Monday, February 19, 2018

Fried gold thread buns

Happy Year of the Dog!

This is one of the first banquet foods that completely blew my mind during that initial year in Taiwan. Why fried buns like this aren’t sold everywhere in the world is beyond my comprehension. 

For, they are like doughnuts, but not as sweet. and they're like beignets, but better. And, if I'm going to get all poetic on you, these are like the toast and jam the angels must dine on. And if they don’t, I would like to know why.

Gold thread buns are a variation on silver thread buns (also known as yínsījuăn 銀絲卷), which are a variation on mántóu 饅頭, or plain steamed buns. 

Silver thread buns are, I admit, much more common just about everywhere in Taiwan and North China. And you can make them easily from this recipe by simply not adding the sweet potatoes in Step 3. It’s that simple. And this will give you something that is honestly amazing.
Steamed gold thread buns

But the sweet potatoes here are so good. They make these buns look like a gorgeous cross between sushi and eggs. Plus, that mild vegetal sweetness transforms into something magically aromatic in here.

These buns are also all about texture, for the dough threads offer up a silky quality that teases the tongue underneath the tensile outer dough wrapper. 

Mashed sweet potatoes
And that’s the reason why these buns are so beloved at big northern-style banquets, at least back when I was a student in Taipei. This was treat food reserved for holidays and weddings, not something you could get every day. And yet, even then, these hadn’t reached the absolute pinnacle of dream food status, at least in my book.

No, for that you had to fry them. And serve them with a little dish of sweetened condensed milk on the side. Yes, I understand your trepidation, since we just don’t serve bread with condensed milk in the West, but stick with me here. Try this. It’s an insane level of delicious. 

Ask your Taiwanese friends whether they’d like to try a batch and watch them start to drool as their eyes roll back into their heads. Yup, they are that good.
Wrap the mash in the dough

Fried gold thread buns
Zhá jīnsījuăn 炸金絲捲
North China
Makes 24, serves 6

1½ teaspoons bread yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1¼ cups | 300 ml warm water
Spray oil
3 cups | 450 g Chinese flour (or ⅔ all purpose flour + ⅓ pastry or cake flour), plus extra for kneading and shaping the dough
1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter or butter substitute, or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 70 g cooked and mashed red sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or carrots
Butter up the "threads"
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar or coconut sugar
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or butter substitute, or vegetable oil, divided in half
Vegetable oil, as needed
Sweetened condensed milk, homemade or store bought, as needed

1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the warm water, stir them in, and wait until the yeast has a heavy head of foam, about 30 minutes. While the yeast is blooming, set up your steamer. You’ll need two baskets lined with steamer paper. Spray the paper with oil. Cover the baskets, fill the pan with water, and bring the pan to a full boil with the baskets on top. This will warm up the baskets and make them ready for the buns.

Arrange the "threads" on the white dough
2. Measure the flour into a medium work bowl and pour in the yeast mixture, butter, and salt. Mix these together to form a flaky dough, and then turn this out onto a clean work surface. Knead the dough with a bit more flour until it is as soft as an earlobe and no longer sticky. Divide the dough into approximately two-thirds and one-third. Set the large ball of dough back in the bowl and cover it with a towel to rest while you prepare your “gold threads.”

3. Pat the smaller ball of dough into a cup-like shape on a heavily floured surface and pile the mashed sweet potatoes and brown sugar into the center. Use a pastry scraper in one hand to corral the dough while you knead it with the other. Add more flour as necessary until you have a soft dough that is no longer sticky.

4. Scrape your work surface clean and then smear it lightly with oil. Flatten the orange dough out into a thin rectangle, about 18 x 9 inches | 45 x 22 cm in size. Use a pastry brush to smear half of the melted butter over the dough. Fold the dough in thirds, so that you have a packet about 6 x 9 inches | 15 x 22 cm in size. Roll this up from one of the wide edges into a cylinder about 9 inches | 22 cm long. Use a sharp knife to cut the cylinder into thin strips, about ⅛ inch | 0.3 cm wide. Lay these strips out flat on a clean work surface, brush the rest of the melted butter on them, and let them rest while you prepare the bun wrappers.

5. Scrape your work surface clean and lightly flour it. Divide the white dough in half. Working on piece at a time, roll one piece out into a thin sheet, about 20 x 7 inches | 45 x 11 cm in size. Pick up a small bunch of the orange dough threads and pull on them gently so that they turn into strings. Don’t worry if some of them break—no one will notice later on. Lay these strings lengthwise down the center of the white sheet of dough. Repeat with the orange dough threads until you have used up half of them.

6. Fold one long end of the dough over the orange dough threads and then continue to roll it up and over the orange threads to form a long rope. Pinch the end of the dough into the cylinder to seal it. Then, lightly roll the dough with the palms of your hands to even it out, and then gently pull on it to make it around 10 inches| 25 cm long.

7. Trim off the ends and cut the rope into 12 even pieces. Roll each one of the little buns to return it to a nicely round shape (see photo on the upper right). Set these on the oiled paper in the steamer and steam the buns over high heat for about 10 minutes. Once the buns have cooked through, nudge each one loose from the paper while they are still hot. Repeat with the rest of the orange and white doughs until you have formed 24 small buns. These can be frozen at this point, refrigerated and then reheated, or eaten immediately. But for pure sensory overboard, go to Step 8.
Frying up the buns

8. To fry these buns, set a 1 quart | 1 liter pan over medium-high heat and fill it with about 2 inches | 5 cm oil. The oil will be ready when chopsticks inserted in the hot oil are immediately covered with bubbles. Slide in 4 or so buns. Do not overcrowd them, as they will fry up fast, and you don’t want them to stick to each other. Turn the buns over as they brown. When they have turned a golden brown all over, remove to a plate lined with paper. Serve immediately with a saucer filled with sweetened condensed milk.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Taiwanese popcorn chicken

This dish is known as "salty crispy chicken" in Chinese, and that about sums it up in the tersest language possible. These seasoned chunks of fried chicken started to become insanely popular in Taiwan around the early eighties. I think the first people to sell this were the street hawkers. These folks would push little carts with propane stoves set up in front, a wok full of hot oil, and all of their seasonings ready in a shaker can.

Some chicken would already be fried and ready to go on their display shelves, but those in the know would ask that a fresh batch be cooked up to order. This ensured maximum freshness and crispness. Once the chicken had been fried, it would be transferred to a small paper bag. A handful of fresh basil leaves was then tossed into the chicken to add color and freshness and a blast of flavor, and toothpicks were inserted into a couple of the pieces to act as instant serving utensils.

The last word in fried chicken
This to me was one of the most inspired dishes I learned to love in Taipei. I’ve always been a big fan of fried chicken, but this beat American fried chicken by a country mile. It was the seasoning in the meat and the incredible crunchy-chewy texture of the coating that always blew my mind. Instead of plain chicken seasoned with just salt and pepper like Mom used to make, I could taste garlic and five spice and soy sauce in there. Every bite was yet another step down the path to complete addiction.

The Taiwanese have an amazing way with fried foods, for the meat itself is not only expertly seasoned from the inside out, but the coating is most often composed of nothing more than sweet potato flour. And I have to tell you, this is one of the best and most brilliant culinary inventions ever.

Taiwanese sweet potato powder
Instead of a batter, the meat is coated with this dry flour and the excess is knocked off just before the morsel is deep-fried. The surface turns from white to a deep golden brown and crisps up into bubbly mounds that crunch and offer total sensory satisfaction. But it’s what lies beneath that turns this into a genius move: the part right next to the meat becomes chewy and gloriously tensile. Oh. My. God. These contrast against each other and complement each other and then do this all over again in a luscious tango with the juicy meat.

Basil is the herb of choice in this dish. Its peppery, licorice aromas bounce off well against the fried chicken. But while it’s usually added as a raw garnish in Taiwan, I’ve come to love it fried. This way the leaves become brittle and the flavors turn muted, so that they act as more like a gentle counterweight to the chicken, rather than a conflicting salad of sorts. I’ve also added just a touch of cayenne to insert a bit of a kick. You can definitely add more or leave it out, depending on what you and the folks you are serving tend to like.

A hint of cayenne
Another thing I've done here is to sub out the regular bone-in chicken (usually whole birds are whacked up into small pieces) in favor of my favorite cut of meat, the thigh, which has had the bone removed to make dining even easier. Call it chicken mainlining, if you like.

This is still good cold (and would make terrific picnic fare), but I always opt for it fresh off the stove whenever possible. Serve this with ice-cold beer and prepare to be amazed. As Aretha Franklin said in The Blues Brothers, it’s the best damn fried chicken in the county.

Popcorn Chicken
Yánsū jī 鹽酥雞
Serves 6 as an appetizer or bar snack

1½ pounds | 675 g boneless free-range chicken thighs (about 5 or 6)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon five spice
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Deep bubble action
1 cup sweet potato flour or tapioca flour; cornstarch will work in a pinch
1 teaspoon dry-fried Sichuan peppercorn salt or black pepper salt
Half a bunch of fresh basil (more or less), rinsed and patted very dry
2 cups frying oil (used ok, as long as it smells fresh)

1. Pat the chicken dry. Leave the skin on if you are lucky enough to have it. Cut the chicken roughly into pieces no larger than 1 inch | 2 cm square. You don’t want uniformity here, as ragged bits will crunch up nicely, while the squarish ones will offer juicy contrast. Toss these in a bowl with the soy sauce, five spice, cayenne, rice wine, and sesame oil. Do NOT add the garlic unless you are cooking this within an hour, as otherwise the garlic will become overpowering. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least for an hour and up to 24 hours. Toss in the garlic within an hour of proceeding to step 2.

Fresh basil
2. Pour the sweet potato flour or tapioca flour into the chicken and mix it around with your chopsticks so that every piece turns completely white. You should only have a little bit of flour left over. The flour is what gives this chicken its amazing texture, so don’t shortchange it by giving it a quick toss. Spend a couple of minutes on this.

3. Pluck the basil leaves off the stems; you can keep the top parts together, if you like. Pat these again until they are really, really, really dry. Any water that finds itself in the hot oil will explode, so this step is also important. Array the leaves on a dry tea towel and roll them up so that any extra water gets a chance to wick away.

Crisped up leaves
4. Have a medium work bowl and a Chinese spider or slotted spoon ready. Heat the oil in a small saucepan rather than a wok, as this will give you a deeper well to cook in and thus you will not need as much oil as when you are using a wok. Set the pan over medium-high heat. You can tell the oil is ready for frying if you insert your dry wooden chopsticks into the oil and they immediately bubble all over.

5. Carefully slide about a quarter of the chicken into the hot oil and mix them around with your chopsticks so that they do not stick to each other. Stir the chicken every once in a while so that the chicken gets evenly browned. As soon as it is a deep gold, use your spider or slotted spoon to scoop out the chicken into the work bowl. Repeat this step until all of the chicken is fried.

Snack heaven
6. Have a spatter screen or wide lid ready to shield you from any spattering oil. Set the pan over medium heat and cautiously slide in a small handful of the basil leaves. They probably will spit hot oil at you even though you did your best to remove all the water—that’s just life, so use your screen or lid to protect you from harm. As soon as the sputtering slows down, mix the basil around with your chopsticks to ensure that they fry evenly. When they turn a dark green and are crispy, scoop them out with your spider or slotted spoon and into the bowl with the chicken. Repeat until all the basil has been fried.

7. Sprinkle the toasted salt over the chicken and toss everything together so that the basil and salt quickly covers the chicken. Scrape this out onto a serving dish and eat immediately. Fried chicken will never be better than this.


Monday, February 5, 2018

Peanut and red date ice milk

I love ice cream. No, that’s a lie. I adore ice cream. And my husband is even crazier for the stuff. But sometimes I crave a frozen dessert that is a little bit less sweet and a lot more refreshing, and that’s when I long for ice milk.

For some strange reason, though, ice milk has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps this is because ice cream is just so popular. Plus, ice milk sounds like it would be the cheaper cousin of ice cream, some sort of lesser being hiding in the back of a discount frozen food aisle. And yet, because there are so few fats and often much less sugar in ice milk, its flavors explode easily on the tongue. No barriers stand in the way between you and utter delight.

And that’s why I came up with this recipe. And just for the record, no milk is involved. This is vegan heaven, for peanuts and Chinese red dates are the main ingredients, along with a sprinkle of rice to smooth out the texture and a touch of sugar or sugar substitute, if you really want to make this totally guilt free.

This is pretty much the same recipe as the one for peanut milk in All Under Heaven, but I upped the amount of red dates to give it more of a natural sweetness. You don't really taste the dates except as a sort of suggestion floating around the back of your mind, telling you that a bit of magic is at work here. This combination ends up being subtle and delicious. 

Two simple ingredients
Peanut milk is one of those Chinese ideas that really should be adopted with glee all over the world. It’s just that delicious and just that much of a no-brainer. 

Instead of the vibrant nutty flavor of toasted peanuts, though, what you end up with is something smooth and delicately flavored. This is comfort food of the first order. When I lived in Taiwan, people almost invariably drank this in winter as a hot pick-me-up or a nourishing breakfast. But I could see other possibilities on the horizon as it gradually turned into a cool summer refresher, and that's when I came up with the idea of turning this into ice milk.

In the interest of full disclosure, one bit of work required here, and that has to do with the straining. It honestly is just a tiny pain in the butt to strain the liquid out of the ground peanuts. To combat this, I use two conical sieves: one with holes on the inside to trap the larger particles and one with a fine screen on the outside to ensure that the milk is as smooth as satin; two regular sieves would also work as well, as long as you have a fine-meshed one on the outside. 

In the blender
You might think that it would be just fine to dump everything into the saucepan and do away with the straining, but be assured that this extra step is totally worth it because the texture becomes absolutely remarkable. A high-speed blender helps things immeasurably, too, for it pulverizes the peanuts like nothing else and so allows you to extract every last mote of flavor.

The key to success here is to simmer the milk for a few minutes, as this not only cooks the nut and date milk, but also thickens it and gives it a custardy texture that translates well into a tongue-cosseting ice milk.

I like to make the peanut mixture a day or two ahead of when I plan to serve it so that that little bit of hard work is behind me and the milk gets to chill thoroughly, which speeds up the freezing process. Then, a couple of hours before serving time, I freeze the milk in two batches in my ice cream maker before popping the results in the freezer. My guests are always happy with this surprisingly delicious end to the meal.

Peanut and red date ice milk chez Huang
Huángjiā huāshēngnái hóngzăo bīngshā 黃家花生奶紅棗冰沙
Makes about 6 cups | 1.5 liters

12 ounces | 340 g raw peanuts, preferably skinned and definitely very fresh
1 cup | 100 g pitted Chinese red dates of any size
Water and boiling water, as needed
2 tablespoons raw rice of any kind
The peanut & date solids
6 cups | 1.5 l boiling water
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup sweetener (sugar, sugar substitute, agave, whatever you like), or to taste

1. The night before you plan to make this, place the peanuts in a medium work bowl and cover them by at least 1 inch | 2 cm of cool tap water. Place the pitted dates in a heatproof bowl and cover with boiling water by at least 2 inches | 4 cm, as these will absorb much more of the water. The next morning, drain and rinse the peanuts, but do not drain the dates, as that soaking water will taste fantastic.

2. Set a coarse sieve or colander chinois inside a similarly shaped sieve (see headnotes), and place this over a heavy 2 quart | 2 liter saucepan. Add the nuts, the dates, date water, and rice to your blender. Add 4 cups | 1 liter of boiling water to the blender, cover the blender, and gradually increase the speed to high. Pulverize the peanuts for at least a couple of minutes to extract as much flavor as possible. Scrape the solids and milk into your prepared sieves. Use a large silicone spatula to squeeze as much of the liquid out as possible, and then return the solids to the blender. Add the rest of the boiling water, whiz them together for a couple of minutes, and repeat the straining step. Discard the solids.

3. Add the salt and sweetener to the liquid and set the pan over medium-high heat. Stir the milk and scrape the bottom often to keep it from burning. As soon as it comes to a full boil, reduce the heat and continue to cook and stir the milk for a few minutes until it has thickened. Taste the milk to ensure that there is no raw peanut flavor, and add more sweetener if you think it needs it. Remove the pan from the heat, allow it to come to room temperature, and chill in a closed container or jar.
Simmer until thickened & creamy

4. A few hours before serving, pour half of the milk into your ice cream maker. (I’m assuming it holds around 1 quart | 1 liter; if not, adjust the amount as needed.) You don’t want to overfill the ice cream maker because the liquid will expand considerably as it freezes. Freeze the peanut milk, scrape out the ice milk into a resealable container, cover, and store in the freezer. Repeat with the second half of the milk. (Most ice cream makers require a rest period between sessions, so check your manual.)

5. Remove the ice milk from the freezer about 15 minutes before serving if it is freshly made. If the ice milk has frozen solid, it will take longer to soften, so adjust your time accordingly. Serve with black sesame candy wafers or cookies, or scoop it into cones, or make it into as great ice milk soda. This is an incredibly satisfying dessert, especially after a heavy or spicy meal.