Monday, March 14, 2011

Partial Success

I made xiao long bao. I never did know what the name means, but roughly translated I think it's something like 'nom nom nom'. Not really, but that's what I think. I also think they're a pain in the butt to make, so you will never see these here again. Probably. This has taken me more than a week of planning and dinking around. (If you want my suggestions for possible shortcuts, skip to the end of the dough instructions.)

I read this recipe, and since I am still in love with my steamer, I thought I'd give it a whirl. I departed from the instructions right away, because I remembered the pots of broth forever reducing on the stove and then cooling into jelly when I was a kid. Her recipe calls for making a pretty ordinary sounding stock with chinese seasonings, and then thickening it with agar, but I decided to go ahead and make a dad-style soup stock which jells up on its own. That's what the pig foot was for. Here is my recipe for a soup stock that will stand up by itself:

2 pig's feet
1 chicken carcass
about 2 gallons water

1 onion
2 or 3 slices ginger root
a couple cloves of garlic
about a teaspoon of salt

You will want at least 10 hours and a 3 gallon pot to do this part with. Put the first 3 ingredients in the pot over high heat. Bring them to a boil, then reduce the heat enough so that it doesn't boil over, and let it reduce by about half. If you can keep the lid on the pot about halfway, that will allow you to retain the heat in the pot while reducing evaporation loss somewhat. Skim the fat and goop off the top from time to time.

There are 2 things you want to do here. The first is to boil all the cartilage in the feet and carcass into gelatin. This requires both the right temperature (at least a low boil) and the right amount of time (7-9 hours). The second is to concentrate the gelatin in the soup enough to allow it to set when it cools. You could just leave it on a high boil until the water had all evaporated out, but that wouldn't be enough time to break the collagen molecules down into gelatin. You'll know when you've cooked it enough because the tendons holding all the bones together will simply dissolve. It's actually a pretty cool phenomenon.

Once you've cooked the bones down enough, put in the onion, garlic, ginger and a little salt. Simmer for about another hour to get the flavors into the stock then strain out the solids and put the stock in the refrigerator. It should get stiffer than a commercial jello. This will net you about 2 quarts of stock.

Dough- slightly different than her instructions

about 400 grams AP flour
about 1 cup boiling water
about 1/4 cup cold water
a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon-ish oil

Reason number I-don't-know-what for me to love my bread machine: this recipe.

Put the flour and salt in the bowl of your dough machine and start it going on the knead cycle. Slowly pour in the boiling water, let it mostly combine, then pour in the oil and cold water. You could do this by hand with a wooden spoon to work in the boiling water, and then turn the dough out onto the counter to finish kneading, but the machine does a much more thorough job than I could, besides the fact that I can throw the ingredients in and walk away to do something else. My machine has about a 20 minute knead cycle, which seem to be about the right amount of time.

Check back every once in a while to look at the texture of the dough. I kept adding pinches of flour to the dough when it started to look too soft. I estimate by how much dough is stuck around the beaters in my machine. If there's a pool of dough spread evenly under the beaters, like in the picture, it's too wet- add a pinch of flour. If there's not a speck of dough stuck to the pan anywhere and the dough ball looks looks like it's just bouncing off the beaters, it's too hard- add a spoon of water. The dough ball should wrap between the beaters pretty easily, but still have a tendency to hang together in one big glob. The finished dough will be softer than play-doh, and have a surface tackiness like the back of a post-it note. Don't sweat it though, 'kinda-sorta' is good enough. Put the dough in tupperware until you want to use it. It needs to rest a while or the gluten in the flour will be springy and hard to roll out. If you're using it the same day, don't bother putting it in the fridge, it'll just get all stiff.

Now, all this is a mighty pain in the ass. If I had any commonsense, I'd just go buy a packet of wonton or potsticker wrappers at Fubonn and call it good. I could also get myself a couple cans of Swan's chicken broth, punch it up with a little ginger and onions and put in a tablespoon of knox plain gelatin, but I was feeling extra chinesey, so there you have it.

The filling:

about 3/4 lb ground pork
about 1/3 lb fresh shrimp
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons thai fish sauce
1 or 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon grated lemongrass
1 teaspoon grated ginger
about 2 finely minced green onions

Mince the shrimp. I used my food processor. I left it a bit chunky because I wanted to have a few recognizable shrimp bits. Mix the shrimp with everything else in a large bowl. In another bowl, put about 2 cups of the solidified broth. The original instructions say to mix the jellied broth with the meat filling, but I didn't have the right size of bowl.

Wrap about 1/2 teaspoon each of meat and broth together in each dumpling. I tried to take some videos of me rolling and wrapping the dough, which I will load when I can figure out how to get them off my camera. On the other website, the author gives instructions for rolling and wrapping too, but I did it the way dad used to make them. No cookie cutters here. Meanwhile, I have some tips:

1. Be sure not to make the dough too wet. It's basically like fresh pasta. The dumplings have to withstand a great deal of moisture. Mine suffered containment failures during cooking, which was a pity, but they still tasted good.
2. Don't roll the wrappers too thin, for the same reason. Between 1/8 and 1/16" seems to be about right, if you have a good firm dough.
3. Use lots and lots of flour. Every time I do this, I forget that when dad used to roll these out, he basically did the rolling in the middle of a big pile of flour. Not that he ever made soup dumplings that I remember, but he made jillions of potstickers in pretty much the same way.
4. When pinching them shut, use plenty of pressure. They need to be watertight, or the soup will just run out.
5. Shake all the excess flour off before wrapping. It'll make it easier to pinch them shut.
6. Yep. That's a broom handle. Sorry, guess my roots are showing.

3/16- hey lookey! videos!
Cutting the dough:

 Rolling out the wrappers:

 And filling them:


Line the steamer trays with napa leaves. They make a really good non-stick surface! Get the steam going in the pot for about 5 minutes to wilt the leaves, then put the dumplings in. Leave an inch or more between them to allow for slumping. Steam for about 8 minutes. Serve immediately.

My results? Holy Wow does this make a mess!

They are right tasty, but frankly if I were to do this again, I don't know that I would bother with the soup part. It adds an order of complexity to the whole process both from the standpoint of making the broth and from that of adjusting the dough texture to contain it as it cooks, and I'm just not sure that the experience of eating them is interesting enough justify the effort. I could just make potstickers, you know? Also, I feel like I have now washed every cooking implement I own twice, and there's still cleanup to do. (That part may have to do with the fact that I actually don't own very many cooking implements.)

On the other hand, the challenge of making them correctly still calls to me. I keep thinking that if I did this thing different, or did a little more of that thing, they would do what they're supposed to do, which is to explode with a little dribble of soup for you to slurp out of the wrapper when you bite them. (This is dangerous, incidentally. Beware of scalding the roof of your mouth.) I think the shrimp/pork combination is really appealing. The pork adds fatty richness, and the shrimp bits have a very delicate texture. I meant to add some minced water chestnuts, but I forgot. Besides, the amounts as given in the original recipe produce way more filling than can be used for this quantity of dough. I reduced the quantities in my recipe above, but even so, you may find yourself with a lot of extra.

Me and Pete were talking the other day about how both of us sometimes have this thought that goes something like "Hm... I could run a hot cart...Really, I could totally...Naahhhh." I used to be a cook, he used to make sandwiches, way back in the dark ages, totally do-able, right? The thing is, setting aside the sheer effort it takes to do all that crap all day, having it be a job really makes it less fun. As it is, I spend a day screwing around in the kitchen and what's the worst that could happen? Oh darn, the soup ran out of my dumplings before I wanted it to. Eh, too bad. Dinner was good, I just gotta wash a bunch of dishes.

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