Monday, July 24, 2017

Perfect pie crust, or Hong Kong custard tarts part 1

Chinese custard tarts are one of my favorite things ever. 

I love the creamy, delectably spotted ones from Macau that sit proudly in their puffy nests, and I love the shiny, eggy, golden ones from Hong Kong with their mirror-like tops and piecrust pastry. 

These two kinds of custard tart are, therefore, totally different, and pretty soon I’ll crack that Macanese custard tart code for you. 

Right now, though, we are going to dive into Hong Kong’s mini masterpieces. They are a whole lot easier than they look, but you will have to pay attention. This is pastry, after all.
Pastry cutter & wooden bowl

Dear reader, this is the first half of a recipe I have been searching for and never, ever finding. I made so many bad batches that my poor husband wondered how many eggs we'd plow through before I was finally happy. Well, I'm officially happy.

What happened was, that one day I’d finally had enough. I couldn't stand in long lines at my favorite Chinatown bakeries forever whenever I wanted a danta fix. I had too much writing (read: eating) to do. 

Furthermore, I decided that I wouldn’t wear a swimsuit this year if it meant that I could find that perfect mesh of flaky piecrust and delicate filling. 

Some sacrifices are worth making.

I tried all sorts of piecrusts in my odyssey… cookie-like, puff pastry, lots and lots of regular piecrusts… but none really hit that sweet spot. 
Tossing the flour, fat, and liquids

I knew it would in the end have to be nothing less than good old homemade piecrust, but I sort of dreaded that. I even resorted to frozen piecrust in a vain attempt to end-run the inevitable, but those store-bought things never worked out well or tasted right.

The thing is, I had always been rather afraid of the whole making-your-own-piecrust ordeal because the crust inevitably turned out leaden, no matter how hard I tried. 

Then a while ago I bought a copy of The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, and it rocked my little world. 

I used that beautiful book to understand the art behind making the perfect piecrust, although the ingredients below more or less follow the guide enshrined in Michel Roux's Pastry. However, as always, I’ve added more details (and made a few small tweaks) to the final recipe so that you can become as fearless as me when it comes to piecrust.

Clumped up and ready to smear
What I finally figured out was that I was not supposed to make pie dough. The name is what slipped me up, because I was always doing my best to make a doughy mass that I’d faithfully chill and try to roll out and always end up wanting to throw at the wall and that had the consistency of cardboard and was an utter waste of time.

The secret here is to not think of this as dough. And to not make it in a food processor.

Rather, what you are going to do is simply incorporate some good, chilled fats and an egg into unbleached all purpose flour, add just a sprinkling of ice water to encourage things to come together a bit, and then smear this mixture out into thin skids on the counter, which is what turns everything into flaky layers.

Again: Do this by hand, not in a food processor. You need nothing more than a pastry cutter and, in my case, a wooden bowl to keep things happily corralled. This way you can ensure that the bits of fat are cut into the right size, rather than mashed into oblivion. Larger pieces of cold fat will melt in the heat of the oven into airy layers between the flour before frying the flour into heavenly crispiness. The eggs are important, too, because they make the crusts a tad more solid and stable.
First smear

I've talked to a couple of bakers who do little else but make custard tarts for a living. Granted, most people didn't want to discuss their secrets, but a few kinds folks let slip the fact that the crusts they use come premade. That's where those little tiny Chinatown tart tins come in to play. I'm guessing that someone puts out millions of those ready-made crusts, freezes them, and then sells them to bakeries, restaurants, and dim sum parlors, because they generally taste the same no matter where you get them. In other words, these piecrusts do the job, but tend to be pretty generic.

You can therefore up your danta game considerably by making something homemade and ever-so-much-more delicious.

I've suggested that you use all-metal muffin tins here instead of those usual little aluminum tart tins favored by Chinatown bakeries. This will give you a bit of a deep-dish tart with more ratio of custard to crust, which in and of itself is a glorious thing. The heat the tins concentrate on the bottoms and sides will also give you crispier, crunchier crusts.
After two smears

You will need around 2 cups (about 500 ml) dried beans or an equivalent volume of pie weights for the occasion because the crust will swell up during the initial baking (aka blind baking), and so the beans or weights these will hold the fort down nicely. If you don't weigh down the raw crust, or if you don't blind bake the shells, you run the risk of having the bottom crust balloon and push all your custard out of the pan, which would be sad. As for me, I have an ancient mayo jar with shriveled garbanzos in it that follows me wherever I move, and it has pride of place on my pantry shelf.

Do note that while it is conceivable that you can use silicone muffin pans here, since they make removal of the tarts from the tin a whole lot easier; the down side is that the crust won't crisp up very well. Whatever tin you use, be sure and spray it with oil, as this helps prevent the crust from welding to the pan.

Try this recipe and see if you become a convert. Next week we’ll do the filling. But first I want you to master piecrust and never fear making a pie again.
Beans & parchment paper

If you are a purist and are wondering why you should be making these tarts with a Western-style crust, remember that Hong Kong-style custard tarts were most probably introduced to Guangzhou (aka Canton) by the Brits, and good old custard filling is definitely an Anglo-American delight, so I'm just carrying on this grand tradition of cultural and culinary cross-pollination...

Flaky piecrust
Sūpí  酥皮
Southern China by way of the Southern U.S. and France and other good eating-places

2½ cups (375 g) all-purpose flour (see Tip)
1½ teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt 
1½ sticks (¾ cup / 170 g) unsalted butter, chilled
1 large egg plus 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1½ tablespoons ice water
Spray oil
1 large egg white beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Layers of fat = airiness
1. The crust: Start this recipe at least a couple of hours before you need it. Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a wide work bowl. (I like to use my ancient wooden salad bowl for this.) Cut the fats into the flour using your pastry cutter until you have pieces no larger than ½ inch (1 cm) across), but don’t cut it too fine.

2. Use one hand to gently toss the flour as you sprinkle in the eggs to combine it, and then toss in the ice water, a teaspoon at a time. Curl your fingertips up as you do this so that you are gently mixing things up, rather than mashing them. (The second biggest cause of piecrust failure is overworking the dough or using the palm of your hand, which is way too hot for this work.) To test it, press a handful in your fist, and it should clump together. Only add a few tiny more dribbles of water if necessary. (The biggest cause of failure here is adding too much water. Don’t worry if there are some dry areas, as the next step will take care of that.)

Roll out between plastic
3. Dump the mixture out onto a clean, smooth work surface and have a pastry scraper ready. Pick up a small handful about the size of an egg and then use the heel of your hand to smear it away from you. This is where you start to form layers in the piecrust. Repeat this with the rest of the mixture. Then, use your pastry scraper to form this into a rough mass before repeating this step. You will find that everything will be pretty willing to stick together when you are finished. Form the piecrust into a raggedy disc and place it in a resealable bag; you'll have a little over 1½ pounds (720 g) of dough at this point. Refrigerate the piecrust for at least 2 hours so that the flour can absorb the water and expand, and the gluten has a chance to relax.

4. Spray your muffin tin with oil. Lightly dust your work area with some flour, place the dough in the center, and dust it with a bit more flour. Cut it into 12 even pieces and then roll them into balls. Working on one ball at a time, place a ball between two sheets of plastic wrap and use a Chinese rolling pin roll it out into a disc about 5 inches (13 cm) wide. Set the circle into a muffin tin cup and gently pat it to fit. Repeat with the rest of the balls. 

Pat into the muffin tins
5. Next, dip the end of your rolling pin in flour and gently tap the dough into each tin, pressing against the bottom edges, and then rolling the pin around any uneven parts on the sides. Freeze the muffin pans for at least 20 minutes, as this will help the crusts keep their shape.

6. Heat your oven to 425°F (200°C) and set an oven rack in the center. (Do not use the convection or fan setting for this recipe.) First you will blind bake the crusts, which will set their shape and ensure that they have enough time to crisp up during the final baking: lightly prick the bottom of each tart with a fork to help keep the bottoms from rising too much. Refrigerate the piecrusts until you are ready to bake them.

7. Completely cover each shell with a 5-inch (13 cm) square of parchment paper or foil so that they do not brown during this step. Also, be sure and fit the covering into the bottom corners of the tarts since this will keep their shape. Fill the shells with your pie weights or beans, again paying special attention to the corners. Pour boiling water into any empty depressions. Bake the shells for about 5 minutes, and then rotate the pan from front to back and bake 2 minutes more. The shells will be set at this point, but not yet browned.

8. Remove the beans and coverings from the shells. Prick (also called "dock") any bubbles that you see, and then coat the insides of the shells with the egg white mixture. Since the custard filling is very wet, this last step will create a nice, waterproof seal in the tarts and prevent the crusts from sogging up. 

Dock the shells
9. Return the shells to the oven until they just begin to color, about 3 minutes. You do not want to brown them at this point, so keep a careful eye on them and rotate the pan as needed. Remove the pan from the oven. (If you are going to bake the custard tarts immediately, reduce the oven to 275°F / 135°C and wait until it cools down to this temperature, since the custard requires a gentler heat than the crust in order to set up properly. If the oven is too hot, the custard will boil, which means that instead of that seductively satiny texture, it will be coarse and have bubbles running through it.)
Now you’re done and ready to fill the shells. You can freeze them at this point and then store them in a plastic container in the freezer so that they don’t break. You don’t have to defrost them before baking.


Use unbleached all-purpose flour here, as it has a higher protein content, which gives the raw crust more elasticity.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Summer on a plate: celtuce tops with sesame

We just got back from Chengdu, and I can’t recommend that city enough. 

The State Department invited us to the capital of Sichuan to talk about food and culture at various venues. It was a hectic schedule, and I'm still recovering, but I have to say that Chengdu is one delightful place to be. Period.

The people there are so nice, the streets are immaculate, and the food, well, the food was simply amazing. It was the height of summer, and nothing refreshed or delighted us more consistently there than celtuce tips with sesame dressing. We had it in restaurants and private homes, and its repeated appearance more than anything else showed us how beloved it is in Sichuan.
Chen's celtuce

Without a doubt, one of the best versions we tasted was at the famous Chen’s Mapo Doufu. This place is, of course, renowned as the originator of that iconic Chengdu dish made out of bean curd, beef, and lots of chile oil. 

And while we found their signature dish just this side of all right, we were blown away by the celtuce. It excited our appetites and made us look forward to the rest of the dinner with eager anticipation, which is what every good appetizer should do.

What they did – and what I’m replicating here – is to add just a suggestion of chile oil to a light, almost fluffy dressing. It definitely wasn’t noticeable unless you were paying very close attention, but it worked well as an undercurrent to jazz up the nutty, sweet, tart, and salty notes. The only complaint we had was that the sugar remained suspended in the dressing as annoying little crystals. Because it remained aloof from this culinary party, the sugar made the dish way sweeter than it should have been. That’s why I use powdered sugar here, which dissolves quickly and quietly into the mixture as a counterbalance to the vinegar.

The other great version we enjoyed was at the home of a friend, whose father, retired chef Yang Guifang, created a feast for us that included kung pao chicken and the best beef over crispy rice I've ever tasted. He allowed me to shadow him in his kitchen and bug him for secrets, so thank you Chef Yang!

Another way in which I’ve changed this up a bit is by using a touch of good soy sauce instead of the usual salt. This dish needs that tiny xianwei (umami) blast, and soy sauce is there to serve with its usual aplomb.
Chef Yang at the helm

The two basic things you need to aim for here in this dish are absolute freshness in the vegetable and nuttiness in the sauce. So, ideally, the day that you plan to serve this is the day that you buy your celtuce. That morning, bring the whole celtuce or celtuce tops home, trim and slice them up as directed, and rinse well before soaking them a couple of hours in ice water, as this will help to crisp them up even more.

Not everyone has the luxury of shopping when it’s best for the vegetables, so if circumstances force you to buy the celtuce a day ahead of time, rinse the vegetables in cold water, shake them dry, wrap them in a tea towel, place the towel in a plastic bag, and refrigerate. Then, trim and slice them as needed before soaking them in the two cold baths of saltwater and ice water to clean them thoroughly and restore their juiciness.

That second point I mentioned was nuttiness, and to achieve that, the sauce calls for three kinds of toasted sesame: paste, oil, and a seed garnish. Together these will supply you with a nice range of warm flavors.

Fresh celtuce heads
However, not all sesame pastes are made alike. If you don’t use either homemade or a good store-bought sesame paste, the flavor might be a bit off. The same thing goes with toasted sesame oil: as always, aim for the absolute best. Korean and Japanese brands are often excellent, and I always buy mine in large (56 ounce/1656 ml) cans because this is a staple in my kitchen.

But that doesn’t mean that only serious Chinese chefs need to be this persnickety about their ingredients. Even if you are just an occasional East Asian cook, buy only pure sesame oil. Look at the ingredient list, which should tell you that it is 100% sesame oil with no fillers, like cottonseed oil and the like. (Kadoya is my go-to brand, but others are available in Asian supermarkets and online.)

As for the sesame seeds, try to get them in bulk bins, where you can smell and taste them for freshness, and then toast them yourself, which will only take a few minutes. You can even go from there to making your own sesame paste. And that will change your world because the flavor is unparalleled.

I get the big tins
If your store-bought sesame paste or sesame oil lacks oompf, substitute a bit of good peanut or almond butter to ramp up the flavors. Or, you can use all peanut or almond butter here (in fact, any good nut butter would do as long as it’s toasty), if you prefer.

One thing that you must pay attention to when you make this is the emulsification of the dressing ingredients. Just as with a good handmade mayonnaise, you need to whip in air while incorporating the ingredients. Ice water is gradually introduced, too, which will lighten the sauce both visually and texturally.

This is actually the secret to making great sesame sauce, because if you leave out the ice water, the texture stays thick and viscous, but the slow addition of ice water smooths out the sticky paste and makes it thin enough to drizzle over the celtuce, while remaining thick enough to cling to the leaves. Finally, the two oils are beaten in and make the dressing stable. This step is not at all hard, but it will make this dish absolutely superb.

Do note that this will make twice the amount needed, but it stores well for a couple of days in the refrigerator and can be used for another round of celtuce or as a new-fangled salad dressing or for cold noodles Sichuan style.

Celtuce tastes very much like romaine lettuce, so if you don’t have access to celtuce, that’s your substitute. Try to use the hearts of the lettuce, as they will be tenderer and milder, as well as easier to serve and eat.

The genuine Chinese vegetable has other attributes, though, that make it well worth seeking it out. For one thing, it’s beautiful. For another thing, it’s crunchy beyond belief. The brilliant jade of the stems also makes them visually tantalizing. Those stems add another layer of texture and flavor to the leaves, so that your tongue and teeth have even more to play with as you ravage your way across the plate.

I have absolutely no control when faced with a perfect plate of celtuce tips with sesame dressing. And I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

Silky and delicious
Celtuce tips with sesame dressing
Májiàng yóumàicài  麻醬油麥菜
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 head celtuce (around 6 ounces/150 g) that should be mainly composed of young leaves, along with tender stem tips
Ice water and ice cubes, as needed
2 teaspoons sea salt

4 tablespoons toasted sesame paste, well stirred
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons pale rice vinegar
2 tablespoons ice water
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1½ teaspoons chile oil, or to taste
½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Celtuce head cut up
1. Rinse the celtuce leaves thoroughly and trim off any tough or damaged parts. Cut the heads lengthwise into sixths or eighths so that you are left with long, thin, easily manageable wedges, and then cut the heads crosswise to make pieces about 3 inches/8 cm long. Set a serving platter in the refrigerator to chill.

2. At least 3 hours before serving, dissolve the salt in about a cup of cold water, toss the celtuce with this, and add more ice water to cover. Soak the celtuce in this saltwater bath for 15 to 30 minutes to cleanse it and reduce any lingering bitterness, then rinse and shake it dry. Finally, soak the celtuce in ice water to cover for at least 2 hours; toss in a good handful of ice cubes to make the leaves super crisp.

3. To make the dressing, use a whisk to beat together the sesame paste, powdered sugar, and soy sauce in a small work bowl until they are very smooth and creamy. Beat in the vinegar until it is smooth, and then slowly beat in the ice water in small dribbles as if you were making mayonnaise by hand, as this will give you the ethereally silky texture this sauce requires. Finally, beat in the sesame oil and chile oil until the dressing is once more smooth and very light. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

4. Once you have the dressing ready, drain the celtuce and use a salad spinner to remove any remaining water, or else wrap the leaves in a dry tea towel. Arrange the leaves attractively on the chilled platter. Drizzle the dressing over the celtuce leaves, and then sprinkle the sesame seeds on the dressing; you can reserve some of the dressing, if you like, and offer it on the side. Serve immediately.
Bolting head of celtuce

When choosing celtuce leaves, select heads that are stiff with undamaged leaves and freshly cut stems. These are often sold in sealed bags, so you sometimes have to wing it. Even so, try to feel around the middle of the heads to ensure that there are no flowering stems. If the celtuce has started to bolt, it will not be as sweet, and you’ll have fewer leaves since most of the plant’s energy will have been directed toward setting blossoms.

Toasted sesame paste
Májiàng 麻醬
Makes about ¾ cup (160 g)

Unlike the Middle East, which prefers its sesame paste raw, Chinese people like it toasted so that the full flavor of the seeds comes to the forefront. You can buy sesame paste in any Chinese market, but unless you get the right brand, you’ll most likely find it mixed with cottonseed oil or sugar or other unnec­essary ingredients.
Plain but delicious sesame paste

1 cup (140 g) toasted sesame seeds
5 tablespoons or so toasted sesame oil
Sea salt, optional

1. Use a small food processor or a good-quality blender. Pour in the seeds and add a few tablespoons of the oil.

2. Puree the seeds on high, gradually adding the rest of the oil until you have a relatively smooth paste. Season the sesame paste with salt, if you plan to use it like peanut butter, but for Chinese recipes it is best to leave it unsalted. Store the paste in a covered jar in the refrigerator.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Wontons in chile oil

Wontons appear all over southern China. In the United States, we most often see them served Guangdong-style, as shrimp and pork packets floating in a pork broth. Near the Yangtze, wontons are much larger and usually served in pale broths with shreds of omelet, laver seaweed (nori), and green onions.

This wonderful idea traveled west into the chile-laden embrace of Sichuan, where simple pork-filled packets are tossed in an addictively nose tingling sauce. Bright green rings of scallion ornament the top in this refined street food. I used to eat this on bamboo stools at the sides of busy alleys

This particular preparation from Sichuan is my favorite. It’s basically a street food, and I have very fond memories of eating it in busy alleys, sitting on a bamboo stool, watching the world bustle by, and luxuriating in the searing oil biting at my lips and tongue before the sweet porky juice popped out and doused the heat. I’d sweat and smile and order another bowl.

As in most Sichuanese dishes, the chile-laden sauce packs a punch, but here it is sensu­ously tempered by the juicy wonton filling. The sauce will also be slightly diluted by the water that clings to the soft wontons. So, serve extra chile oil or even more of the sauce on the side for those who want to sweat a bit.

The setup
This is an updated version of the recipe that can be found on page 298 of All Under Heaven. I love this recipe so much that I am always making it and fooling around with it, so here are some suggestions that will make your days much easier and much more filled with wontons, which is a great way to live your life.

Making the filling in a food processor really is the way to go here, and it also makes this dish incredibly easy.

Be sure to use 2 packages of wonton wrappers, which will give you a nice surplus of wontons to freeze.

Place the wontons on plastic wrap as you finish making them, as this is so much easier than a tea towel – it might not be traditional, but hey, I’m all about evolution. Be sure and mark up your book accordingly!

To freeze the wontons, freeze them as they are on the lined baking sheets, just be sure that they don’t touch each other. As soon as they are completely solid, transfer them to resealable freezer bags. You should toss these frozen wontons directly into the boiling water without defrosting them first.
Lots of seasoning... yay
Wontons in chile oil
Hóngyóu chăoshŏu  紅油炒手
Makes about 180 wontons and serves a whole lotta people

2 inches (5 cm) fresh ginger, more or less
1½ cups (360 ml) unsalted chicken stock, divided into ½ cup (120 ml) and 1 cup (240 ml)
1½ pounds (500 g) ground pork, preferably around 30 percent fat cut of pork, chilled
Sea salt to taste
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons mild rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
3 green onions, white parts only, trimmed and finely minced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Wonton wrappers:
2 (1 pound, 460 g) packages thin wonton wrappers
Flour for dusting
Sauce (may be doubled)
3 tablespoons red chile oil with toasty bits, or to taste
3 tablespoons light soy sauce, or to taste
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced, optional
Sugar to taste

3 green onions, green parts only, trimmed and cut into thin rounds
Ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns

1. Cut the ginger into roughly ½-inch (1 cm) pieces, then whirl it in a food processor with ½ cup (120 ml) of the stock. Strain the liquid, squeezing out every last drop of ginger-flavored stock into a bowl before discarding the fibrous mass left behind.
Ready to go
2. Place the pork, ginger-flavored stock, salt, eggs, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, the whites of the green onions, sesame oil, and the black pepper in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse in the remaining 1 cup (240 ml) stock in incre­ments so that the pork absorbs all of the liquid. It will be light and fluffy at this point. Chill the filling for an hour or longer, if you have the time, as this will firm it up and make it easier to wrap.

4. Before you start wrapping the wontons, place 2 baking sheets next to your work area, cover them with plastic wrap, and have a couple of extra towels on the side to cover the filled wontons. Place a couple of tablespoons of cool water in a small bowl next to the filling bowl, as well as a flat piece of wood or a small blunt knife. (You’ll use both to wrap the wontons; see the movie below.) If you are going to cook these right away, pour water (at least 8 cups or 2 liters) into a large pot and bring it to a boil just before you are ready to cook. Wrap the wontons as shown below:

6. Mix together the sauce ingredients, taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and divide the sauce among as many bowls you wish; double the amount of sauce if you really enjoy spicy flavors.

7. To cook the wontons, drop them in small handfuls into the boiling water while stirring with a wooden spoon. As soon as the water returns to a boil, pour in about 1 cup (240 ml) cold water. Bring the pot to a boil again and pour in another cup (240 ml) of cold water. When the pot boils a third time, the wontons should be floating gracefully.

8. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to gently remove the wontons into the prepared bowls, draining off as much of the water as you can. Toss them lightly in the sauce and sprinkle with the chopped green onions and the ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns to taste. Serve immediately.