Pan-Fried Scallion Breads

葱油餅

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Makes one 10 inch or two 8-inch flatbreads, enough to serve

    4–5

    people generously

Appears in

Scallion breads are one of those superb combinations of dough, seasonings, and grease—oil or shortening in polite culinary language—that promise instant addiction. Like a buttered bagel or a good pizza dough, these savory flatbreads have a universal appeal. They are eaten at mealtimes and in-between times, and are excellent for brunch.

  • Throughout northern and central China, one finds scallion breads variously thick or thin, bready or crisp, fried in new oil or old. My favorites were made by an old man on a tiny burner in a Taipei alleyway. They were thick and rather chewy, and one could take them home wrapped in a sheet of yesterday’s newspaper, the oil and the scallions making a fragrant stain on the newsprint.
  • These scallion breads are like his. They are easy to make, fun to shape, and take only minutes to cook. Use all the dough for a single, giant scallion bread and the result will be a thick, pie-shaped flatbread you can really chew on. Divide the dough into two equal parts, and you will have smaller, thinner breads more traditional in size. Another choice can be made with the grease: I have tried everything from lard to duck fat, and sesame oil and schmaltz are the winners on my tongue.
  • With a food processor you can make, shape, and cook the dough within an hour. The dough itself may be made a day in advance of shaping.

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Ingredients

Cold water dough

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • cup cold water

Hot water dough

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • cup boiling water
  • additional flour, for kneading and rolling out the dough
  • ¼ teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

Seasonings

  • teaspoons Chinese or Japanese sesame oil, or rendered chicken fat
  • teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 2–3 medium whole scallions, cut into thin green and white rings
  • about ½ cup fresh corn or peanut oil, for pan-frying

Method

Making the dough

If you have a food processor:

Put 1 cup flour and the baking powder into the work bowl fitted with the steel knife. With the machine running add the cold water through the feed tube in a thin steady stream, just until the dough begins to mass lumpily around the blade. Give the machine 2–3 seconds’ “lag time” to incorporate the last water droplets and form a ball. If no ball forms, then add several drops more water until the dough comes together. You may need a bit more or less than ⅓ cup water, all depending on the dryness of the flour.

Stop the machine as soon as a ball forms and remove the dough. (Typically, there will be one large ball and several smaller “blobs,” and you should remove them all.) Return the blade to the work bowl, add 1 cup flour and 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, and repeat the process using ⅓ cup boiling water. The water must have been boiling just before use or it will not be hot enough to cook the flour as it should.

Stop the machine as soon as the hot water dough coheres in a ball, and return the cold water dough to the work bowl. Process the two doughs together for 15 seconds, remove the dough to a lightly floured board, and knead it gently with the heel of your hand for 1–2 minutes, until it is smooth and earlobe-soft, and elastic enough so it springs gently back when pressed lightly with a finger. If you have processed the dough correctly, it should not stick to the board. If it is sticking, then dust the board lightly with flour as required and gently knead the dough until it is smooth and no longer sticks. Be wary of adding too much flour and making a stiff dough. The dough must be earlobe-soft or it will be tough when cooked.

If you do not have a food processor:

Combine 1 cup flour and the baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add the cold water in a thin stream, stirring with chopsticks or a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together in a lumpy mass, adding extra water in droplets if required to make the flour cohere. Remove the cold water dough, add the next cup flour and the salt, then repeat the process with boiling water. Knead the two doughs together gently for about 10 minutes until smooth, earlobe-soft, and elastic enough so a fingertip impression bounces very slowly back. Add flour to the board as required to prevent the dough from sticking, but avoid working too much into the dough lest it become too stiff.

Put the sesame oil in a small bowl, add the dough, then turn the dough so that both it and the inside of the bowl are coated with a thin film of oil. Cover the bowl with a dry towel and put the dough aside to rest for 30 minutes-2 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator if more convenient. Seal the dough airtight with plastic wrap once cool, and bring to room temperature before shaping.

Shaping the breads

Turn the soft, rested dough onto a lightly floured board, and knead gently until smooth, dusting the board lightly if the dough is sticking. If you are making 2 breads, divide the dough evenly into 2 pieces with a sharp knife and form each piece into a smooth ball. Put one ball aside on a lightly floured surface, covered with a dry towel, while you shape the other.

Flour the board lightly, then roll out the dough into a circle a scant ¼ inch thick for one giant bread, or ⅛ inch thick for two smaller breads. Dust the board and the top of the bread a second time if the dough is sticking and do not worry if the final shape is not perfectly circular. Spread the sesame oil or chicken fat evenly over the top with your fingers, then sprinkle the salt and scallions evenly over the oil. Remember to divide the seasonings in half if you are making two breads. (If you are using chicken fat, steam it until liquid, then let it cool before using until only mildly warm, not hot, to the touch.)

Roll the dough up like a carpet, neither too tight nor too loose, and pinch the top seam shut. Place the cylinder seam side down, then grasp one end of the dough gently between your thumb and first finger to anchor it to the board. This is the “head” end. Next grasp the other, the “tail” end, of the cylinder with your other hand and wind this neatly around the head into a coiling, flat spiral, as illustrated. The coils of dough should be touching at every point, so there are no holes in the spiral. Finally, tuck the tail end under the spiral. Extract your pinned fingers by pressing down gently on the dough around them with your free hand so that the coil remains in place on the board.

Press gently on the snail with your palms and joined fingers to flatten it a bit, then roll out the dough until it is about 10–11 inches in diameter for one giant bread, or about 7–8 inches in diameter for two smaller breads. Roll gently so you do not burst the layers of dough, though it is almost inevitable that a few scallions will pop through. If the dough does not roll out easily, cover it with a dry towel and let it rest for 5–10 minutes. This is an especially useful tactic when you are needing to form a second snail or when you must wait extra minutes for the company to arrive.

Once rolled to the appropriate thickness, I like to cook the bread almost immediately. For a softer texture, put the coil aside on a lightly floured surface, covered with a dry towel, for up to 30 minutes, then roll it out fully just before cooking.

Once rolled out, the scallion breads may be flash-frozen on a baking sheet until firm, sealed airtight in heavy-duty foil, and frozen for several weeks. Partially defrost in the refrigerator, and pan-fry while still thoroughly cold and firm, for a slightly longer time and over a somewhat lower heat. They turn out quite well, though not as perfectly as fresh.

Pan-frying the breads

Choose a heavy, 12-inch skillet if you are frying one giant bread. Use a heavy, 10–12-inch skillet for smaller breads and fry them in two batches or simultaneously in two heavy pans. Do not use a lightweight pan. It will scorch the bread or toughen the crust before the inside can cook through.

Heat the skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add enough oil to coat the bottom evenly with ¼ inch oil, swirl to coat the lower sides, then reduce the heat to medium. Adjust the pan on the burner so the oil is evenly deep. When the oil is hot enough to foam a pinch of dry flour, add the scallion bread, adjusting the heat so the bubbles sizzle slowly around it. Cover the pan, then cook over moderately low heat until the bottom of the bread is golden brown, occasionally shaking the pan back and forth to encourage the steam that will puff the bread. The bottom may take anywhere from 2–5 minutes to brown, depending on the thickness of the bread and the sort of pan you use. Check frequently, and do not let it scorch.

When evenly golden, flip the bread over. If the pan is very dry, dribble in a bit more oil from the side, then shake the pan gently to distribute the oil under the bread. Cover, reduce the heat slightly, and cook for 3–5 minutes more, shaking the pan occasionally. Check the bottom, and, if it is not yet golden, raise the heat slightly and replace the cover. Check the bread at 30-second intervals so you can catch it when perfectly golden and not overcooked.

Slide the bread onto a cutting surface, and cut it into pie-shaped wedges. Transfer to a heated round serving plate of contrasting color, the wedges pushed together to look like an intact bread, and garnish with a few scallion rings. Do not blot off the excess oil clinging to the bread. It contributes to the flavor like butter on a bun.

If you are frying a second scallion bread, wipe the skillet clean, reheat the pan, and begin with fresh oil.

Leftovers grow slightly oily when reheated in a hot oven, but I devour them nonetheless.

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