling water to make a thick, bouncy dough. Let the chestnut mixture cool down while you prepare the other ingredients and your steamers. Line 2 steamer racks with either moist cheesecloth or steamer paper and spray oil on the paper, if you are using that.

Shape it on a finger
3. Stir the chopped dates, flour, powdered milk, sugar, baking powder, and salt into the chestnut dough to make a moist mass. Set a work bowl with cool water next to your work area so that you can shape the wowotouer without the dough sticking to your hands. Pick up a golfball-sized wad of dough (around 2 tablespoons) and shape it into a ball. Repeat with the rest of the dough, which should give you around 16 balls.

4. To shape a wowotouer, wet your hands once again and then stick one of your smallest fingers into one of the balls, and then smooth the paste around it to form a thimble with a pointy tip. Smooth the exterior so that it looks elegant, and place the thimble in a warmed-up steamer basket. Repeat with the rest of the dough until done. Cover the steamer and steam the wowotouer over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Serve these thimbles hot or warm with tea as an afternoon. These can be made ahead of time and even frozen in resealable bags. Steam to reheat, rather than microwave, because as with all pastries, microwaving them gives them a tough texture.