Tag Archive for 'bread'

Traditional Chinese Pastry Isn’t Baked–So What’s Up With Chinatown “Bakeries”?

An assortment of Chinese pastries. All photos by Dressler Parsons.

I’m so excited to share this post by my lastest intern, Dressler. She’s launched a blog called Bitter Butter: The Unsweet History of Pastries and you can also hire her for all things copywriting.

“That’s $12.50,” said the woman behind the counter.

Sarah and I exchanged a look. We had just spent the last several minutes poring over the long glass pastry cases in her neighborhood Chinese bakery, scrutinizing the fluffy rolls and imagining all their possible fillings. In the end, we’d selected 10 pastries, hoping to cover all our bases. We carried the goodies back to her apartment in paper bags.

“$12.50 wouldn’t get you ten pastries anywhere else,” I remember saying. “At a French bakery, it would get you, like, two. Maybe three.”

Sarah shrugged. “That’s one great thing about Chinese bakeries.”

But once I started digging into it, “Chinese bakery” started to feel like an oxymoron. Historically, Chinese pastries weren’t baked–they were steamed. But all the treats in our paper bags had definitely seen the inside of an oven. So if traditional Chinese pastries aren’t baked, what are these pastries and where are they coming from?

A baked pork bun.

Chinese baking (or traditional lack thereof)

Even today, there are a ton of blog posts and forum answers warning you (or, primarily, American expats) that ovens in Chinese kitchens are hard to come by–because Chinese cuisine gets along fine without ‘em. All the cooking can be done on a stove top: frying, braising, boiling, and steaming.

This 1917 Chinese Cook Book, for example, has an English-translated recipe for a “Meat Biscuit” that’s definitely a pork bun–and it’s steamed. The two other desserts it lists are also steamed, not baked. A Popular Science clipping from 1922 sings it again:

Most Chinese pastry is steamed rather than baked. Thick wooden covers that serve as heat insulators are placed over the mouth of the boiling pot. Where the food is to be steamed, a circular wooden frame like a small barrel six or eight inches deep is placed over the stove opening.”

The bakeries in New York’s Chinatown, where Sarah lives, are technically Hong Kong-style, even though they’re referred to broadly as “Chinese bakeries.” And Hong Kong has felt, firsthand, the strong grip of Western influence.

 

Hong Kong’s colonial history

Jeremy Pang says it best in Hong Kong Diner when he says food leaves a trail by which you can trace a history of cultural invasion, interaction or occupation. Specific to Hong Kong, he adds:

“Even the specialist breads from the local bakeries bear a considerable resemblance to the French brioche, just with the addition of spam, barbecued pork or coconut custard on the inside or a good old British crumble on top instead!”

Hong Kong was under British rule beginning in 1842, but in the 1980s, China decided they wanted to take Hong Kong back. A pretty reasonable request. Geographically, Hong Kong isn’t exactly Britain’s neighbor. The main reason why this was even a debate was–like many things–purely political. China was/is a Communist country, and even though they laid out a plan to keep Hong Kong a sovereign state, Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was all I don’t know about this one, and But HOW will I explain this to the children colonized people of Hong Kong?

Regardless, China did take Hong Kong back, and Thatcher figured out some way to explain the ensuing Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which announced that Hong Kong would slip away from British rule and run back into the arms of China beginning July 1, 1997.

If you’ve heard of the “brain drain” of Berlin, this was Hong Kong’s version. Unsure about their future with China, roughly 250,000 Hong Kong citizens emigrated overseas. They aimed primarily for Canada, because it was easier to get into, but New York saw a huge increase too, fueling and expanding what was, at the time, “the nation’s largest Chinatown.” (Currently, the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens claims that title.)

The history of British rule alone at least partially accounts for the baking. After all, we know the Brits and their love of baked goods.

 

But what about the bread itself?

If you’ve never been to a Chinese bakery, go now, order any roll, and then come back. I’ll wait.

The bread has an usual texture, yes? This soft, gummy, chewy bread is bizarrely fluffy, intriguingly addictive, and has even been scientifically studied. And the source of this texture is called a tangzhong starter.

The tangzhong starter is also sometimes called a “roux starter,” which basically means that instead of the traditional bread-baking process (mix together flour, water, salt, yeast; knead it, let it rise), you add an extra step in, where you heat flour and water in a saucepan and whisk them together until they form a paste. Once it cools, you add it to the rest of the ingredients, and your little roux works its magic. It’s called gelatinization, and I think it’s a fascinating process.

The type of bread that uses tangzhong starter tends to be called Hokkaido Milk Bread, after a region in Japan known for its dairy products.

If you’re curious to try out this tasty, tasty bread, here’s a basic recipe from Yi of Yi Reservation.

A good example of milk bread from a Hong Kong style bakery.

So where is Hokkaido milk bread from?

Guess who was under Japanese rule for a hot second? Hong Kong! This was during WWII, from 1941-1945. The tangzhong starter technique is allegedly Japanese, which means it could have entered Hong Kong’s culinary lexicon during this period. And the technique having a Japanese origin tracks; after all, Japan has also had its fair share of western culinary influence.

In the 16th century, Portugal made contact with Japan and opened up trading ports (and started a slave trade). Japan traded exclusively with Holland (and China) from 1641-1853, and then opened up trading ports to the rest of the “Western World” in 1859. The Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Commerce also meant that American merchants were settling into Japan, so some manner of culinary exchange was definitely taking place.

Also, Japan definitely has its own breadbaking technique called Yudane. It’s not an exact match–Yudane is a mix of flour and hot water, but they’re not whisked together into a roux. Instead, boiling water is poured over the flour, the mixture is chilled overnight, and the rest stays the same. It’s not clear if Yudane is older than Tangzhong, or a more modern adaptation.

If the tangzhong technique truly is originally Japanese, it might have been popularized in China by Taiwanese baker Yu Fen Chen. Taiwan itself was colonized by the Dutch and later controlled by China, Japan, and then China again until 1975–so they’re pulling from a familiar cauldron of influence.

As far as Chen goes, she wrote wrote 65℃ Bread Doctor, referring to the temperature at which the roux works its gelatinous bread magic. It’s a little unclear what, exactly, the timeline was for this book. It seems like it was published in 2014, but it’s possible that Chen was spreading the technique before her book was published. She’s certainly enough of a celebrity chef now to appear on TV and teach pastry lessons.

The Chinese book title gets translated into “65 Soup Kind Of Bread” when put through the Google Translate wringer, which could be read as a deep mistranslation–but I don’t think it is.

This is because cookbook author Peter Reinhart refers to the “Chinese soup seed technique” in his Whole Grain Breads book, which suggests that “soup bread” or “soup seed” is another possible name for tangzhong starter. And that might sound weird, but it’s actually not–since a roux is the basis for most cream-based soups, it’s not a “leap” so much as the next logical step.

Dan Tats!

Most importantly–how tasty were those pastries?

Back in Sarah’s apartment, we studiously cut up, photographed, and took notes on the pastries–trying to eat the warm ones first, but aware we were fighting a losing battle.

The pork bun was the first pastry I tried, and my favorite–I grew up on barbecue, so there was something kind of homey about the chopped pulled pork smothered in a sweet, tangy sauce, in a roll that tasted almost like a Hawaiian roll. But fluffier. I liked it so much I legitimately forgot we had 9 more pastries ahead of us, and would’ve finished it if Sarah hadn’t leapt to my rescue.

But as we moved into successive pastries, most of the rolls with intriguingly varied names and designs were just…bread. Extremely delicious, fluffy, chewy bread, but still. That being said, it amazed me how these pastries quietly painted such a complex history of colonial rule, trade, and immigration. The fluffy “Danish Milk Grape” and “Swedish Roll,” and the cookie top on the Pineapple Bun and Lemon Bun (neither of which were filled with their names, bee tee dubs) all speak to trade routes and occupation, to colliding culinary influences.

It was a little overwhelming, later that night, to think about the full journey of these pastries–their ingredients, techniques, and recipes. In a sense, they had made their way from Japan, through Taiwan, to Hong Kong, to Manhattan. And finally, they were in my apartment in Brooklyn, where I wrapped a leftover bun in a damp paper towel, stuck it in a microwave for 20 seconds, and enjoyed the warm, spongy bread with a pat of butter.

 

The History Dish: Pumpernickel Ice Cream and Cinnamon Lemon Bay Leaf Ice Cream

icecream1Left: pumpernickel. Right: Cinnamon/bay leaf/lemon.

Here in New York City it has been HOT. But here’s my solution: I made two fascinating flavors of historic ice cream. Brown Bread ice cream, infused with actual pumpernickel bread, and a cinnamon-bay leaf-lemon ice cream made with fresh bay leaves.

The History

The spark of inspiration to make both these recipes came from my favorite book on ice cream history, Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making.  The author, Jeri Quinzio, explained the rye bread ice cream appeared in the first book completely dedicated to ice cream making, written by a “Monsieur Emy” in France in 1768.  Rye bread crumbs are infused in the cream, but are strained out before freezing. A popular 19th century flavor, later recipes added toasted rye bread crumbs just before freezing for a bit of crunch, but Emy’s was a smooth ice cream.

IMG_1396

My bay leaf plant on my fire escape.

The second recipe I tried was called “Cinnamon Ice Cream (Creme de Cannelle),” from Agnes Marshall’s Book of Ices, published in 1885. Marshal was an ice cream genius, and I’ve written about her before. She was the first person to suggest using liquid nitrogen to freeze ice cream. Her recipes are genius, to the point of madness–like her savory Neapolitan made with tomatoes, artichokes, and peas.

Her cinnamon ice cream featured a stick of ceylon cinnamon, the zest of half a lemon, and a bay leaf. I had purchased a fresh bay leaf plant for just this recipe. A fresh bay leaf is dramatically different from dried: vegetal and aromatic, I wanted its special flavor for my crazy ice cream.

The Recipe

icecream2It’s pumpernickely!

For both of these recipes, I started with a basic custard ice cream:

Custard Ice Cream

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 vanilla bean (or, other flavoring of your choice)
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
  • Additional mix-ins

Add split and scraped vanilla bean to cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a boil.  In the meantime, in a glass bowl whisk together egg yolks, sugar and salt until blended. After cream mixture comes to a boil, pour slowly on the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and evenly coats back of spoon (it should hold a line drawn by your finger).  Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl set over ice, or place in refrigerator, until chilled–overnight is preferable. Churn in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions, adding mix-ins like nuts or fruits in the last few minutes of freezing. Transfer ice cream to a resealable plastic container and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.

For Pumpernickel Ice Cream: Toast 2 cups of pumpernickel bread until deep brown on the edges. Add to milk and cream and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and allow to infuse for two minutes. Proceed as recipe directs.

For Cinnamon Ice Cream: To milk and cream, add “a finger-length” of Ceylon cinnamn (about 4 inches), 1 bay leaf, and the peel of half a lemon. Cut the peel off the lemon with a pairing knife, taking care to avoid the white pith. Bring milk, cream, and spice to a boil; remove from heat and allow to infuse 2 minutes. Proceed with recipes as directed.

I also made this fun little video of all the steps to make these ice creams; enjoy and I hope it’s helpful!

The Results

icecream3Cinnamon ice cream perfection.

The pumpernickel ice cream was genuinely repulsive. It has a mucus-like texture I noticed even before I froze it, some strange gooey quality infused from the bread. The flavor of the pumpernickel  gave the ice cream an assertive savory-sweet taste, as though I had made ice cream from an entire McDonald’s hamburger, ketchup, pickles and all.

But the cinnamon ice cream–oh! Interestingly, cinnamon is not the flavor I would have assigned to it. The flavor, delicate and complex, would be unidentifiable if you weren’t informed. There’s a greeness from the bay leaf, a gentle citus from the lemon zest, and a soft floral quality from the ceylon cinnamon. The combination goes perfectly with the texture of the custard. It’s a real winner, and the ice cream you should make to cool you down in the dog days of summer.

The History Dish: Cabbage Cake and the Jewish Vegetarian Movement

3Cake Filled with Cabbage: buttery, sweet and savory.

In the early 20th century, a group Jewish people believed that the less meat you ate, the closer you would be to god. By refraining from eating meat and fish, one could avoid the necessity of slaughtering living beings. This idea was epitomized in The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (originally published as Vegtarish-Dietischer Kokhnukh: 400 Shpeizn Gemakht Oysshlislekh fun Grsin, or Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Recipes Made Exclusively from Vegetables), a kosher cookbook published in 1938. Originally printed in Lithuania, it was recently re-released and translated into English. For a special event promoting the book’s release, I was asked to prepare a recipe; typically for me, I picked the weirdest recipe I could find: cabbage cake.

The History

Because the laws of kosher dictate the separation of meat and dairy, there are many vegetarian (and vegan) recipes among Jewish cultures. In New York City, as well as in other Jewish centers, dairy restaurants and appetizing stores flourished at the turn of the century, alongside their meat counterparts, delicatessens. Additionally, vegetarian meals were more affordable; so often, a Jewish family on a budget–or in a situation where they had little access to meat–would turn to vegetarian recipes like the ones offered in The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook.

The book’s author, Fania Lewando, ran her own vegetarian restaurant and kosher cooking school in Vilna, Lithuania. In her introduction, she enthused on the virtues of a vegetarian life, spoke on the health giving properties of plants, and gave a a brief history of vegetarianism as “a Jewish movement.”

And she offered great practical advice, like “Throw nothing out, everything can be made into food. For example, don’t throw out the water in which you have cooked mushrooms or green peas; it can be used for various soups. Don’t throw out the vegetables used to make a vegetable broth. You can make various foods from them, as shown in this cookbook.”

Many of her recipes are simple and practical; others are fashionable, and sometimes even outrageous. In the pages of her cookbook, you can find Pickle Soup, a stew of root vegetables, peas and pickle brine; Buckwheat Kasha Cutlets, a homemade meat substitute similar to the foods Kellogg served at his vegetarian Sanitarium; Stuffed Imitation Kishke, the vegetarian version of a traditional sausage of stuffed beef intestine; and even a recipe for Kvass, a fermented beverage made from rye bread.

Cabbage Cake — or “Cake Filled with Cabbage” — intrigued me because who fills a cake with cabbage? But like the many bizarre recipes I am tempted to try, I saw potential. It layered a buttery, savory yeast dough with a slow cooked mix of butter, cabbage and onions.

2Assembling the cake.

The Recipe

Cake Filled with Cabbage
Adapted from the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, By Fania Lewanda, 1938
Translated from the original Yiddish by Eve Jochnowitz

4 cups white flour
1 packet yeast
1/2 cup milk, warm
1.5 cups (three sticks) unsalted butter
5 egg yolks
3 eggs
2 tablespoons sugar
Salt
1 Head of cabbage, shredded (about 2 pounds)
1 cup chopped onions
Salt

  1. In a large bowl, sprinkle cabbage with 1 tablespoon of salt. Set aside.
  2. Make the dough: Pour 4 cups white flour into a bowl. Dissolve yeast in milk, stirring gently with a fork. Add to flour. Add 5 egg yolks, 2 eggs, sugar, a pinch of salt and 1/2 cup melted butter, stir until combined. On a well-floured board, knead for three minutes. Return to bowl, cover with a towel and set aside. Let dough rise one hour.
  3. Wrap cabbage in a towel and squeeze–or press through a strainer–to remove water. Over medium-heat heat, melt 1 cup butter. Add cabbage and onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until brown.
  4. On a well-floured board, divide dough in half, and roll into two sheets, each about 1/4 inch thick.
  5. Grease a baking sheet.  Lay one sheet of dough on the baking sheet, cover with cooked cabbage mixture, and then cover with the second sheet of dough. Pierce it all over with a fork and allow it to rise 30 minutes. Preheat over to 350 degrees. Brush top of dough with a beaten egg, and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until the top is toasty brown and bubbly.
4Out of the oven!

The Results

Since I made this cake for an event, the results were fed to about 100 people. I was worried the cake might be too weird. But in the end, it’s all about the experience; which is why I pick the recipe that sounds the most interesting, not the one that sounds the most delicious.

But thankfully, Cabbage Cake was both interesting and delicious. The yeasty dough paired perfectly with the buttery cabbage, that savory filling contrasting with the slightly sweet crust. The crust was crisp, and the filling melt-in-your mouth. It was an all around hit, and a dish I would make again as a vegetarian side or even a main course.

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If you live in the new York City area and you’d like to learn more about the history of Jewish cuisine, I’m giving a special program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on May 18th. It will feature a tour focusing on the diversity of Jewish food, as well as a cooking class! Sign up here!

 

Witches, Bread and LSD: The Story of Ergot

ergotIllustration by Lisk Feng.

Some anthropologists theorize that the murderous mania of the Salem Witch Trials wasn’t caused by religious panic or hectic politics. They blame ergot, a grain fungus that causes paranoia, hallucinations and convulsions—the same symptoms that were thought to be caused by “bewitchment.”

Read the whole story–an interview with me!–on Hopes and Fears HERE.

The Gallery: Campfire Cooking Beyond Hotdogs

Photographer extraordinaire Jess Tsang took some snaps at my most recent fire cooking class in Brooklyn, so I thought I’d share! If you’re interested in this class, and live in the New York City area, you should get on the Brooklyn Brainery’s mailing list. I repeat the class each spring.

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Living History: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Welsh RarebitWelsh rarebit: cheese sauce on toast; all ready for my bedtime snack.

What do you get when you combine a Victorian preoccupation with bad digestion and one illustrator’s imaginative fantasy landscapes? Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a comic strip created by Winsor McCay that ran from 1904-1912. McCay would later go on to create the better known strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, but his earlier, more grown-up strip was just as fantastic. In every strip, a cheese-on-toast dish known as “welsh rarebit” was consumed before bedtime, and then faulted for a night of  alarming dreams. The illustrated dreamscapes the McCay created would go on to inspire scenes in King KongDumboMary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Read the comic here.

After reading a book of McCay’s work, I wanted to know: would the dreaded rarebit give me bad dreams, too?

The History

In the final panel, the dreamer always awakens and curses the cheese.

In the early 20th century and before, we were preoccupied with bad digestion. Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times was blamed for a range of maladies, including troubled dreams. From The Psychology of Dreams, 1920:

“As is well known, dreams may be influenced by physical discomforts. Many individuals can, almost with certainty, bring on distressing dreams by eating at supper or near bedtime, certain combinations of food, as peas and salmon, Welsh rarebit, ice cream and oysters.”

That shit is well known. The general medical consensus was that those prone to bad digestion were prone to nightmares, and heavy foods like a rarebit made you prone to bad digestion. Case closed.

The Recipe


A silent film inspired by McCay’s comics. I enjoy the first few minute of this film; he is really chowing down on a welsh rarebit. Really shoving it in there.

So what is this wicked rarebit? A welsh rarebit is perfect comfort food, which is why nobody wanted to give the damn things up, despite the advice of their doctors. Invented sometime in the 18th century, it can be as simple as a few slices of melted cheese on toast, the preference being for cheddar or Gloucestershire cheese.  By the early 20th century, it was more common to make a sauce of American cheese, milk or cream, egg yolks, butter, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of red pepper–the recipes varied, and could be more simple or more complicated depending on what you had on hand. You can read a full history of this dish, along with theories about the origin of its name, on the incomparable Food Timeline here.

I made my rarebit with grated cheddar cheese, cream, good mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne. I melted it slowly on my stove top before pouring it over a slice of whole wheat toast. It was nice and spicy and I immediately wanted another. Then I climbed into bed and got ready for dreamland.

The Results

Although I felt sleepy immediately after eating the rarebit, it took me a lot longer to fall asleep than normal. It was a light sleep, shifting in between consciousness and dreaming. I didn’t have any long, lucid dreams. I had watched the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode about Israel/Palestine before going to bed, so mostly I was dreaming about eating delicious Palestinian food, particularly this one interesting-looking roast watermelon salad. At another point I was at a BBQ pouring hot sauce all over roasted meat. These are the scenarios my brain is pondering constantly, and in my agitated sleep state, I was just dipping in and out of them. If you were wondering what it’s like to peer into my psyche, there you go.

But I don’t think the rarebit was to blame for my dreams. Feeding a rarebit to my husband before bed was one of the greatest mistakes I have ever made. He came home from school late and hungry, so I offered him one; he said he didn’t like it because it tasted “unhealthy.” He spent the night thrashing around in bed, kicking and punching me in his sleep. He actually woke up several times to exclaim “It was the cheese!” Finally, he started crying because he dreamed his undead grandfather shot his brother.

According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic, eating too close to bedtime can lead to “heightened metabolism and temperature,” which in turn “…can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.” Which means more dreams. It is inadvisable to eat “heavy or spicy foods” two to three hours before bedtime.

However, cheese also contains tryptophan, an amino acid “used by the human body to make serotonin.” It can actually relax us and help us sleep, which may be why it is often served as the last course of meals. Additionally, fat and carbs can make us sleepy, according to Scientific American. So it may be safe to say that everyone reacts differently to a welsh rarebit.

As for Brian’s undead grandpa: unlike Nemo‘s freeing fantasy landscapes, Fiend often dealt with the repressed anxietys of daily adulthood.