Every time I try a new Chinese restaurant, I scan the menu hopefully for scallion pancakes. I love them, but it’s hard to find good ones. Too often they’re thick, doughy, with too little scallion flavor. It finally occurred to me that I should try making them myself. I have two Chinese cookbooks with scallion pancake recipes. One turned me off by specifying western brand names for flour and vegetable shortening. The other looked more authentic, so I chose it.
The book is Dim Sum and Other Chinese Street Food, by Mai Leung. I’ve had good luck with another of her cookbooks, and I was intrigued by the drawings in this one demonstrating the strange technique for shaping Chung Yao Bing, or Crisp Scallion Cakes. I was also heartened by the fact that the recipe called for lard, not tasteless vegetable shortening.
Preparing the cakes was a gloriously messy process, with drifts of flour all over my kitchen counter. It starts with a very soft flour-water dough. The pieces rolled out easily to 11-inch circles. The first tricky step was to, “with your fingers,” evenly spread a tablespoon of lard on each circle. My lard, even though I’d taken it out of the refrigerator to soften hours before, persisted in glomming onto my fingers, not smoothing over the dough. (Next time I’ll try melting it, letting it just reach room temperature, and painting it on with a brush.) But I wrestled it into sort-of submission and sprinkled on chopped scallions.
Now, the recipe had me: (1) rolling the circle into a tight, narrow cylinder; (2) twisting it “like a rope”; (3) holding it vertically on the work surface and squishing it down into a lumpy round; and (4) rolling that out into a 10-inch cake. This last was not easy. The twists made the dough very resistant to manipulation, and the scallions kept trying to break out of their coating. Using scads of flour, my heaviest rolling pin, and a lot of muscle power, I managed to achieve 9-inch circles.
From there, it was easy. I fried the cakes in shallow peanut oil until they were a nice golden brown on both sides. Well, “nice golden brown” may not be quite the phrase: spotty golden brown would be more accurate.
I wonder if my glommy distribution of the lard was what caused them to look so chicken-poxed. However that might be, the cakes were delicious, with bright scallion flavor. (All but the one on which I neglected to spread lard. That showed how important the fat is to this recipe – the cake without it was leaden, tough, bland.) They were in fact thin and crisp, not as thickly pancake-y as the ones I’ve had in restaurants. A dipping sauce of soy and hot oil made them even tastier.
I may never qualify as a competent dim sum chef, but I certainly had fun making this recipe and eating the results. It’s the kind of food you first get your hands into and later onto: good stuff.