Monday, September 18, 2017

Chinatown's almond cookies

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by San Francisco’s Chinatown. Going there was a rare treat, but I always knew what I wanted when we got there: a box of almond cookies.

Packed up in a pretty pink box with a string tie, they were unlike anything we ate down in San Jose, which was pretty Midwestern when it came to food then. 

To me, Chinese almond cookies tasted more like Chinatown than any other sweet I tried, not that there was ever that huge a selection.

Later, when I was older, I tried to relive that experience, only to find that the flavors and textures were off. The cookies were bland instead of exciting, tasted of fat and sugar rather than almonds, and tended to be slightly soft, not tantalizingly crispy, as I remembered.

And so, of course, I had to rectify this.

Perfect snacking
As you can see, I’ve been on a bit of a warpath lately. Chinese American food is sooo good, but we never get to really eat it anymore. It’s as American as, say, Tex-Mex or Red Italian, and I am all in favor of seeing it make a genuine comeback. But cooked with pride and made with even better ingredients than before, of course.

Almond cookies seem like an obvious choice for this first salvo. The original inspiration for this recipe came from a 1979 cookbook called Better Than Storebought by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie. I’ve made a lot of adjustments over the years, though, to make it more almond-y, less sweet, and a bit healthier. They even have that golden shiny glaze and crinkly fissures on top. 

I hope you agree that these are just what we need for snacktime.

Updated Chinatown almond cookies
Whip the sugars, fat, & egg together
Tèzhì Tángrénjiē xìngrén bĭnggān 特製唐人街杏仁餅乾
Chinese American
Makes 32

¾ cup (145 g) organic solid white shortening, or good lard
½ cup (100 g) white sugar
¼ cup (45 g) coconut sugar, or packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
¾ cup (100 g) ground almonds, or almond flour
1¾ cups (165 g) unbleached pastry flour
¾ teaspoon sea salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda

1 large egg, lightly beaten
32 whole almonds, either unblanched or blanched (i.e., with or without skin)

1. Place the shortening (or lard), both sugars, 1 egg, and both extracts in the bowl of a food processor equipped with a metal blade. Whiz it for around a minute, stopping the machine now and then to scrape down the sides, until you have a very light, creamy mixture.

2. Mix together the ground almonds (or almond flour), pastry flour, salt, and baking soda in a small work bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the food processor and pulse the cookie dough until it is evenly mixed.
Make logs & chill
3. Have 2 sheets of parchment paper or foil ready. Scrape out half of the cookie dough onto each sheet, spread it out into a log-like shape, and then roll the dough up in the paper or foil like a cigar. Freeze the dough for about 20 minutes, just until it is solid but still easy to cut.

4. Place 2 racks near the center of your oven and turn it on to 275°F (135°C); don’t use the convection setting. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper.

5. Cut each log of dough into 16 even pieces. (This is easy: cut each log in half, then each piece into half again, then half again, then half again; see Tip.) Place them on the lined sheets about 2 inches (5 cm) apart.

6. Brush each slice with the beaten egg, and then press a whole almond in the center. Bake the cookies for 25 minutes. Rotate the sheets from top to bottom and back to front, and then increase the heat to 325°F (160°C). Continue to bake them for about 10 minutes more. When they are golden brown, remove them from the oven and let them cool to room temperature. Keep them in an airtight container or freeze for longer storage.

Oven ready

If you can hunt down some good lard, try that. It’s wonderful.

Even better, make your own lard: Cut some chilled pork fat (it’s much easier to work with when it’s very cold) into small dice. Place the fat in a saucepan, add a couple of tablespoons of water, cover the pan, and set it over medium-low heat. Stir the fat as needed to keep the solids from burning. As soon as you have a nice layer of fat on the bottom, remove the lid so that the water can evaporate and continue to cook the fat, adjusting the heat as necessary. It is ready when the solids are a toasty brown. Drain the fat through a sieve into a container, and then refrigerate it. 

The toppings
Lard will keep a very long time if kept cold. And be sure to save the cracklings – one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sneaky snacks was white rice topped with cracklings, a bit of melted lard, and a drizzle of soy sauce. I have to agree with her here… this is pretty amazing stuff and is much better than it sounds, all buttery and crunchy.

Whenever you need to cut up things like pastry dough or cookie dough, see if you can make a number that is easily divisible by 4, like 8, 16, 32, and 64. The reason for this is that you then don’t need to measure the dough with a ruler, but rather simply slice pieces in half until you have the correct number of pieces. Brainlessly easy.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bangbang chicken chez Huang

Ok, let’s say you have some tasty leftover chicken from last week and it’s hot out and you don’t feel much like cooking. It could be that you only have a breast and a thigh sitting in the fridge, and you want to mix it up a bit and turn those bits into a dish that sparks the appetite and tickles the senses.

If that sounds right up your alley, then you should make bangbang chicken. (By the by, it's pronounced "bong bong," like you're whacking away on it like a drum.)

Similar in many ways to mouthwatering chicken, this traditional hot-weather appetizer from Chengdu has been updated here with fresh lemon juice instead of vinegar, which makes it even more refreshing. Plus, grated lemon zest adds a nice perfume to the nutty sauce, cutting the heaviness of the peanut butter with a bit of zing. Homemade chile oil is fabulous in any Sichuan dish, but store-bought will do in a pinch. Nestle everything on a pile of super crunchy tribute vegetable or strands of fresh cucumber, and you have the perfect way to begin a summer meal.

I like to serve this for dinner at home, but it’s also great on picnics, or even at potlucks, where it will surprise and probably seduce everyone there. This tends to disappear in a flash, so I tend to make more that I think I’ll need, and still it gets swooped up faster than anything else on the table.

Peanut butter + chicken = delicious
A lot of this has to do with the nutty sauce, I think. We just don’t do enough with peanut butter in this country, which is a crying shame. I mean, other than PBJ’s and Reese’s and peanut butter cookies, this flavorful nut butter tends to get short shrift. But everyone loves it, so here is an easy way to worm your way into the hearts and stomachs of everyone at the table.

Of course, if there are peanut allergies you have to deal with, try almond butter instead. Even soybean butter will work in a pinch, with toasted soybeans taking the place of the toasted peanuts. Or toasted sesame paste. All sorts of alternative exist nowadays.

Be sure to include the vegetables underneath to balance out the chicken and sauce. The green onions are likewise important players here. Their grassy, slightly hot nature complements the other flavors here, just like the garlic.

Crunchy toppings
If you make this ahead of time, be sure to keep the chicken, sauce, and vegetables separate until the last minute. Otherwise, the salt in the sauce will make the veggies soggy and will drown out the natural flavors of the bird. For picnics or potlucks, you can layer the chicken on top of the veggies and carry the sauce and toppings in small containers. 

A pair of chopsticks is a good choice for serving utensils, since they allow people to snatch up the whole layers without messing them up too much. Whatever you do, don’t toss them together, as the dish will look sloppy and unappetizing.

Whenever you have vegans or vegetarians coming to dinner, julienne some pressed doufu to take the place of the chicken. And for those hot days when just this one dish will have to suffice, serve it over a big pile of crispy lettuce, make double the amount of sauce, and get ready to enjoy a great salad.

Bangbang chicken chez Huang
Huángjiā bàngbàng jī  黃家棒棒雞
Serves 4

2 ounces (60 g) dried tribute vegetable, or 2 Persian or other seedless cucumbers
Boiling water, as needed
8 ounces (225 g), more or less, leftover boneless cooked chicken (roasted, poached, whatever), chilled

1 dried Thai chile
3 tablespoons peanut butter (crunchy or smooth, salted or not)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
Grated zest of half a medium lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce
The sauce ingredients a la Pollack
2 or more tablespoons chile oil (homemade or store-bought)
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn oil (homemade or store-bought), optional
2 teaspoons sugar

Half a green onion, trimmed and sliced into thin circles
2 tablespoons chopped toasted peanuts
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. At least 3 hours before you plan to serve this, place the tribute vegetable in a heatproof work bowl and cover with boiling water. Set a plate on top to keep the vegetables submerged. After about 30 minutes, rinse the vegetables, shake dry in a colander, and cut into 1-inch (2 cm) lengths. If you are using cucumbers instead of the tribute vegetable, rinse and pat them dry before trimming off both ends, and then slice the cukes into a julienne. Arrange the vegetables on a small serving platter or bowl so that they will act as a nest for the chicken and then chill them until you are ready to serve this dish.

2. Hand shred the chicken into pieces about ¼ inch (5 mm) thick, although the length really doesn’t matter. The skin can also be cut into thin strips, if you have it.
Plumped-up tribute vegetable

3. Break the chile in half and shake out the seeds. Remove any hard bits and then soak it in boiling water to soften it up before slicing it into very thin circles. Mix the chile with the other sauce ingredients in a medium work bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you like, adding more of any ingredient to achieve the balance you like. Up to half an hour before serving, toss the chicken with the sauce to give it time to absorb some of these flavors.

4. Arrange the chicken on top of the vegetables in an attractive manner, and then sprinkle the garnishes on top. Serve chilled.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A soup made of silk, or so it seems

The beautiful mushroomy object known as the silver ear fungus can be utterly amazing when done right, and distinctly weird when not. 

To be honest, I never really liked it much, since it tended to be crunchy (not in a good way) and as close to annoying as an ingredient can get without being totally obnoxious.

One day, though, an older Chinese friend from Zhejiang told me that there was a simple secret to making it, for it turned these dried, plastic-looking balls into ethereal silk. I asked what it was, and she said, “Soak them for three days, change the water every day, and then slowly poach them for about eight hours.”

I went home and did just that. 
Simple, yet divine

And she was right on the money.

Since then, I’ve proudly been a silver ear devotee, as well as something on the order of a amateur silver ear pusher, as I’m always trying to turn people on to this. And that’s why I’m here today, talking about something you might not have ever heard of, and on the off chance that you have, you were most likely never quite impressed and and have been wondering what the fuss was all about.

Silver ears are eaten for their texture and texture only, as they are completely bland. However, no one ever cooks them correctly, which leads to that aforementioned annoying crunchiness. These need time and patience to make their innate beauty shine, for when soaked and slowly poached into submission, they are breathtakingly wonderful.

Those plasticky, brainlike objects eventually evolve into fluttery bits that melt on the tongue. Really, in their final form, silver ears end up as little more than whispers floating around your mouth, which is why things like small cubes of pear and ruby little wolfberries are needed to ground this elegant dessert soup to the earthly realm. Plus, the silver ears release a soothing thickener into the liquid that thickens it almost like cornstarch, but it's more like fairydust than your average binder. I know I'm being obtuse here, but once you try this you will understand.

You should know, too, that this fungus is considered therapeutic and filled with collagen. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s the reason why it is often wrapped up in pretty gift boxes and foisted on elderly Chinese folks as presents. My mother-in-law used to receive them on a regular basis from well-meaning people, and that meant that at least a couple of boxes in turn got foisted onto me whenever we visited, as she didn’t know how to cook them correctly and wasn’t ever that interested in the kitchen to begin with. Back then I was just as confused as anyone about what to do with them, so I’d try in turn to foist them on somebody else or just toss them out when they finally got buggy or decrepit looking.

But that is all in the past. Now I revel in these things and hope you will, too.

Once you master this simple soup – which is slightly sweet, rather than savory, and therefore meant to be served at breakfast, in the afternoon, or after a heavy dinner – you should expand its possibilities into other avenues. Try it in light yet fresh fish or chicken or meatless soups, places where it can weave among the other ingredients, stay visible through the use of clear broths, and have its satin texture amplified or contrasted by the right accompaniments.

For example, a Chinese-style mushroom soup would be a great home for some silver ears, or a clear chicken stock with barely poached shreds of chicken breast, threads of fresh ginger, and a splash of Shaoxing rice wine.

Fully soaked silver ears
Silver ear fungus is a distinctly Chinese ingredient known by lots of pretty names, including xuě’ěr 雪耳, or “snow ear,” in Chinese, as well as jelly fungus in English. Pur­chase it from Chinese dried-foods stores, herbalists, and busy grocery stores. Look for large, unbroken heads that are not too white; whiteness means they were bleached. Store silver ears in a sealed plastic bag, where they will remain in good shape for a very long time.

Sweet pear soup with silver ears
Yíněr tiánlí tãng 銀耳甜梨湯
Shanxi and all over China; therapeutic cuisine
Serves 8 to 10

2 large heads silver ear fungus
3 quarts (3 l) boiling water
1 piece of rock sugar about the size of a large egg
Trim the bases
2 teaspoons ginger juice
3 tablespoons wolfberries (aka gouqi or goji berries), rinsed
2 tablespoons osmanthus blossom syrup, or ½ teaspoon sea salt
1 large Chinese pear of any variety, peeled, cored, and cut into small dice
Fresh lemon juice to taste, optional

1. Start this recipe at least 4 days before you wish to serve it. Rinse the silver ears and place them in a large work bowl. Cover the fungus with at least 2 inches (5 cm) of cool tap water, adding more water as needed to keep the silver ears submerged, and either refrigerate or keep in a cool area of the kitchen. Change the water twice a day for 3 days. On the second day, you can trim the silver ears by placing them in a col­ander set in the sink for easy cleaning. Use a paring knife to trim off the hard cores and any dark yellow spots, then separate the heads into individual petals (they do not have to be the same size), being sure to rinse off any detritus you find.

Transformation complete
2. Rinse the silver ears once again in a colander and then place them in a slow cooker, if you have one, or in a 4-quart (4 l) pot with a heavy bottom. Add the boiling water, return the water to a boil, and then cover and simmer very slowly for 6 to 8 hours, until the silver ears are completely translucent but have not started to break apart. About 1 hour before they are done, add the sugar, ginger juice, wolfberries, and osmanthus blossom syrup. The soup may be made ahead of time to this point and refrigerated; just heat it up before proceeding to the next step.

3. When the silver ears are soft and tender, remove the insert from the slow cooker or the pan from the heat. Add the pears to the hot soup, then taste the soup and add lemon juice or more sweetener if you wish. Serve the soup hot, or let it cool to room temperature, chill it, and enjoy it cold.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Life just got a whole lot better: homemade Macanese custard tarts, part 2

I have yet to find anyone who does not adore these creamy little tarts from Macau. For, when made right, they are simply divine.

But the problem – a theme I keep on returning to again and again here – is that very few bakeries or dim sum teahouses go to the relatively minimal effort required to make these the old-fashioned way, and even fewer use excellent ingredients.

So, of course, that is where you and I step in. If you can get your hands on organic milk and cream, as well as the best possible eggs and the finest quality puff pastry you can find, no restaurant will be able to hold a candle to your creations. That’s a promise.

You can, of course, make Chinese puff pastry from scratch, and you will at that point be making the food of the gods. You should then serve them to your friends, wear your crown with pride, and retire with a totally satisfied look in your face. But frozen puff pastry will do in a pinch or if you seriously need to have a batch of these immediately. Trust me, I know that feeling.
Creamy filling & wafer thin crust

A couple things about this recipe that make me want to pat myself on the back: 

First, the filling is little more than baked pastry cream. It took me quite a while to suss that out, but there you have it. These are, therefore, not genuine custard tarts per se, but rather baked pastry cream tarts. Isn't that an excellent idea? Baked pastry cream?!

Second, a slight dusting of sugar on the custard helps get the caramelization going, so that you have those gorgeous leopard spots appearing before the piecrust gets incinerated. (You will not believe how much piecrust I've carbonized while figuring this out.) 

Third, I had a Eureka! moment one morning around 3:00 am when I realized that the way to make the puff pastry crust behave was to set it on its side  I had discard countless batches where the crust billowed up in the hot oven and pushed all the custard out, and nothing (absolutely nothing) was working. And then my lizard brain figured out that setting the crust on its side allowed the hot air in the dough an escape route, the crusts stayed put, and the filling remained solidly in place. 

Silky pastry cream filling

Fourth, finding the correct place in the oven to cook these took some figuring out. Just a couple inches from the top element gives the custard the chance to brown, while the crusts have relatively gentle heat on the bottom.

And finally, getting the oven hot enough was a chore. Most ovens got up to a maximum of 
500°F (260°C). But with a convection oven, that same setting will get boosted up a bit so that you almost have the heat of a bakery oven. At least, this is how it seemed to me.

Anyway, enough with the boasting. 

I’ve had these tarts all over the place, and very, very, very few bakeries or teahouses manage to pull this creation off well. Again, I don’t understand why. It’s really not that hard at all once you get the ratios right. But instead of trying to parse this out, it seems like too many producers depend too much on packaged mixes. You can tell by the smell of vanillin, rather than vanilla; the taste of custard powder, rather than honest eggs, milk, and sugar; the pasty texture that speaks of ennui and cheap dough, rather than a seductive little come-hither disguised as a dessert.

Chef Yang with his tarts
Like the Hong Kong-style custard tarts we made a couple of weeks ago, it took me a long time to figure this one out, but I’m at long last satisfied. You wouldn’t believe how many versions I’ve worked on… evaporated milk, all milk, half-and-half, sweetened condensed milk, or cream… but none were exactly right. But now? Now we have the opportunity to delight in perfect custardy clouds against a shatter of crispy puff pastry whenever we want. (Thanks goes to Chef Power Yang 謝少希 of the Ritz-Carlton in Chengdu for slipping me his suggestions at the end of one of his marvelous breakfast, for he helped me crack the danta code.)

A bit about the history: I had long believed the common knowledge that these were riffs on Portugal's pasteis de nata, and now I realize that this was almost right. From what I've read, these were actually the 80's brainchild of a British industrial pharmacist-turned-baker, Andrew Stow. Stow also happened to be a showman of the first order who styled himself as "Lord Stow," and so his famed bakery on the southern Macanese island of Coloane is still called Lord Stow's Bakery. 
Bakery-type tarts

But enough of history. Let's get down to the serious business of making something heavenly to eat. 

Here is my recipe for Macanese-style custard tarts with all the guesswork taken out. And so enjoy. Your reputation as a great Chinese cook is about to become written in stone.

Macanese-style custard tarts
Púshì dàntá 葡式蛋塔
Makes 12

4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 cups (500 ml) whole milk
 cup (160 ml) heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Around 4 tablespoons sugar for dusting the tartlets

Divide the dough (Step 4a)
1 recipe for southern-style puff pastry, or a (1 pound / 450 g, or thereabouts) box good quality frozen puff pastry, completely defrosted yet cold
Flavorless oil (like canola), as needed

1. You can start this recipe up to 3 days ahead of time, and then easily assemble and bake the tartlets an hour or two before serving.

2. Prepare an ice bath first: Fill a medium work bowl with around 20 ice cubes and around 2 cups (500 ml) water and set this near the stove. Use a whisk to combine the yolks, milk, cream, sugar, and cornstarch in a heavy-bottomed, 4-cup (1 liter) saucepan. (Be sure to add the cornstarch to the cold liquids so that it combines, rather than turns into lumps.) Heat the mixture gently on your smallest burner, as this way the custard will have time to set up without burning. Whisk the custard often as it heats, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan every time. The custard will thicken as it approaches the boiling point. Keep an eye on the bubbles around the edge of the pan, as they will tell you how hot the pot is getting.
Rolled up frozen pastry (Step 4b)
You do NOT want the custard to boil. 
And so, when you start to notice those bubbles, stir the custard a bit more constantly. 

3. Remove it from the heat as soon as it is thick enough to coat the inside of the pan, as well as the whisk. Set a sieve over a bowl and scrape the custard into the sieve. Stir in the vanilla into the smooth custard; you will have about 2½ cups (590 ml) custard. Place the bowl in the ice bath and stir the custard to release the heat – replace the ice bath as needed. Cover the container and chill it for at least an hour and up to 3 days.

4a. If you are using homemade southern-style puff pastry, make sure you have divided it into 16 even pieces as directed in last week's recipe and keep the pastry covered with a tea towel or plastic wrap to help it stay moist

4b. If you are using frozen puff pastry, defrost it according to package directions and then gently unfold each of the sheets before rolling each sheet up from one of the long sides so that it looks like a rolled-up carpet. Cut each carpet crosswise into 8 even pieces and keep the pastry covered and chilled if you are not immediately working on it. 

Cut end up on the homemade dough (Step 5)

5. Spray 1 standard-sized, all-metal cupcake tray with oil. Lightly oil a clean, smooth work surface. Set a slice of the rolled-up dough in front of you with the cut end up so you can see the spiral. 

6. Lightly oil your hand and gently squish it down into a disc. Use a Chinese rolling pin to roll this out into a 5-inch (13 cm) circle. Repeat with the rest of the dough. 

7. Set these circles in the oiled cupcake tray and pat them into place, paying special attention to the bottom edges; the crust should rise about ¼ inch (5 mm) above the top of the muffin tin – this extra space gives the custard room to expand in the hot ovenFreeze the trays to help set the tartlets' shape. Do not defrost them before you bake them.
Rolled-out circle (Step 6)

8. Set an oven rack about 4 inches (10 cm) from the top of the oven, and heat the oven on the convection setting to as high as it will go, usually 500°F (260°C). If you don't have a convection oven, simply set your oven as high as it will go, but not all the way up to broil. Divide the custard among the pieshells. Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon of sugar over the custard in each tartlet, as this will help with the caramelization.

9. Bake the tartlets for about 30 minutes, rotating the trays top to bottom and back to front around halfway through the cooking time. (The crust will look alarmingly overcooked at the 15 minute mark, but have courage and keep on baking. They'll be fine.) Starting at the 30 minute mark, check them every minute or so from then on. Total cooking time will be about 30 to 40 minutes, depending upon your oven. Do note that the custard will stop bubbling furiously when the tartlets are ready. If the custard is still bubbling in the center, though, it's not yet set. Remove the tartlets from the oven and cool them for around 20 minutes before serving. They will be molten when they come out of the oven, so don't burn your mouth by eating them too soon.
Pieshells in the tin (Step 7)

10. Remove the tartlets from the trays and serve them while they are still warm or at least at room temperature. (These are really easy to remove from the tins after they have cooled down a bit, especially if you spray the tins with oil and use homemade puff pastry.)


You can fill and bake as many of these tarts at a time as you want.

Leftovers may be refrigerated in a resealable container. Warm these up in a 400°F (200°C) oven on a baking sheet until heated through, or at least until the chill has been taken off.