Shao-mai wrappers—or “skins” as they are called in Chinese—are 3-inch round, extremely thin and supple fresh dough wrappers. They are typically stamped from the same egg and water dough used to make won ton skins and Chinese egg noodles, and one can often get good results by simply cutting a square won ton skin into a round shao-mai wrapper in those places where one is available and the other isn’t. The thing to watch out for when improvising is thickness. A wrapper that is supple enough to embrace a shao-mai must be thin enough (about 1/32-inch) so that one can see a finger through it when held up to the light.
Make the dough, let it rest, then begin rolling it out in the pasta machine. Roll the dough for the wrappers even thinner than for noodles, to yield bands that are evenly about 1/32-inch thin. As the bands become awkwardly long, cut them in half, then continue rolling.
If you do not have a pasta machine, divide the dough evenly into 6–8 parts for a full recipe or 3–4 parts for a half recipe, and roll them out one at a time on a cornstarch-dusted board until the dough is evenly 1/32-inch thin. Do not stretch the dough as you work, and dust the top of the dough and the board with cornstarch as needed to prevent sticking. Check for evenness by running your fingers over the dough, and keep the unrolled dough covered to prevent it from drying.
As you finish rolling out each piece, transfer it carefully, so as not to stretch it, to a terry towel. Let it air-dry for about 6–7 minutes on each side, until it has firmed up enough to be cut neatly without sticking. The drying time will vary, depending on the temperature and the draftiness of the room. Keep checking it with your fingers, lest it get too dry and become brittle.
Smooth a thin layer of cornstarch over your work board with the palm of your hand. Transfer the first piece of dough to the board, covering the remaining pieces with a dry towel to prevent them from over-drying. Smooth a thin layer of cornstarch evenly on top of the dough, then use a 3-inch round cutter to stamp out as many wrappers as possible from the sheet. (From a dough band rolled through a pasta machine, you will get more wrappers if you stagger them up and down the band than if you cut them neatly side by side all along one edge.) Dip the cutter in cornstarch if it is sticking to the dough.
If you are using the wrappers immediately or within the hour, transfer them in a single layer to a cornstarch-dusted surface and keep them covered with a dry towel.
To refrigerate or freeze, stack the rounds neatly on a large sheet of plastic wrap, dusting them liberally on both sides to prevent sticking. Then, dust the outside of the column (that is, around the circumference of the stacked wrappers), applying as much cornstarch as will stick. Bring the plastic wrap up and around the stack, smoothing and sealing it to form an airtight seal. Double seal the wrappers in an airtight plastic bag, and refrigerate 1–2 days or freeze up to 1 month. (Frozen wrappers are inevitably less perfect than fresh-made, so if you are going to the trouble of making them, try to use them fresh.)
Refrigerated wrappers may turn slightly gray if you have used unbleached flour, but will look and taste fine upon steaming. Frozen wrappers should be defrosted in the refrigerator and pulled apart as soon as supple to prevent sticking.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.