In Chinese, the name for these supple, flour and water crepes is “thin bing” (bing meaning “round, flat thing”). We call them mandarin pancakes in English because they are a feature of north and central China as opposed to the south, and because pancakes as we know them are also thin-round-flat things. The job of the Chinese pancake is to embrace a filling—usually something sultry and steaming, and less often something cool and spicy. Four fillings are given, and any two, three, or even four of them plus a platter of Mandarin Pancakes is grand enough for a party.
If you have a food processor:
Put the flour into the work bowl fitted with the steel knife. With the machine running add the water through the feed tube in a thin 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 near-ball. If a ball does not form, add water in droplets until the dough comes together. You may not use all the water or you may need a bit more, all depending on the dryness of the flour; have extra boiling water alongside the machine in case. As soon as a ball forms, stop the machine.
Remove the dough to a board—the big lump and the bits as well—then knead gently with the heel of your hand for about 4–5 minutes, until the dough is earlobe-soft and smooth and elastic enough so it springs gently back when pressed lightly with a finger. Flour the board lightly only if necessary to prevent sticking.
Press the dough into a thick disk. Cover with a damp tea towel, and let rest 15–30 minutes. If you wish to hold it overnight, dust the disk with flour, bag airtight in plastic, and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before rolling out.
If you do not have a food processor:
Put the flour in a large bowl, and add the boiling water in a thin stream, stirring with chopsticks or a wooden spoon until the flour masses together in a lumpy dough. Add extra boiling water in droplets if required to make the flour damp enough so it will cohere when pressed with your fingers. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, and knead with the heel of your hand until earlobe-soft and smooth, and elastic enough so that a light fingertip impression springs gently back, about 10 minutes. Flour the board only as necessary to prevent sticking, lest the dough become too stiff.
Press into a disk, cover with a damp tea towel, and let rest 15–30 minutes. To hold overnight, dust with flour, bag airtight, and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.
On a floured surface roll the rested dough into a circle evenly ⅛-inch thin, paying more attention to thickness than to shape. Dust the board and the top of the dough lightly with flour as needed. To check for even thinness, look with your eye level to the board and then run your fingers lightly over the dough.
With a sharp, 3-inch round cutter, cut out as many circles as possible, spacing them touching one another to minimize scraps. Gently remove the cut circles to a floured surface and cover with a dry towel. Knead the scraps briefly into a ball, seal airtight in plastic, and let the ball rest while you oil the first batch of circles.
Using your fingers, spread a very thin film of oil evenly over the top of each circle and around the edge. The dough should look dully glazed and not oily. Too little oil and the pancakes won’t pull apart once cooked; too much oil and they will ooze and slide apart when rolled out. If this is your first time making Mandarin Pancakes, oil one or two pairs, then flatten and cook the pancakes as described below. That will tell you for certain just how much oil is required.
Match the circles in pairs, putting one circle on top of the other, oiled sides together and edges matching exactly. Put a dry towel over the paired circles. Roll out the scrap ball, and repeat cutting out circles, oiling and pairing them, and rolling out scraps until all the dough is used up. (On a lucky day, you will come out with an even number of circles.) Proceed immediately to roll out and cook the pancakes.
Put the first paired “sandwich” on a lightly floured board. Press the dough gently in several places with your fingers to firm the seal and anchor the pancakes together, then roll out to a circular shape evenly 1/16-inch thin. Make your first rolls from the center to set the shape, then roll to insure even thinness. Be careful not to make the edge thinner or thicker than the middle. Dust the board and the top of the pancake as necessary to prevent sticking and blot up any oozing oil. At the very beginning, feel free to turn it over once or twice to roll both sides and better align the edges. Once the pancake becomes thin, do not flip it lest you stretch it.
Transfer the thinned pancake without stretching it to a flour-dusted surface, and cover with a dry towel. Roll out 3–5 pairs in the same manner, or as many as your work surface can hold. (As you become proficient in pancake making, you will find yourself rolling out one pair while another cooks in the pan, but if this is your first try don’t do it. Until you get the feel, it is necessary to keep your attention undivided on the pan.)
Put a heavy dry skillet at least 8 inches in diameter over medium-low heat. Cast iron, Calphalon, or some slightly porous surface that has absorbed a bit of oil works best. Have a heatproof luncheon-size plate and a dry towel within easy reach of your stovetop.
Check the pan after a minute with a drop of water. It should sizzle slowly. If it doesn’t, raise the heat to medium and repeat the test in 10 seconds. What you want is a hot, not a scorching, pan.
When the metal is properly hot, put the first pancake in the pan and cook until it puffs from the steam that builds up inside, about 45 seconds, raising the heat very slightly if it does not begin to puff within 30 seconds. When the pancake is puffy and the bottom is dry but still supple, flip the pancake over. (I use my well-worn fingertips. Otherwise, use a wooden spatula.) Cook the second side for a shorter time, about 30 seconds, until it too has puffed and dried somewhat but still feels very supple. Do not worry at this point about waiting around for the brown speckles that Mandarin Pancakes are supposed to have. The first pancakes often don’t have them, and even if you wind up with none once the pan has tempered, that’s perfectly OK.
As soon as your fingers tell you it is done, remove the pancake to the waiting plate, and gently pull it apart, beginning at the edge. (Usually one edge opens a bit on its own to show you where to start.) Stack the two single pancakes one directly on top of the other, oiled sides up, then cover closely with the towel to prevent drying.
Slip the next pancake into the pan and repeat the process, adjusting the heat so the dough puffs quickly—within 10–15 seconds—and cooks to supple doneness in about 15–30 seconds more. As the pan tempers, the pancakes will cook a bit more quickly, but be on your guard lest it get too hot. Typically, the first side takes 45–60 seconds, and the second side takes 30–45 seconds to cook to proper doneness.
Continue cooking, separating, stacking, and covering the pancakes until all are done. If you have one that feels a bit dry as you pull it apart, put it in the middle of the stack so it will soften from the steam of its neighbors.
When all the pancakes are pan-cooked, proceed immediately to steam them.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium to maintain a steady, gentle steam, then take the towel off the pancakes and add the plate to the steaming rack. Cover the steamer and steam the pancakes for 10 minutes, until piping hot.
Once steamed, the pancakes may be served immediately. Bring them in one stack to the table, covered with a towel to keep them warm, or serve only part at a time, keeping the remainder hot in the steamer over low heat for up to 1 hour. If you wish something fancier than a stack, fold the pancakes, oiled side in, into quarters before steaming, and arrange them in an overlapping swirl on the plate.
If you are not serving the pancakes immediately after steaming, let them come fully to room temperature, covered with a cloth against drying. For refrigerating 3–4 days, bag airtight in plastic. For freezing, wrap airtight in plastic wrap, then seal again in foil. Defrost in the refrigerator before resteaming.
To reheat, steam the pancakes as above, for about 10 minutes until hot.
Serve or take a pancake with fingers or chopsticks (the latter being more acceptable if deftness allows). Place it flat, oiled side up on your palm or plate (either being acceptable). Put a dollop of filling in the middle of the pancake, then put the pancake on your plate if it isn’t there already. Using chopsticks and fingers in equal measure, bring two sides of the wrapper up and over the filling to form a tube, then bring the remaining ends over to seal the tube shut. Clamping one end shut with chopsticks and the other end with fingers (the choice is up to you which end to clamp with which), steer the package neatly to your mouth and bite off what can be comfortably chewed, tipping the tube slightly upwards in the aftermath as it is now without an end.
Note: It is not acceptable, according to my vast table-watching experience, to tear the original pancake in two in order to create two bite-size bundles. One must cope with the open end as best one can!
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.