Monday, January 16, 2017

A chewy take on a Taiwanese classic bread

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to live in Taiwan for any length of time has probably been seduced by the bakeries there, and I proudly count myself among the many who can never say no to a fresh hot bun. 

These bakeries tend to offer Chinese takes on Western breads, pastries, and cakes, which can be odd and confusing at first. I remember biting into my first pork fluff bun and wondering what was going on in my mouth. (And if you’ve never tried pork fluff, or ròusōng 肉鬆, it’s a light and flossy creation that takes braised boneless pork and then tosses it with oil in a wok over heat until it falls apart into feathery bits. It’s totally strange and totally delicious.)

Anyway, back to that bun: the bread was on the sweet side, like a Parker House roll with a bit more sugar added, and mayonnaise had been used to glue the pork fluff onto the top of the bun. But after a few cautious nibbles, I realized what a great thing I had in my hand, and it disappeared in a flash.

Get lively, super fresh onions
Other local bakery delights – and many of these you can find in a Chinese bakery if you happen to live near a place with lots of Chinese folks – include pineapple buns (which don’t have any pineapple in them, as they are actually more like Mexican conchas and are topped with a crumbly layer that’s shaped like a pineapple skin), taro buns with the mashed purple paste inside, the usual suspects like red beans and custard, buttery fillings studded with raisins, and a million other concoctions.

One of my all-time favorites, though, are these Green Onion Baked Buns. They smell absolutely heavenly, and I adore the salty, oniony layer that cuts into the gentle sweetness of the bread, giving this particular pastry a lot of personality. The fact that it’s more savory than sweet also makes it especially attractive to me, since that means I can wolf down quite a few without feeling too ill.

This dough's ready to go
I’ve messed around with this classic, though, since I am of the opinion that bread should have more texture. (If you’re a purist, just pull out your favorite recipe for Parker House rolls like this one and use it instead of my bread recipe.) Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the green onions. You really want to pile them on, for the bread will rise in the oven and give those onions plenty of surface to grab on to.

In order to give the onions as skid-free a surface as possible, I’ve learned to cut a deep cross into the top of the buns after they’ve been shaped, since this opens up air holes that are rough enough to give the onions something to cling to and nestled down into as the breads bake away. And because they are cut this way, the circles turn into squares, like magic. 

Traditionally the bakeries brush these with a light sugar syrup to make them glossy and add another layer of sweetness. Again, I don’t do that since I just find it messy and I’m aiming to veer away from too much sweetness here, but if you prefer, you can boil up a light sugar syrup (1 part sugar boiled with 3 parts water until the sugar completely dissolves) and dab it on at the end.

Mound on the onions
I’d store any leftover buns in the fridge for a day or two. But I’m just guessing here. We plow through these the same day they’re made. These are great for rainy days when you want to stay at home, steam up the windows, and then revel in some good food while the storm rages outside.

Green onion baked buns
Táishì cōnghuā miànbāo  台式蔥花麵包
Makes 16

2 teaspoons active yeast
¾ cup (175 ml) warm water
6 tablespoons (85 g) sugar

1 cup (140 g) Chinese flour, or ⅔ cup all-purpose and ⅓ cup pastry flour, plus extra as needed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3½ tablespoons (50 ml) water
¼ cup salted butter, softened
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil

8 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt

Spray oil

1. Mix the yeast with the warm water and sugar, and let it proof for 20 to 30 minutes. You should have a nice froth going on in there, and if you don’t, toss it out and buy new yeast.


2. Mix the flour and salt together in a medium work bowl. Whisk the egg and water together, reserve 1 tablespoon for the topping, and add the rest of the egg mixture to the flour, along with the yeast mixture and butter. Combine to form a soft dough, and then knead it on a lightly floured board until the dough no longer is sticky, but rather is as supple and smooth as an earlobe. Rinse out the bowl, oil it lightly, return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise until double. Turn the dough over on itself (fold the edges into the center all the way around), flip the dough over, cover, and let it again rise until double. It is ready when you poke two fingers into the dough and the holes don’t collapse on themselves.

"Tiger's mouth"
3. While the dough is rising, prepare the topping by tossing the green onions with 1 tablespoon salt. Scrunch the onions and salt together and then take a taste – if you prefer a slightly saltier taste, add more salt. (I do.) Prepare 2 baking sheets by spraying them with oil. Heat the oven to 350°F (175°C) and arrange the racks near the center of the oven.

4. To form the buns, cut the dough into 16 even pieces. (The easiest way to do this is to roll the dough out into an even rope 16 inches long, and then cutting it into 1-inch pieces – or you can figure out something equally easy using the metric system.) Toss the bits of dough lightly with some flour. Turn these knobs into evenly shaped balls using the “tiger’s mouth” technique: pop them through your fist as shown to the upper right.

Cut open each ball of dough
5. Use a sharp knife to cut a cross halfway through each ball (see photo to the lower right), and then set 8 balls on each baking sheet. Dab the insides of each cross with the leftover egg mixture and divide the green onions among the buns.

6. Let the dough rise another 20 minutes or so, and then bake until golden brown, or about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and back to front so that they all cook evenly. Remove the buns from the oven, cool them on a cake rack, and enjoy them as soon as you can without burning your mouth.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Orchid blossom redux: as fava beans

Last week we had Dried Orchid Blossoms created out of pressed bean curd. Today we have some beans with a very similar name. What's the connection? I haven't a clue. The only thing I can say for sure is that they both easy and both amazingly delicious.

My husband used to be utterly addicted to the grocery store versions of these crispy fried beans, but not anymore, because fusty old oil and pallid seasonings have been replaced with zesty, fresh flavors that sparkle on the tongue. 

Fried with the skins on
Not only that, but the textures here are completely off the charts. The meaty, mealy beans become crispy and luscious, frying up into thin, fluttery layers, while the skins provide a chip-like counterpoint. 

And then I tried something new: I discovered peeled dried fava beans in my favorite Middle Eastern market, and suddenly a whole lovely world opened up. I found that without those skins, the beans fry up more evenly, stay crisp easier, and become completely addictive. I've included the recipe for both types of beans, so that you can experiment yourself and also be fully armed in case you run into one kind and not the other. 

I’ll take these over peanuts any old day of the week. Serve with beer or your favorite beverage.
One of the prettiest beans around

Orchid blossom fava beans
Xiāngsū lánhuā dòu  香酥蘭花豆
Serves 6 or more

About 1 pound (450 g) dried fava beans with their skins off or on (see Tips)
Water, as needed
1 tablespoon good sea salt, like Maldon, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon ground, toasted Sichuan peppercorns, plus more as needed
6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely mashed
Frying oil, as needed

1. Rinse the beans and place them in a medium work bowl. Cover them by a couple of inches with lukewarm water and let them soak for at least 24 hours. They are ready when they turn completely flat with no wrinkling, and you often will see the roots beginning to swell on the sides of the unpeeled ones, which shows that your beans are really fresh.
Slit the skin halfway around the edge

2a. For beans with the skins on: Rinse the beans and place them in a saucepan. Bring the water to a full boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook for only a minute to release the beany smells and soften up the skins a bit. Rinse the beans in a colander set in the sink, drain, and dump them onto a clean tea towel. Slit each one horizontally halfway around the edge of the bean – it’s easiest if you leave the dark end alone, as this tends to be thicker. Let the beans air dry for a couple of hours so that no water explodes as they are fried.

2b. For beans with the skins removed: These don't have to be parboiled, but rather drained well before they are air-dried as in 2a. That's it.

3. While the beans are drying, cover a plate with a sheet or two of tempura or parchment paper. Have a Chinese spider or large slotted spoon next to the stove. Place the finely chopped garlic in a medium work bowl. Heat the salt with the ground Sichuan peppercorns in a small frying pan until they barely begin to smoke and give off a lovely aroma, and then toss them with the garlic.
Moisture exits as white foam

4. Set a wok on a stove, add the beans, and then cover them with the oil. (You can do this in 3 or 4 batches, if you like.) 

5a. For beans with the skins on: Fry them over medium-low heat, stirring often, until almost all of the beans have “blossomed” open. Scoop the beans up in a Chinese spider or strainer and raise the heat under the wok to high. When the oil barely begins to smoke and most of the white foam on the oil has disappeared, return the beans to the wok and fry until the skins are very crispy and the meaty parts of the beans are a golden brown. 

5b. For beans with the skins removed: Simply fry them over medium heat until they are golden and crisp, stirring often. Notice how the beans sound different when they crisp up - as you stir them, it will sound more like pebbles being tossed around in a creek, which tells you they are about done.
Skinless beans ready to eat

6. Use your spider to scoop up the beans. Drain off the oil and then toss them well with the garlic mixture while the beans are still very hot, as this will cook the garlic. Dump the beans out onto the paper-lined plate to drain. Taste and add more salt and/or Sichuan peppercorns as needed. Let them cool to room temperature and serve. If you want to save them for another day, they stay crisper if you dry them out overnight in an oven with the light or the pilot light on. Then, store them in an airtight container. Using them up quickly is a good idea since they are fried and the oil doesn't improve as it sits around on the beans, but getting them to disappear should not prove to be a problem.


Soaked skinless fava beans
Locate dried fava beans in a Middle Eastern or Latin American market where the turnover is fast. Seek out the largest ones you can find, which tend to be meatier. Store them in a cool, dry place and use up as fast as possible.

Alter the seasoning as you like to match your menu and palate.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Dried orchid blossoms

The name alone of this dish is enough to make me smile. In Chinese it’s simply “dried orchid blossoms,” with no other clues as to what is involved. Does it look like an orchid? Or taste like a flower? Or even possess a single petal? Nope.

What this is is a uniquely delicious dish with the most marvelous texture, something that I’ve never found in any other bean curd creation. The secret lies in the fancy knife work, which actually is not at all fancy once you get to know the secret.

We used to buy plastic bags of this when we strolled around downtown Taipei. Certain shops were known for their braised dishes – called lŭwèi 滷味 – and this is a code for the soy sauce marinade. Just about any protein can be turned into luwei, including meats, poultry, eggs, gluten, and bean curd, and the key to making something special lies in a) how the protein is prepared and b) what goes into the marinade.
Up close you can see the beauty

Soy sauce really is the common denominator, and the other usual suspects are ginger, green onions, spices like star anise and cinnamon, rice wine, and sugar. Meats and birds tend to be blanched before they are tossed in the pot, while eggs are hardboiled and peeled, but gluten and bean curd often have unique little steps added to the procedure. This makes complete sense when you think of how many Buddhist vegetarians and vegans there are in China and how Chinese people love to eat, so something had to be done to make meals delicious even if they are meatless.
The luwei braise

Case in point: Dried Orchid Blossoms. They really are nothing more or less than pressed bean curd, those leathery little squares that honestly have little flavor on their own. But with the proper preparation – as here, of course – they turn into something amazing. Again, the key is knowing how to cut these into intricate latticework, as they become not only beautiful, but this opens up each morsel to the hot oil, which in turn puffs the bean curd up into a glorious sponge.

The marinade is open to interpretation. Use whatever spices and aromatics you like. Make it spicy, make it mild, make it how you want. If you are a strict Buddhist, leave out the wine and aromatics. Whatever you do, be sure and add a bit of sweetness to the mix, as this plays well off the slightly sour taste of the bean curd.

I heartily recommend making this a day or two ahead of time, if you can stand the wait. The flavors deepen as the squares soak up the marinade, and each bite becomes memorable. So, make more than you think you want. No matter how much you make, you will end up wanting every last bit, believe me.
Intriguing shapes, delicious all around

Dried orchid blossoms
Lánhuā gān  蘭花乾
Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer or snack

Bean curd:
24 ounces (680 g) pressed bean curd (dòufŭgān 豆腐乾)
Boiling water, as needed
Frying oil, as needed

¼ cup (60 ml) regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¼ cup mild rice wine
Around 1 tablespoon rock sugar, plus more to taste
1 stick cinnamon
2 star anise
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
5 slices fresh ginger
4 green onions, trimmed but left whole and tied into knots
Parallel chopsticks, vertical cuts

To serve:
2 green onions, trimmed and finely shredded, optional
Chile sauce of any kind, optional

1. Cut the squares apart, if needed. Place the pressed bean curd in a pan and cover with boiling water. Bring the water to a full boil, dump everything into a colander set in the sink, and then place the squares on a clean tea towel to dry off.

2. To shape the dried orchids, first find a pair of chopsticks that are about one-third the thickness of the bean curd. Place a chopstick on either side of one of the squares. Make vertical cuts from the top down to the chopsticks about 1/16th inch (1.5 mm) apart. Turn the square over and place the two chopsticks at a right angle to each other and set the square inside. Starting from the inside corner of the angle, make diagonal cuts down to the chopsticks again about 1/16th inch (1.5 mm) apart. When you reach the middle, turn the square 180° so that the uncut portion sits against the chopsticks, and then continue to cut this area on the diagonal. Once you are done, if you gently pull on either end of the square, it will open up into an accordion. This is called the “coir raincoat cut,” if you’re interested. Repeat with the rest of the squares until done.
Perpendicular sticks, diagonal cuts

3. Set a wok with about 2 inches (5 cm) of frying oil over medium-high heat. Slide 2 of the opened squares into the oil, making sure that they do not touch. Fry them on both sides until they are light brown and hard to the touch, which will take about 7 minutes. While they are frying, use your chopsticks to pull on them at each end to open them up, which will turn the squares into lacy rectangles. Remove them to a 2-quart (2-liter) saucepan. Repeat with the rest of the bean curd until all are fried.

4. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pan and add boiling water almost to cover. Bring the pot to a full boil and then lower to a slow simmer. Cook the bean curd uncovered for about 2 hours, gently tossing them now and then. Turn off the heat and let this sit covered overnight. They are best if refrigerated for a day or two so that the flavors really seep in, and they keep for at least a week in the marinade. To serve, cut the rectangles into ½ inch (1 cm) wide strips and serve with chopped green onions and chile sauce, if desired.

These are quite beautiful every step of the way. Here's a glimpse of them frying: