'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

笑口棗 Fried sesame balls for Chinese New Year

As I write, it's New Year's Eve in Chinese calender, and soon we'll enter the year of the sheep. It's also the first time in five years that I'll spend the holiday in Hong Kong. Like Christmas, this is a time of homecoming when long separated family members reunite and gather round the parents' home. The customs vary in different parts of China, but it always involves 1. red packets (which I have received a couple) which are essentially pocket money from the elders to the young, and 2. lots of seasonal food.

Most of the food consumed in this time is made with rice, as the word for rice cake (年糕) rhymes with 年高 (a better/higher year). They come in many varieties and in Guangdong the three main varieties are radish, yam and cane sugar. Since these can be bought everywhere now even outside of China, I'm sharing another New Year's snack that is popular in Hong Kong: 笑口棗 which literally means 'laughing doughnuts'. Traditionally Cantonese families would fry crispy treats before the New Year to stock up their pantry for guests to nibble on. These doughnuts are essentially the same as a scone dough except that no dairy is used, and are fried as little balls coated with sesame seeds (rather than baked). The name 笑口棗 refers to the white interior which looks like a laughing mouth that puffs up after frying. To achieve this, the oil temperature mustn't be too hot or the protein on the surface of the dough will coagulate prematurely and the ball will not puff up in a 'laughing' manner. Who can resist crunchy fried doughnuts studded with sesame seeds? Forget the storebought versions that are as hard as a rock and taste of rancid oil and get frying!

Laughing doughnuts 笑口棗

250g cake or pastry flour (or 200g plain flour + 50g cornflour) 
100g granulated sugar 
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda  
1/2 tsp salt
30g (2 tbsp lard) or vegetable oil (lard is the traditional fat obviously...)
1 egg 
30-50ml ice water

About 100g untoasted white sesame seeds

Making the dough

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt well to combine them.

2. If using lard, cut into a few cubes and rub into the flour mixture. Otherwise, drizzle the oil onto the flour mixture. Using your finger tips, rub the fat into the flour mixture and lift as you go to aerate the mixture. Coating the flour with fat inhibits gluten formation (and hence a lighter result) and the more air you trap into the dough the better, too.

3. Now add the egg and 30ml ice water to the flour mixture and draw everything together with a knife until you can no longer see any flour particles. If some dry flour particles remain, add the remaining water little by little. Add as little water as possible - the goal is to have a dough that stays together but not sticky. The dough will look shaggy at this point.

4. Use your hands to gently gather the dough pieces. Do not overknead but the dough pieces do need to come together. Cover the bowl with a towel or cling film and rest for 30 minutes.

Shaping the dough

1. Divide the dough into 10g  (about 2 tsp) pieces and rub them between your palm to form little balls: you'll have about 50 balls. They may look tiny right now but you'll be surprised by how much they're going to puff up. Have two bowls ready: one filled with water and the other with sesame seeds. (If you want bite-size balls, then go for 5g pieces, but this does mean doubling your work!)

2. Roll each ball first in water, lift it for a few seconds then roll in the sesame seeds. Use your fingers to gently press the sesame seeds onto the surface of the balls to help them glue.

Frying the dough

1. In a large pan, wok or fryer, heat up at least 2 cups (500ml) of oil until hot but not smoking. It's best if you use a cooking thermometer and the temperature should be about 150C.

2. Check on the dough balls. If they've flattened out on the bottom, give them one or two gentle squeezes to round them up again.

3. You'll need to dry the balls in 2-3 batches depending on the size of your pan. Turn off the heat and gently lower a third or half of the balls into the hot oil (easiest done with a slotted skimmer).

4. Use your slotted skimmer to move the balls around to help them fry evenly.

5. The balls will start to puff up and float to the top in less than a minute. You will start to see some white batter exposed - the teeth! Turn the heat back on medium.

6. Fry until they are a light golden brown on the surface, about 3-4 minutes. Lift the balls out immediately and drain in a colander. Repeat with the rest of the balls.

7. Store the doughnuts in a well-sealed container only when cooled down to room temperature. They are best eaten fresh, but you can reheat in a toaster to crisp them up again.

Happy Chinese New Year!

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