Being a bread lover at heart, I sampled every type of steamed, fried, and occasionally baked bread I could find during my two years in Taiwan. This was my favorite: an oblong loaf of steamed bread, tinged with sweetness and fashioned so ingeniously that it came apart in a skein of soft, thickish “threads” when pulled. Served white and freshly steamed, it was known as a “silver thread roll.” Deep-fried until golden (the way I like it best), it became a “gold thread roll.”
Follow the instructions for proofing the yeast and making the dough, letting it rise, and punching it down, using the proportions of ingredients specified above.
Turn the punched down dough out onto a lightly floured board, then knead vigorously for 3–4 minutes until shiny and elastic, dusting the board as required to prevent the dough from sticking.
With a sharp knife divide the dough into four equal portions. Put two pieces aside cut side down on a lightly floured surface and cover with a dry towel. With the help of a ruler to measure and square the sides, roll the first two pieces into rectangles, each 4 inches wide and 8 inches long, dusting the board lightly if the dough sticks. Spread a thin film of sesame oil evenly over the top, then fold each rectangle towards you in half, to yield two 4-inch squares. Spread again with oil, then fold each square toward you in half again, to yield two rectangles, each 2 inches wide and 4 inches long. Cover with a dry towel and let the dough rest.
Roll out the two remaining pieces into 6-inch squares, using the ruler to measure and square the sides, and dusting the board as necessary to prevent sticking.
With a sharp knife, shred each of the oiled and folded rectangles crosswise into bands ¼ inch wide, cutting through to the board and leaving the shreds side by side, as illustrated, so they wind up looking like two rubber rafts.
Working with one raft and one smooth square at a time, pick up one half of the shreds, grasping them by their folded sides, then very gently stretch them until they are about 5½ inches long. (If the dough is too elastic to stretch easily, cover the shreds and let the gluten relax 5–10 minutes.) Place them over the bottom half of the smooth square, then anchor them to the square by pressing along the edges of the shreds, as illustrated. Grasp, stretch, and anchor the remaining shreds so the first square is covered, then repeat the process with the remaining two pieces of dough. You should now have two squares of dough covered with shreds.
Beginning at one of the anchored edges, roll each square securely into a jelly roll, as illustrated. Pinch the ends and bottom seams shut, then place each loaf seam side down on an 8-inch by 3-inch rectangle of silicon (no-stick) parchment paper, greased parchment, or greased wax paper.
Transfer the loaves and the paper bases to a baking sheet, then cover with a clean, dry towel and let rise until swollen and springy to the touch, 30–60 minutes depending on the warmth of the spot. (Be sure the loaves are draft-free during the final rising, or they will have an odd, tough crust when steamed.)
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-high to maintain a strong, steady steam. Transfer the loaves on their paper bases directly to a bamboo or metal steaming tier (or to a flat plate 1 inch smaller than your steamer if you are improvising), leaving 3 inches between them for expansion. Put the loaves in position, cover the steamer, and steam the loaves for 30 minutes without lifting the cover. Turn off the heat, let the steam subside for 5 minutes, and lift the cover slowly away from you, lest a sudden draft of cold air cause the loaves to wrinkle.
Discard the paper and cut the loaves into thick slices for serving. If you are not ready to serve them, the loaves may be left in the steamer over low heat for 30–60 minutes. Or, they may be put aside to cool and then refrigerated several days or frozen for up to a month, wrapped airtight.
Reheat refrigerated or frozen rolls by steaming on a paper base over high heat until hot, about 10–20 minutes. Frozen rolls may be steamed directly from the freezer. Leftovers may be refrozen a second time, provided they are left to cool entirely and then wrapped airtight.
During the final 10 minutes of steaming, heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat until hot, then add the oil and heat to the light-haze stage, 375° on a deep-fry thermometer. Adjust the heat so the temperature does not rise. Put a baking sheet lined with a double layer of paper towels and a Chinese mesh spoon and cooking chopsticks within easy reach of your stovetop.
Remove the bread from the steamer, discard the paper, and cut each loaf crosswise in half for a total of four pieces. Test the oil with one crumb of the steamed dough. If the oil is properly hot, it will rise to the surface within 2–3 seconds wearing a crown of tiny white bubbles.
Fry the loaves until golden, about 2 minutes, turning them once or twice to color them evenly. Fry all four at once if they have room to float on the surface, or fry in two batches and retest the oil before the second batch. Do not let them get too brown, as they will continue to darken from their own heat after leaving the oil. Remove the bread to the paper towel-lined tray, blot the top of excess oil, then cut into wedges ¾ inch thick. Serve promptly, in a bamboo steamer, a basket, or arranged on a heated platter of contrasting color.
Gold Thread Rolls are best freshly fried. They grow oily if reheated.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.