Who's the Baketard?

Why Baketard? Love to cook, hate to bake. Despite having gone to cooking school and working in some top kitchens, I never learned the baking side of things. I'm building my baking and photography skills, while sharing recipes that rock my world in the mean time.

Saturday
Dec012012

Gongbao Diced Chicken (Chicken with Peanuts) 宫保鸡丁

Ok, I'm tardy on this one.  I’ve been back from the adventure of a lifetime for about a month now. I’ve been meaning to blog about it, and kept promising to do so, but do you ever have one of those experiences where you have so much to tell, you don’t even know where to begin?  Ok, then. QUIT JUDGING ME!!!

As both of you who read this blog know, I’m obsessed with Chinese food—ESPECIALLY Sichuan food. When Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty was published over ten years ago, I became addicted to the balance of chile-fire and citrusy, mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper this cuisine brings. While not all Sichuan food carries these flavors, the dishes which most appealed to me did. I cooked my way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, scribbling notes about what I liked, and pestering my Chinese boss and colleagues at work with questions and requests to smuggle some of the more esoteric ingredients to me in between my own trips to China. When Ms. Dunlop’s second book about the cuisine of Hunan came out, I had a similar experience. The recipes work, they’re authentic, they taste of the dishes I’ve had when I’ve traveled, and her books make accessible techniques and flavors I never would have been able to make otherwise. Her third book, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, was an autobiography of her time in China, being the first westerner to attend the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. The book explained the challenges she faced and chronicled her journey from being a westerner to truly being immersed in the food and culture of Sichuan province. I dreamed of getting to experience this for myself. Because of the popularity of her books and Sichuan Cuisine, I was constantly on the lookout for the means to make it happen for me.

In October of this year, I went to Asia for three weeks. While this isn’t uncommon for me with work, it’s the first time I’ve done it alone, purely for fun. A few years back, I stumbled upon a website called Cooking School in China. This site detailed a two-week culinary immersion at the same institute where Fuchsia Dunlop studied. I drooled over the monthly recipes in the newsletter as it was released, and thought, “Some day…” This year, thanks to a supportive spouse who didn’t mind me going off on an adventure without him (he probably relished 3 weeks of peace and quiet), I finally decided to give it a shot. As the date of the trip approached, Diane Drey, the owner and facilitator of this adventure sent us tidbits about the city, things we would see, helpful tips on menus, items we needed to bring along, and finally recipes which began with an authentic Gung Bao (Kung Pao) Chicken challenge for us to try at home before the trip. I followed her recipe and make the chicken along with some other Asian dishes for a dinner party, understanding that what we learned in Chengdu might be a bit different. (It was, but only slightly—it really depends on which chef you have which day). It was DELICIOUS, and drove my excitement through the roof.

I started the trip with a few days in Bangkok with good friends we don’t see nearly enough, where we did our best to drink every drop of liquor and wine in the city in between bouts of power-shopping, eating at some amazing restaurants (I love you, David Thompson), and taking a Thai cooking class at the Oriental.  When my hangover and I arrived in Chengdu, I checked into my hotel, met my colleagues for the trip, and embarked upon the most exhilarating culinary adventure I have ever experienced. We lucked out, really…typically these classes have around 15 people from all over the world. This time, there were only 4 of us. We all had similar political (this was right before the presidential election) and social views, compatible personalities, and we just really clicked well together. This is important when you’re in a long commute each day, immersed in conversation and trying to ignore thinking about how you’re weaving in and out of insane Chengdu traffic).

The Culinary Institute itself is vast, and full of eager, curious kids excited to practice their English skills and find out why these big ol’ white boys were there wearing chef whites at the school.

The main entrance to the school

So shy.

Because there were only 4 in our group, we received an even higher level of individual attention from the chefs and staff than the norm. We had two interpreters named Betty and Nancy who were our culinary experts and liaisons throughout the program, and who were a real highlight of the trip. No matter how random or detailed our questions (and I had a LOT of questions), they either knew or researched the answer to ensure we were getting what we needed. (Fortunately, they were as passionate about increasing their English vocabulary as we were about increasing our culinary skills). 

Oh, how I love getting photos when they're eating.

On the rare occasion we couldn’t land on the English name for an ingredient, I’d take a photo of it on my iPad, send it out on twitter to the girls back home, and get an answer usually within minutes. It was also good for taking photos and scrawling out the names of the ingredients over the picture with your finger (there's an App for that) on the fly as not to forget anything. Gotta love technology!

Hasty finger scribbling

The chefs moved quickly, speaking even faster, and the girls quickly got used to me asking them to stop to ask how much of this or that ingredient went into the pot, what it was called, why they were doing it this way vs. that way, etc. I was pretty much the same pain in the ass I was when I went to culinary school in the US, but I looked at it like this: I’m here to learn everything I can possibly wring from this experience, and I want to be able to fully reproduce every nuance of this at home for my arched-eyebrow-of-judgment Chinese friends, and if I don’t take excruciatingly detailed notes I’m going to forget most of this because it’s so exciting. They were good sports and my colleagues in the class and I came to a compromise where I’d be the chief scribe and they would make sure everything was detailed at the right level, photographed thoroughly, and understood by all. It was a great arrangement for all of us, I think.

Classes typically followed a routine of 3 hours of chef demonstrations in the morning, showing us what we’d be making later in the day, followed by a break for lunch where we’d avoid the school cafeteria and beg the girls to take us to noodle shops outside the campus. These noodle shops were small, dark, and not something the Department of Health at home would be excited to see, but the food…OH MY GOD THE FOOD….it was breathtaking. And cheap. Lunch typically cost us around a dollar per person. We had Dan Dan noodles (one of my favorite Sichuan specialties), Yibin Kindling Noodles (a typically vegetarian dish with a great deal of fire), hot soups with hand-pulled noodles…the list was endless.

Street shop noodles. Amazing!

The proprietors of the shops were fascinated with us and our need to photograph EVERYTHING (I took about 4,000 photos on this trip. Truly). They were also very accommodating when I asked if I could take pictures of or with them and ask (through our saviors, Nancy and Betty) what they were doing or what the ingredients were. Naturally, I’d then scribble down the recipes they gladly shared. In the afternoons, we pulled out our cleavers and cutting boards and then it was our turn to try and reproduce what the chefs had shown us in the mornings.

A very patient chef and an annoyingly enthusiastic student

Fortunately, they were also very helpful and ensured we were successful in our endeavors. After cooking, cleaning and eating the fruits of our labors, we headed back to the city and when we could manage to stuff more food down, went out to local establishments to try the Sichuan fare we wanted most to explore. For me, it was trying to find street food: Dan Dan Noodles, Zhong’s Pork Dumplings in a spicy-sweet sauce that brings tears to your eyes, Ma Po Tofu.  Some nights, we’d all just go back to our rooms and collapse or head out to find a drink. It was magical.

Practicing Garnishing the Plates

I have a lot to share about this trip, and will go into it more as I explore and duplicate more of the recipes at home, but for now let me tell you about the Gong Bao Chicken. This dish is a classic, and one which every restaurant does differently. In the Seattle area where we have a variety of Sichuan options, my favorite comes from a restaurant called Spicy Talk. Their version is very similar to this one: It’s spicy with dried chiles, has the aforementioned mouth-numbing zing of Sichuan peppercorns, and is stir fried with crunchy roasted peanuts and silky bites of chicken “velveted” in a cornstarch mixture with cooking wine, vinegar and a hint of sugar added at the end to pull the flavors together. This chicken recipe will (hopefully) rock your world like it has mine. If you’d like more information about the cooking program, check out their website or mail me and I’m happy to tell you more. It’s the best money I’ve ever spent!

Gongbao Diced Chicken (Chicken with Peanuts) 宫保鸡丁

Ingredients:

7 ounces (200g) Chicken (leg and thigh meat, preferably)

4 1⁄2 tablespoons (40g) Crispy peanuts (roasted)

2 dry chilis (10g) Dried chili - chopped into 3”-long pieces

(add more chili if you prefer it hotter)

2 teaspoons (4g) Sichuan pepper

1 1⁄2 tablespoons (8g) Ginger, - chopped

1 1⁄2 tablespoons (10g) Garlic - chopped

1 scallion (15g) - chopped finely

4 tablespoons (60g) Cooking oil

Spices A: - coating

Pinch (0.5g) Salt

2 teaspoons (5g) Shaoxing Cooking wine

1⁄2 teaspoon (3g) Soy sauce

1 tablespoon (10g) mixture of water and corn starch

Spices B: - thickening sauce

1/8 teaspoon (1g) Salt

1 teaspoon (5g) Shaoxing Cooking wine

1 teaspoon (7g) Soy sauce

2 teaspoons (10g) Black Vinegar

2 teaspoons (10g) Sugar

Pinch (1g) MSG

1 tablespoon (15g) Mixture of water and corn starch

4 teaspoons (20g) Stock

 Preparation:

1. Prepare Spices A

2. Dice chicken into 1.5c cubes, (2/3” cubes) and blend in Spices A and mix well to coat chicken.

3. Prepare Spices B to make thickening sauce.

4. Heat oil in a wok to 140 degrees Centigrade (285 degrees Fahrenheit)
. Add dried chili chunks and Sichuan peppercorn, and stir-fry until aromatic (chiles will become bright red), about 20 seconds. 
Drain and remove.

5. Add a small amount of oil to the wok and add the diced chicken, stir-fry until al dente, about 1 minute. Add ginger slices, garlic slices, chopped scallion and after about 30 seconds add Spices B, the thickening sauce. Cook until chicken has lost its raw color. 
Add crispy peanuts when the sauce is thick and luscious, and season to taste with a little additional vinegar. Mix evenly and then transfer to a serving dish.

Features: brownish and reddish color; tender chicken; crispy peanuts; a rich medley of sour, sweet, salty and zingy tastes pepped up with Sichuan pepper and chili

History: The dish was originally made for Ding Baozhen, the governor of Sichuan during the Qing Dynasty, whose official title is “Gongbao”.

Recipe © Diane Drey, Modified and Reprinted with Permission.

Sunday
Nov182012

Chilled Grapefruit-Caramel Meringue Pie

I haven’t posted on the blog in a while. It hasn’t only been because I’ve been a slacker, really! 

I was basically out of town the entire month of October. I went to Brazil for a conference and business trip (don’t even get me started on how amazing the food was, once I had some time on my own to go and find it) and then to Bangkok and China for the cooking adventure of a lifetime. Since returning home, I have been buried at work and honestly, I have so many photos and so much I could write about the trip to the Sichuan Culinary Institute, I haven’t known where to begin. I’ll try to jump into that this week, and share some of the recipes and experiences with the people who read this blog from time to time.

Yes, I’m speaking to both of you.

Since coming home, I’ve been trying out the Sichuan fare I learned on David and some of our friends, and to my delight, so far every recipe has been delicious. I’ve found little tweaks here and there, scribbled notes in the margins of my notebook on how I’d adjust the recipes in the future when I bite the bullet and make them for my mean, cruel, judgy Chinese girlfriends (you bitches know who you are), but overall have been completely thrilled.

Typically when I’m focusing so much on the savory courses, I cheat with dessert. Ala Mode Pies in Seattle delivers, (Did you hear me? THEY DELIVER. TO YOUR DOOR. SAME-DAY. Put down your bong for a moment and contemplate that) and their pies are out of this world. More than once I’ve had to call these guys at the last minute to have something amazing delivered, and they always come through. (My personal favorites, the apple and ginger pear pie and the coconut cream pie. Watch out, Tom Douglas—you have some competition here.)

This weekend I decided to man up and try one of the bajillions of dessert recipes I have found and saved in my cooking file. This recipe from Food and Wine Magazine caught my eye, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I breezed through the recipe while making my shopping list for the weekend and thought, “Even this baketarded idiot can pull this one off”, not thinking about the time factor. This isn’t a recipe you can pull off in a few hours. There’s not a ton of active work, but there are a lot of delays in between steps as you wait for components to cool and freeze. When you’re executing an ambitious menu and are as easily distracted OH LOOK! A BUTTERFLY!!! as I am, it’s not the ideal.  Turns out, it was completely worth it. This dessert looked great when it was completed, and I was fascinated by how quickly the meringue colored when using a brulee torch. It was magical for someone who had never done that before. I even had to call David into the kitchen to watch. The slightest touch of heat colored the meringue in broad brushstrokes, like painting on the computer.

I know, the real bakers out there are going, “Get over it, Mary, it’s meringue for fuck’s sake”. Yeah, yeah…I know. It was still cool.

You can adapt this with any citrus you like for the curd. I thought it was amazing with pink grapefruit juice as the base, but anything will work. You can also flavor the caramel with something like, oh I don’t know, marijuana butter if you want to add a little something special to finish off dinner. Allegedly.

Naturally, since it isn’t legal here until next month, I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. I just want both of you to have options, should you choose to take them.

Happy thanksgiving, kids. Next up, I promise some insights into cooking in Chengdu.

Chilled Grapefruit-Caramel Meringue Pie

Modified from FROM GRAPEFRUIT-CARAMEL MERINGUE PIE

PUBLISHED JANUARY 2006

Food and Wine Magazine. Recipe by Deborah Snyder.

ACTIVE: 1 HR

TOTAL TIME: 3 HRS PLUS 5 HR FREEZING

SERVINGS: 12

Ingredients:

1 cup fresh pink or Ruby Red grapefruit juice

Coarsely shredded zest of 3 pink or Ruby Red grapefruits (1/2 cup)

1 dozen large eggs, 6 eggs lightly beaten, 6 eggs separated

3/4 cup plus 1 1/3 cups sugar

2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened, plus 4 tablespoons melted

9 whole graham crackers

1/2 pound cream cheese, softened

Caramel Sauce (Recipe Below)

3/4 cup heavy cream

Directions:

1) Bring a medium saucepan filled with 2 inches of water to a simmer over moderate heat. In a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the grapefruit juice and zest with the 6 whole eggs, 6 egg yolks and 3/4 cup of the sugar. Set the bowl over the saucepan and cook, stirring frequently, until a thick curd forms, about 15 minutes; don't worry if the curd looks slightly curdled. Strain the curd through a fine sieve set over a bowl, pressing on the solids; discard the solids. Whisk the softened butter into the curd until blended. Place a sheet of plastic directly on the curd and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours.

2) Meanwhile, in a food processor, crush the graham crackers; pour in the melted butter and pulse just to combine. Pat the crumbs over the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3) In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until fluffy. Beat in 3/4 cup of the Caramel Sauce. In another medium bowl, beat the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold the heavy cream into the caramel cream cheese.

4) Spoon the grapefruit curd into the springform pan and tap gently to form an even layer. Spoon the caramel cream on top in a smooth, even layer. Drizzle the remaining 3/4 cup of Caramel Sauce all over the caramel cream and freeze until slightly set, about 1 hour.

5) Meanwhile, bring a medium saucepan filled with 2 inches of water to a simmer. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, combine the 6 egg whites with the remaining 1 1/3 cups sugar, set the bowl over the simmering water and whisk over low heat until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot to the touch. Transfer the bowl to the mixer fitted with a whisk and beat at medium-high speed until the whites are stiff and glossy, about 8 minutes. Spread the meringue over the caramel. Swirl decorative peaks in the meringue. Freeze the pie until firm, at least 4 hours.

6) Before serving, preheat the broiler and position a rack 8 inches from the heat. Broil the meringue just until it begins to brown, about 2 minutes, shifting the pan for even browning. Alternatively, brown the meringue with a propane torch. Carefully remove the ring and transfer the pie to a platter. Let stand in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving.

MAKE AHEAD The pie can be prepared through Step 5 and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Cover once it's frozen solid.

Caramel Sauce

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions:

1) In a medium saucepan, combine the butter with all three sugars and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook over moderately high heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the cream and boil for 2 minutes longer. Transfer the caramel sauce to a pitcher. Stir in the vanilla and salt and refrigerate until cold, at least 2 hours.

MAKE AHEAD The caramel can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. Whisk to combine before serving.

 

 

Saturday
Oct062012

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

Cheese. I just love Cheese. Reaaaaaaaaaaally I do.  If you're not old enough to remember that Loony Tunes line, begone. We are unable to use cheese, say cheese or think of cheese without blurting out this line. I can't remember what I had for dinner last night, but ridiculous cartoon lines from childhood are seared into my memory forever.

What are the lines you can't get rid of?

This recipe is one of my favorite easy Tex-Mex beauties from Chef Stephan Pyles' book, New Texas Cuisine. It's one of three Tex-Mex books he has published, all of which play largely into our repertoire when we cater Southwestern or Mexican themed parties. His recipes work--every time--and this one has always been a hit. It doesn't hurt that you can assemble the main mass of cheeses well in advance of the party, sautee your chorizo (you want the ground, crumbly and spicy Mexican chorizo for this, not the harder, cured Spanish type), chiles and onions ahead of time and have them ready to go. You can throw these ingredients together after the initial melting of the queso base and blast 'em in the oven as instructed below right before your guests arrive (Unless you're a complete glutton and have decided to shove three quarters of a pound of cheese into your own piehole in one sitting, in which case I applaud and am slightly repulsed by you).

For the photo above, I doubled the recipe for a hungry crowd. And since it's hard to get just 4oz of chorizo, I bought a pound, increased the onions, chiles and spices accordingly, and piled that on to the melted cheese mound for the last few minutes in the oven. What's not to love about more meat? (Just don't. It's too easy).

It's not fancy. It's not my norm with all the Asian and Italian recipes I toss up to this blog, but I love Southwestern, Tex-Mex and true Mexican food, and while I was going through photos and recipes this morning this one caught my eye. Besides, you'll appreciate how all that cheese binds you up before you dig into the later courses of beans and spices. Trust me.

And I still want to hear the lines from childhood you can't get out of your head.

Queso Fundido With Chorizo

Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 small onions, chopped
  • 1 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 jalapenos, seeded and diced
  • 2 ounces chorizo sausage
  • 4 ounces mozzarella cheese, cubed
  • 4 ounces monterey jack cheese, cubed
  • 3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
  • 6 small flour tortillas
Directions
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place an 8 inch casserole in oven while preparing the fundido.
  • Heat oil in skillet over medium high heat until slightly smoking. Add onion, garlic and pepper and cook for one minute stirring constantly.
  • Add chorizo and break up while coooking for about 10 minutes.
  • Remove the casserole from oven. Spread the cheeses over hot bottom of dish. Return the dish to oven and bake until cheese is just melted, about five minutes.
  • Remove from oven and sprinkle chorizo mixture over top. Return to oven and heat for about three minutes.
  • Serve with warmed tortillas.

 

Tuesday
Sep252012

Thai Galloping Horses - Ma Hor

Ok, kids…Ready for some of the most intriguing and delicious Thai food you’ve ever tried? This is one of those recipes where you completely control that delicate balance of hot/sour/salty/sweet for which Thai food is so well known.  And as an added serendipitous surprise, the recipe (called Ma Hor) is named after your mom! How could you NOT try it?

This recipe is modified (via Australian Gourmet Traveller--best cooking magazine in the world, IMHO) from David Thompson’s book, Thai Food (or Thai Cookery if you couldn’t wait to order the book when it was released in the US, and ordered it from Australia. It’s the same book either way). If you like Thai cuisine, both his Thai Food book and his Thai Street Food tome are the authoritative books on the subject. Supplement it with Chef McDang’s Principles of Thai Cookery and you’ve got the wide spectrum covered at a high level.

Ok, it can be a bitch to find quail if you don’t have an Asian grocery. Seattleites, I found it frozen at Uwajimaya for about 8 bucks for 4 semi-boneless quails. Yes, it’s a little bit of work to remove the meat from their tiny little bodies, but this dish is seriously worth the effort. If you can’t find quail or you’re a lazyass, you can substitute chicken thigh meat for the poultry in this recipe. If you’re going to do that because you’re a lazyass, you can also substitute a cup of Mrs. Butterworth’s mixed with a can of tuna for the fish sauce caramel, and a 7-11 package of corn nuts for the fried peanuts and shallots. And then you can fuck off. How dare you shortcut your mother's namesake dish?!?!?

Not kidding, this recipe was our hit of the summer. I’ve made it as an appetizer a few times and it instantly disappears from the serving plate every time. You can make the meat and caramel mixture (up through step 3 below) ahead of time and reheat it once you want to serve it on the pineapple slices. Just be sure to add the last half of the fried items and garnishes at the end (step 4) so they don’t get soggy. It’s how your mom would want it.

Ma hor (Galloping horses)

Serves 12

Cooking Time Prep time 40 mins, cook 20 mins (plus cooling)

2 tbsp peanut oil

150 gm each coarsely minced pork and minced quail (see note)

150 gm  peeled medium uncooked prawns, coarsely chopped

165 gm  crushed light palm sugar

125 ml (½ cup) fish sauce

80 gm each fried shallots and fried garlic (see note)

50 gm  roasted unsalted peanuts, coarsely crushed

1  pineapple, quartered, core removed, thinly sliced

To serve:  julienned long red chilli, kaffir lime leaf and coriander leaves

Coriander and garlic paste

8 coriander roots, scrubbed

8 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

½ tsp white peppercorns

2 tbsp peanut oil

 

  1. Heat one-third of oil on the flat plate of a barbecue, cook pork until cooked through (2-3 minutes), season to taste, remove, drain on absorbent paper, set aside to cool. Repeat with quail and prawns, cooking separately.
  2. For coriander and garlic paste, pound coriander, garlic and peppercorns in a mortar and pestle to a fine paste. Heat oil in a frying pan over high heat, add paste and fry until fragrant (1-2 minutes).
  3. Add palm sugar and fish sauce to coriander and garlic paste, simmer until slightly thickened (4-5 minutes). Add pork, quail and prawns and stir until reduced (3-4 minutes). Stir through half of each of the fried shallots, fried garlic and peanuts and set aside to cool slightly.
  4. Top pineapple slices with pork mixture, scatter with julienned chilli, lime leaf and coriander and serve with remaining fried shallots, fried garlic and peanuts.

Note You will need to order minced quail from your butcher. If it's unavailable, you can mince it yourself, or substitute coarsely minced chicken thigh. Fried shallots and fried garlic are available from Asian grocers.

Friday
Sep142012

Guo Kui - 锅盔 

I am obsessed with Chinese food. Especially “real” (authentic) Chinese food. Not that I don’t love the Americanized Chinese food, fried and covered in globby sauces bragging neon colors not found in nature. Come on, admit it, you like it. You don’t want to admit it, but you do. My friend Henry says, “Even bad Chinese food is better than no Chinese food at all.”  I completely agree.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in China over the years thanks to a job that has enabled me to manage business relationships in Southeast Asia. Of all the places I’ve been lucky enough to experience, China is the place that feeds my passion. I love visiting the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Seeing the Great Wall for the first time, shopping in the food and hawker markets, trying to bargain for the perfect souvenirs to take home—all of these are so different than what I had in my mind as my “normal.” I just couldn’t get enough. Getting outside of those cities to see daily life in more rural areas is absolutely stunning.

A few years back, David and I decided to take a trip with an Australian tour company called Intrepid Travel and explore the country for a few weeks. They had tours tailored for 4-star dining and foodies all the way down to “Roughing It” packages. These packages were significantly cheaper, guaranteed you “Chinese 4-star” hotels and had a higher physical rating. We opted for this both to save money and to experience as much of the real deal as we could. We’d never done an organized tour before and feared the visual we had in our heads of blue-haired grannies with oxygen tanks being carted from tacky tourist spot to tourist spot in an air-conditioned bus. The tour was NOTHING like we expected. We had the time of our lives and made some life-long friends. In spite of the hotels being a bit rougher than we expected, they were clean. We navigated the language barrier and had a good laugh staying in places where we were forewarned about getting a call at 10:30 p.m. from downstairs asking if we wanted “special massage.” Tempting as that is for some, we passed on the opportunity to have our Happy Ending.

One of my favorite stops was Xi’an, home of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors. The warriors are magnificent, but it was the street outside the Muslim mosque area that completely grabbed my attention. This was Chinese street food unlike anything I’d ever tried: Crispy pastries filled with lamb, Sichuan peppercorns, chiles and aromatics. Mutton soup with hard crumbs of bread soaking in and absorbing all that richness. Hand-made noodles in the most aromatic and comfort-food-happy broths. I was in heaven.

This past year, I had the opportunity to return to Xi’an for a work meeting and I was determined to learn to make some of the dishes I kept talking up to my friends and the team. I arranged for us to take a private dumpling and hand-pulled noodle making lesson at our hotel with the chefs from their main restaurant. I bargained my way behind the counter of one of the street food stalls to learn to make the dish I loved.

I bought every English-translated cookbook they had at the city’s main bookstore -- and a few Sichuan and Hunan cuisine books that weren’t translated. (The advantage of having a bunch of bossy Chinese women in your life is that they’ll gladly help with translations and will even MORE gleefully tell you how and why everything you are doing with the recipe is WRONG WRONG WRONG!!!!!!!) The problem is, there aren’t many English recipes for the street food dishes I loved the most. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know what my absolute favorite was called until I read about it in Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” chronicling her time at the Sichuan Culinary Institute in Chengdu. I’m re-reading the book now, because I’m heading there in a couple of weeks for an intensive two-week cooking course at the same school.

I mentioned this dish, “Guo Kui,” to a Chinese colleague who lives in Singapore and lamented that there are no English recipes out there for the version I remembered. He offered to check some Chinese language websites and sent a few links (with pictures) to me to see whether any of them linked up with my memory of the dish. One did, so I copied the recipe and sent a plea for help to my bossy ladies. My friend Kairu offered to assist and had her mother translate the recipe for us, taking great glee when her mother asked if I knew what it meant to “fluff meat.” No, really, it’s an English translation of a real cooking technique. “Bitch, please,” I replied with an instant eye-roll. “I know how to do BOTH versions of that expression.”

Last weekend we gave it a try, made a few tweaks and came up with a version pretty identical to that which I remember. There are many versions of Guo Kui in china. Some are thicker and doughier, served as a large heavy roll to accompany dishes. Some are cut and filled with braised meats or vegetables, making a “Chinese Hamburger.” This version is the one I remember most fondly though, and is the one Fuchsia Dunlop references in her book (I checked with her on twitter and she was kind enough to confirm). TRY this dish. It’s very simple and quite delicious and I guarantee you’ve never had anything like it before.  And if you like this type of food, don’t miss the opportunity to try more authentic Chinese cuisine from Fuchsia Dunlop’s other books. They’re some of the most used and most referenced books in my collection.

锅盔 Guo Kui  

Ingredients:

Flour – 2 cups, plus more for dusting/rolling

Water – 3/4 cup (may need a little more, depending on your dough)

Lamb, ground – 1 lb.

Sichuan Peppercorn Powder – 2 tsp

Garlic – Minced - 1-2 Tbsp

Ginger, minced – 1 Tbsp

Ground cumin – 2 tsp

Dried Hunan (if you can find them) Chiles, or red chile flakes – 1 Tbsp

Chile Oil – 2 tsp

Scallions – 1 bunch, green and light green parts, thinly sliced into rings--as thinly as you can slice them.

Salt – 1 tsp

Soy Sauce – 2 Tbsp

Peanut oil, for frying and as needed

Lard (optional), as needed

Instructions:

Finely chop ground lamb with a cleaver for 5 minutes (or if grinding your own, use the finest setting and then chop with a cleaver until uniform).Add sichuan peppercorn powder (you can make this by lightly toasting sichuan peppercorns in a hot dry pan for 2-3 minutes until they pop, and blitzing in a strong blender or food processor. Strain through a fine mesh sieve to avoid the hulls) minced garlic, ginger, cumin, chiles and chile oil, scallions, salt, soy sauce and a teaspoon peanut oil to the chopped lamb.

Mix well with chopsticks, and toss meat against the side of the bowl for 2-3 minutes to “fluff” it, and create a lighter texture. (If you’re unsure how to do this, ask your mom. I can guarantee she’s a champion meat-fluffer from WAY back).

Mix flour and water in a stand mixer with a dough attachment (My lazy white man way) or mix by hand. You want the dough to come together and it should be quite soft. We used just over 3/4 cup of water for 2 cups flour. Knead until very soft and pliable. Add another tablespoon oil (or if you want to be authentic, a tablespoon of lard. Trust me--the flavor is great), knead again until the fat is incorporated into the dough, place in a bowl and cover with a warm towel. Let it rest for 30 minutes.

Knead the dough one more time, roll into a log about 2 ½ inches thick and cut into segments. The segments should be about 2 1/2-inches around and about an inch thick.

Preheat oven to 500 degrees Farenheit.

Lightly flour or oil your work surface and roll the dough into a rough rectangular or tongue shape. Brush with oil or lard and about a tablespoon of the lamb mixture. Starting at the short end, roll the dough down the length of the “tongue” until you have a small rolled bundle. Turn the bundle on its end and press it down flat. Roll into a thin pancake. (Don’t sweat it if some of the meat breaks through. You can dust with a little flour and when you cook it there will be no problem).

 

Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and once hot, add about 3 Tbsp cooking oil. Once the oil is shimmering, add the guo kui one at a time, flipping the pancake after about 2 minutes. It should be lightly golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a rack and place in oven to crisp and drain for 3-5 minutes.

Serve guo kui on its own or if you’re a chile freak like we are, with some chile oil on the side.