Monday, December 10, 2018

My memoir, plus Suzhou's drunken biscuits

This is an updated recipe from a few years ago, as I've been working on my memoir for W. W. Norton and will include some of my favorite recipes in it. 

Tentatively titled The Jade Labyrinth: My Chinese Life, with Recipes, I'm getting close to wrapping it up, and so at last free enough to announce what it is I've been up to ever since All Under Heaven was published.

I became addicted to these drunken biscuits back in Taipei, when I worked for the museum and library as an interpreter. Cold, blustery evenings would often find me standing at a downtown bus stop feeling very sorry for myself. But one evening my nose detected the aroma of something toasty and decidedly alcoholic emanating from a woman's pushcart. 

One bite and I was hooked.
Golden bottoms

It took me forever to figure out the recipe because every version I tried tasted like bread yeast, not wine. These, though, are right on the money. Drunken biscuits (my pet name for them, as the Chinese term for them literally is fermented rice biscuits) are 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 a combination of sugar, nuts, and osmanthus syrup take this sweet to extreme levels of hedonistic pleasure, at least as far as I’m concerned.

The filling
That being said, don’t overdo it in the filling department. Drunken 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.

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 as the liquid, which pack a double punch of flavor.

Be sure and cover the pan, as that way the center cooks through thoroughly—there are few things as sad as an otherwise delicious biscuit with a raw, doughy center.

Drunken biscuits
Jĭuniáng bĭng  酒釀餅
Bubbling from the addition of the powder & soda
Jiangsu cuisine
Makes 6 biscuits

First rising:
½ cup | 125 g fermented rice solids (see Tips)
⅓ cup | 75 ml fermented rice liquid
2 to 6 tablespoons sugar
1½ cups | 260 g Chinese flour (or two parts all-purpose and one part pastry or cake flour)

Second rising:
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
Spread on the filling
Around 1½ cups | 260 g Chinese flour (or two parts all-purpose and one part pastry or cake flour)

3 tablespoons | 45 g turbinado or light brown sugar (see Tips)
3 tablespoons | 60 g toasted pine nuts or 6 chopped raw Brazilian nuts, optional
1 tablespoon homemade osmanthus syrup, optional
Neutral oil like canola for oiling the frying pan

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 a sticky dough. Taste the dough, and if it is sour, add more sugar—up to 6 tablespoons—to give it a slightly sweet edge, which will also encourage the yeast to grow rapidly. 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. Take a nibble of the dough—it should taste strongly of the wine when it’s ready.

Your standard baozi shape
2. Mix in the baking powder and baking soda. Place about 1 cup | TK g of the flour onto a smooth surface and scrape the dough on top of that. Knead the dough until it feels smooth and no longer sticks to your hands or your counter. What you want is it to feel like an earlobe, not a sweaty palm. Roll it into a ball, cover, and let the dough rest, as this will give the gluten time to relax and the dough to double in size. It is ready when you can poke two holes in the top with your fingertips and the holes don't immediately close up.

3. Cut the dough into 6 even pieces. On a very lightly floured board, roll each one out into 5-inch | 13-cm 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, optional nuts, and optional osmanthus syrup 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. Lightly press down on each one and roll out to form a patty about 3 inches | 8 cm wide. (You may freeze these at this point and then cook them as needed later on.)

Discs ready for the pan
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. Reduce the heat to 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 a deep 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 a rich brown, 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.)