These steamed rolls with their petal-like layers are a traditional fancy bread in north China. They typically accompany the great banquet duck dishes, and are set around the platter as a pretty frame for the bird. I love them with duck—the plush bread is the perfect balance for any oil—but I like the rolls also with homey stir-frys and soups, most anytime I’m feeling festive and want to “dress up” the meal.
Begin at least 3–4 hours in advance of serving. I like to begin 6–8 hours in advance, in order to let the dough rise in a cool spot, a slower process that gives the bread a better crumb and a lighter texture.
Add the yeast and sugar to the warm water, stirring to dissolve the yeast. Put aside in a warm (70–85°), draft-free spot for about 10 minutes, by which time there should be a thick foam on top. No foam means that the yeast is not fresh or that the water was either too hot or too cold, in which case you must begin again.
If you have a food processor:
Put the flour into the work bowl fitted with a steel knife. With the machine running, add the yeasted liquid through the feed tube in a thin, steady stream, pushing the foam in first with your finger or a spoon. Stop adding liquid when the dough begins to mass lumpily around the blade, then give the machine 2–3 seconds’ “lag time” to incorporate the last water droplets and cause the dough to form a ball. If a ball does not form, add water in droplets until the dough comes together. You may need a bit more or less water than called for, all depending on the dryness of the flour, so have some extra warm water alongside in case you need it. Continue to run the machine for 30 seconds after the dough comes together. (It may jump and make noises of complaint, but hold it and yourself steady, and pay it no mind.) Remove the dough promptly to a lightly floured board, and knead by hand for about 3 minutes, until the dough is smooth, shiny, and fingertip firm, and will bounce slowly but surely back when you make a fingertip impression in the dough. If you have processed the dough correctly, it will not stick to the board after the initial seconds of kneading and require little or no extra flour. If it is too wet and is sticking, then dust the board with flour as required, and knead several minutes longer to incorporate the flour and produce a firm, shiny, and bouncy dough.
If you do not have a food processor:
Put the flour in a large bowl, then add the yeasted liquid in a thin stream, stirring first with chopsticks or a wooden spoon and finally with your hand until a stiff, lumpy dough is formed. Add extra water in droplets if the flour requires it to cohere. Press into a mass, turn out onto a lightly floured board, then knead vigorously for 10–15 minutes, until the dough is smooth, elastic, and fingertip firm, and bounces slowly but surely back when you make an impression in it with your finger. While kneading, dust the board with flour as required to prevent the dough from sticking.
Put the sesame oil in a large bowl fully three times the size of the dough. Add the dough and turn it to coat both itself and the inside of the bowl with a thin film of oil. Seal the bowl airtight with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise until double in bulk. For a relatively fast rising that will take 1–2 hours, put the dough in a warm (70–85°) room, or in the oven with the pilot on. For a slower rise that will produce a better crumb, put the dough in a cooler place (the basement, a cool room, or even the refrigerator), and let it rise slowly over 3–5 hours. While the dough is rising, proceed to cut out and grease any paper bases that may be called for when it is time to shape the dough.
When the dough is double its original bulk, and a fingertip impression does not spring back, use your fist to punch it repeatedly and reduce it to a near pancake. At this point the bowl may be resealed and the dough given a second rising and a second punching down. The second rising is not necessary, but it will yield a distinctly lighter bread.
Turn the punched-down dough out onto a board dusting with the baking powder. (If the powder is lumpy, crush it with several rolls of a rolling pin, then smooth it over the board.) Knead vigorously 4–5 minutes, incorporating the baking powder and restoring the dough to its original smooth, fingertip-firm state, dusting the board with flour as required to prevent sticking. When the dough is elastic enough so a fingertip impression bounces back slowly, transfer the dough to a lightly floured corner of the board and cover it with a clean, dry towel. Proceed immediately to make final arrangements for shaping, so the dough will be waiting no longer than 5–10 minutes.
Have cut a 3-inch by 2-inch rectangular paper base for each roll: 12 bases for piggyback rolls or 24 bases for single rolls. If you do not have silicon (no-stick) parchment, use greased parchment or greased wax paper. Arrange the paper greased side up on one or two baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between them. Put the sheet(s), the seasonings, a long ruler, an oiled chopstick, and a second dry towel alongside your work surface.
Sprinkle the board more generously with flour, then roll out the dough into an evenly thick rectangle 24 inches long and 10 inches wide. This is not as hard as it sounds, given some good rolling, occasional pulling, and help from the ruler to measure and square the sides. If the dough is frustratingly elastic, cover it with the towel and let it rest several minutes before attacking it anew. As you roll out the rectangle, check occasionally to see if it is sticking, and brush flour underneath as required.
Use joined fingers to smooth the sesame oil evenly over the top of the dough, clear to the edges. Repeat an even sprinkling of salt, ham, and scallion. If you are not adding ham and scallion, do not use salt, and you will have made the standard, sweet flower rolls that are the choice of most cooks.
Beginning at the long side closest to you, roll the dough away from you into a long cylinder, just as you would roll up a carpet. Do not roll too loosely; the layers should hug one another. Keep the ends even and tug at the dough as needed to keep the sides straight and the corners squared. When the long jelly roll is formed, pinch the top seam shut. Measure the length and roll it evenly back and forth if needed to stretch it to its original 24 inches.
With an eye to the ruler, use a sharp knife to cut the log crosswise into 24 pieces, each 1 inch wide. As you cut, move every other piece an inch above its neighbor or the slices will stick together.
For double flowers, put one piece of dough directly on top of another, piggyback fashion, seam side down, smooth sides touching, and cut sides open, as illustrated. Shape one double flower entirely before piggybacking the next, or they will topple.
For both double and single flowers, press the thinner half of the oiled chopstick lengthwise across the top of the dough as illustrated, so the cut ends flare up and the layers open. Press the chopstick firmly enough so the layers spread apart, but not so hard that you flatten the dough clear against the board.
Slide the chopstick out of the pleat it has formed, then accentuate the flower shape as follows: Pick up the dough by its smooth, rounded ends (not the cut sides), then pull the ends down until they meet underneath the roll. Pinch the ends together to join them. As you pull the ends down and pinch them together, the cut sides of the single or double flower will flare further, and the rather flat flower will become round. Put the finished flower pinched side down on the paper base, then cover with the dry towel. Continue to shape the flowers, placing them 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.
Leave the covered rolls to rise for about 30 minutes, or until they spring gently back when poked with a finger. If you are not ready to steam them, they may be flash-frozen on the baking sheet, then bagged airtight and kept frozen for several weeks. Steam as directed below, either directly from the freezer or while cold and firm, lengthening the steaming time by about 10 minutes.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Transfer the rolls on their paper bases to a bamboo or metal steaming tier, leaving 2 inches between them for expansion. If you are improvising a steamer, transfer the paper and rolls to a flat plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steaming vessel.
Bring the water to a gushing boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium-high to maintain a strong, steady steam, then put the rolls in place and cover the steamer. Steam for 12–15 minutes.
Discard the paper and serve the rolls in a bamboo steamer or on a heated platter of contrasting color. Extra rolls may be kept warm in the steamer over low heat for up to an hour, with no harm to texture or flavor.
Leftover flower rolls should be left to cool, then bagged airtight for refrigerating or freezing. (The dough freezes perfectly, though the ham and scallion lose their zest.) To rewarm, steam on paper squares over medium-high heat until hot, about 10 minutes if the rolls are at room temperature, or 20 minutes if you steam them directly from the freezer.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.