Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Miniature rice paste balls for the Winter Solstice

One of the most delightful aspects of Chinese culture has to be the many traditions that link food to minor holidays with as much seriousness as the big whole-nation-takes-the-day-off festivities. One of these is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which falls on December 21 this year on both the western and lunar calendar. 

As part of the celebrations, we all get to eat moon-shaped balls of mochi-like rice paste. Called tangyuan, or "soup balls," these are almost invariably served as a sweet after dinner tomorrow.

Today we are going to look these in their miniature state, which are called yuanzi or xiaoyuanzi (little balls). These are simply unstuffed little marbles of rice paste dough, some of them often colored a pink or red -- and even lavender or orange -- to snazz up the bowl. These are popular all over China, are easy to make, and go great in a hot bowl of Fermented Rice Soup.

If you have time today or tomorrow to prepare these ahead of time, you can freeze them on a baking sheet and then store the rice balls in a freezer-safe resealable bag. Then, you just have to drop them into the boiling water; no defrosting necessary. 

The dough is ready to roll
Many ready-made versions are available in the freezer section of larger Chinese markets, and in case you are short on time, go ahead and take advantage of this shortcut. Look carefully at them before you buy the rice balls, though, since they cannot be frozen for too long before they dry out and crack. Once that happens, they become inedible, as the dough will never soften up in the boiling water and the filling will leak out over everything. 

If you have extra, freeze them and save them either for another dessert or even for Lantern Festival, which falls on the first full moon after Chinese New Year, or February 6, 2012. On that day, it is customary to serve a type of filled rice ball made by interspersing coatings of rice flour with sprays of water, giving the balls a completely different texture from tangyuan. However, these yuanxiao are extremely difficult to find outside of China unless you make them yourself, and so the tangyuan are acceptable substitutes. 

Small rice paste balls 
Xiaoyuanzi 小圓子
All over China
Makes lots and serves at least 12

1 pound glutinous (sweet) rice flour, either Mochiko brand or the Thai brand with green print
1½ cups filtered water at room temperature
Red, pink, or other food coloring (optional)
Rock sugar or Hot Fermented Rice Soup (eggs optional)
 1. Pour the rice flour into a medium work bowl, reserving about a quarter cup for rolling out the dough later on. Stir in 1¼ cups of the water until it is complete absorbed by the flour, and then dribble in as much of the rest is needed until a soft dough is formed. The dough is ready when it no longer is in clumps, you can pinch it into pieces, and it does not stick to your fingers. (Add a bit more water, if necessary.)

2. Use one hand to lightly knead the dough in the bowl until it is smooth. Sprinkle a smooth work surface lightly with the reserved rice flour, and cover a large, rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap; have more plastic wrap ready. 

3. If you would like to color all or some of the dough, do it now by working in a few drops of food coloring. (The traditional way is about a third colored pink and the rest left white, but feel free to be creative here.) 

4. Pull off a handful of the dough, roll it into a half-inch wide rope, and pinch off pieces that are also about half an inch in length. Roll each piece between your palms to form a ball, and then turn the rest of that bit of dough into more little balls. Place these balls on the plastic-lined pan so that they do not touch each other, as otherwise they will stick. Repeat with the rest of the dough until all of the dough has been turned into little marbles, and place another piece of plastic wrap on top. (It's best not to layer the raw dough, as the balls will flatten into discs.) 
Form the dough into marbles

5. Freeze the balls on the sheet until they are hard, and then transfer them to a resealable freezer bag; remember that if you leave them uncovered in the freezer for too long, they might dry out and crack.

6. To cook the xiaoyuanzi, bring a couple of cups of water to boil in a saucepan. If you are serving them in just hot, sweetened water, then add rock sugar to taste and stir until the sugar dissolves; if you are serving them with the Hot Fermented Rice Soup (with or without eggs), then get this ready, as well. 

7. Toss a few handfuls (or however many you want to serve) of the frozen rice paste balls into boiling water. Gently stir the balls until the water boils again. As soon as the balls float, they are ready. Immediately remove them to your waiting bowls and cover them with some of the boiling water or a good ladle-full of the hot soup, and garnish with eggs, if you like. (Either poach the eggs as directed in the soup recipe, or beat them in a small bowl, hold the bowl near the top of the simming water, and slowly drizzle them into the hot water so that they immediately cook and float, rather than sink to the bottom.) Serve immediately.

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