While much of the Chinese population picks up a rice bowl with every meal, Chinese of the northernmost provinces, including the citizens of Peking, pick up an oblong-shaped bun of steamed dough. It is in every way the equivalent of rice—white, plain, soft, with an overtone of sweet freshness.
Follow the for proofing the yeast and making the dough, letting it rise and punching it down, and incorporating the baking powder.
Have cut 12 rectangular paper bases for the loaves, each 4 inches long and 2½ inches wide. If you do not have silicon (no-stick) parchment, use greased parchment or greased wax paper. Put them greased side up on one or two baking sheets with at least 1½ inches between them, then put the sheet(s) and a second dry towel alongside your work surface.
Divide the dough into two even pieces with a sharp knife. On a lightly floured board roll and thump each piece with your palms into a smooth log 6 inches long. Then cut each log crosswise at 1-inch intervals into 6 pieces, for a total of 12 pieces in all. Put the pieces cut side down on a floured corner of the board, and keep them covered while you shape the breads.
To shape each loaf, take a piece of the dough between your palms and roll, push, and smooth it into an oblong shape about 3 inches long. If it is too elastic to shape easily, then cover the dough and let it rest 5–10 minutes. Once shaped and smoothed, center the bread on a paper base and cover it with the towel. Repeat the process until all the loaves are shaped and covered.
Let the loaves rise until about double in bulk, when a loaf feels light and airy in your palm and a finger mark pressed into the dough does not spring quickly back, anywhere from 35 minutes to 1½ hours, depending on the temperature of the room. If you wish to stall the rising, you can put the breads in the refrigerator or even the freezer, so long as they are sealed airtight against drying.
At this point the breads may be flash-frozen, sealed airtight on the baking sheet until firm, then bagged airtight and frozen for several weeks. Steam directly from the freezer as directed below, allowing an extra 10 minutes’ steaming time.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
If you are using a Chinese bamboo or metal steamer, then transfer the loaves on their paper bases directly to the steaming tier. If you are improvising a steamer, then transfer to a flat, heatproof plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steaming vessel. Leave 1–1½ inches between the loaves.
To steam the whole batch at once, use two steamers or two steaming tiers, so long as they are deep enough to accommodate the height of the loaves plus 1 inch for expansion. If you are using metal tiers, stretch a fine-woven piece of cheesecloth or flour sacking beneath the top tier to absorb condensation and inhibit water from dripping on the loaves below.
Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat, put the loaves in place, then reduce the heat to medium-high to maintain a strong, steady steam. (For double-decker tiers, check to see that the steam gushes clear up through the top tier. Then there is no need to reverse tiers during steaming.) Cover the steamer and steam the breads for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, then let the steam subside for 5 minutes before lifting the cover slowly away from you, lest a blast of cold air cause the tops of the loaves to wrinkle.
At this point the loaves may be served, kept warm in the steamer for an hour over low heat, deep-fried, or left to cool for refrigerating or freezing.
If you are storing newly steamed loaves or leftover steamed loaves, be sure they are thoroughly cool, then bag airtight for storage. Resteam on paper squares over medium-high heat until hot, 10–20 minutes, depending on whether they go into the steamer at room temperature or frozen. Leftover steamed loaves are incredibly durable, and may be refrigerated or frozen then resteamed one or more times with no flavor or texture loss.
To deep-fry the loaves, take them directly from the steamer, still warm, for best results. Refrigerated or frozen loaves should be plumped in the steamer before frying.
Discard the paper, then fry and drain the loaves. Serve whole, brought to the table heaped in a bamboo steamer or towel-lined basket, or on a heated platter of contrasting color.
Deep-fried loaves are best freshly made; they grow oily with reheating.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.