Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cook the Books 2013: Spiced Pineapple-Filled Pastries for the Chinese Lunar New Year

I tend to balk at too many choices. At restaurants when confronted multiple dishes I cannot decide upon, I often ask the waiter to pick for me. Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings had a similar effect in that so many of the recipes appealed to my senses (stomach, eyes, and taste buds!), I didn't know where to start.

This book is especially exciting with its liberal interpretation of the term dumpling, and its Pan-Asian offerings. After much page turning and salivating, my top contenders list narrowed down to Curried Chicken Baked Bao, Shrimp Rice Noodle Rolls, Sticky Rice and Spiced Chicken in Banana Leaf, Kimchi Dumplings, Spiced Pineapple-Filled Pastries, Milk Dumplings in Cardamom and Saffron Syrup, Sticky Rice and Mung Bean Dumplings in Ginger Broth, but in the end I only made one dish from this book. It was that kind of month.

And it ultimately came down to ingredient availability amid my crazy schedule. I had a big fresh pineapple on the kitchen counter calling my name, and after perusing the book had grabbed ground annatto recently at one of the markets in my neighborhood. Thus the decision was made.

I made the filling one evening after work, but quickly realized the entire project was too ambitious to finish in one fell swoop. I put the jam in the fridge and then made the dough and dumplings on the weekend when I was in a more leisurely state of mind.

My delay was fortuitous as I ended up making the Spiced Pineapple-Filled Pastries on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. When I realized that, I had a niggling feeling I'd actually seen these on offer around this time of year in the past. And, as a little research confirmed, these appealing fruit-laced packages are in fact traditional for the new year celebrations and signify prosperity! The stars had aligned for my cooking project, which has got to bode well for Year of the Snake overall. I brought the extras in to work the next day and delivered them to co-workers with a cheeful Gung Hei Fat Choy!

Spiced Pineapple-Filled Pastries
Kuih Tart
Adapted from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen
Makes approximately 32 pastries

1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple in natural juice, drained with juice reserved OR 1 whole fresh pineapple, chopped plus water
10 tablespoons sugar
1/2 whole star anise (4 robust points)
1 cinnamon stick or cassia bark (approximately 3 inches long)
2 whole cloves
1 pinch of sea salt

10 ounces (2 cups) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground annatto (optional)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 large whole egg plus 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten and strained
32 whole cloves

To make the filling: Pulse drained pineapple in a food processor 10-15 times until it has a finely chopped, uniform texture. Scrape pineapple paste into a saucepan and add the reserved juice (or an equivalent amount of water if using fresh pineapple), star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, sugar and salt. Stir frequently over medium high heat until it comes to a boil. Carefully taste without burning your mouth and adjust sugar accordingly. Decrease the heat to medium low and let simmer for about 1 3/4 hours or until almost all of the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. The mixture will have thickened to a jam-like texture and darkened to a deeper amber yellow color. Be more vigilant and stir more often during the last 30 minutes to prevent scorching. It is done when it holds its shape and has just a little bit of bubbling liquid left on the bottom.

Remove all of the whole spices, and transfer jam to a bowl to cool for approximately 2 hours. Once cool (and more firm), you may cover and refrigerate for up to a week. It can be used while still chilled and makes about 1 cup.

To make the dough: Sift together the dry ingredients (flour, cornstarch, salt, and annatto) and set aside. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and confectioners' sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended. Using a wooden spoon, mix in the dry ingredients one-third at a time, until a slightly sticky dough has been formed. It will seem dry at first, but will moisten as you continue to stir and fold. Once similar to a mass of marzipan, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Form into a ball and then press out into a 1-inch thick disk. Wrap in plastic and chill for 1 hour in order to firm up the dough. It can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, but let it sit at room temperature for about an hour afterwards to become workable.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Cut the dough in half, re-wrapping the other half while you work to keep it from drying out. Gently squeeze dough into an elongated cylinder and then roll into a 1-inch thick log. Cut into 16 equal pieces (quarter the log first and cut the tapered ends a little longer than the rest), and shape into squat cylinder pieces.

I will provide abbreviated instructions here for forming and rolling out the wrappers, but the author has a video tutorial on her site (as well as great illustrated step-by-step instructions in the cookbook).

Cut two squares of plastic wrap approximately 5 inches in diameter. Placing one piece of dough at a time inside the plastic pieces, use a tortilla press if you have one, or some heavy flat object such as a frying pan, to flatten each piece of dough into a thin circle.

Place each wrapper on your work surface. Flouring only as needed to keep the dough from sticking, use an Asian dowel-style rolling pin (or a regular one, which worked fine for me using it an an angle) to roll each piece out into a 3 to 3 1/2 inch circle. Apply more pressure on the outer rim as the wrappers should be thicker in the middle and thinner on the edges for dumplings.

To assemble, hold a wrapper in the palm of your hand and place a scant 1 1/2 teaspoons of jam in the center. Fold your hand in slightly to center the jam, keeping 1/2 to 3/4 inch clear on all sides. Chose a spot on the wrapper rim, such as 3 o'clock, and fold the rim towards the center. Repeat as you work your way around the the wrapper, gently pinching and pressing the dough together to create small pleats. Once all the dough has been folded inward, if you jam is not completely sealed up, use your fingers to pinch the dough together to close.

Cup the pastry in your hands to gently shape into a round ball. If any holes appear, patch them up with your fingers or a tiny bit of dough. Place pleated side down on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them 2 inches apart.

Preheat the oven to 350° and position the rack in the middle of the oven. Chill the pastries for about 15 minutes before baking. 

After brushing with egg yolk, stick a clove with the ball end down in the center of each one.

Bake for 24-26 minutes until golden. Cool on a rack, and don't be alarmed at any leaking jam or appearing cracks.

Repeat with the second half of the dough and filling.

Whew, that was a long one! Have some virtual pastries why don't you?

All I can say is the length and detail of the recipe is deceptive. These were easier to make than I thought they would be and also extremely satisfying. Unless you have super stamina cooking powers though, I would recommend breaking the different stages up by a day or two. I also froze half of the dough and plan to make more of these down the road using some of my homemade jam stash lining the pantry shelves. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Guest Blog Post: Distilling Your Own Gin

Who doesn't dream of making their own moonshine in the basement? Luckily, my pal Henry does it already, so I can just sit back and sip the end product.

I sampled his homemade gin at a holiday party a couple months ago and was blown away. First of all, it was so good you drink it straight, though importantly it must be very chilled. Straight gin sounds alarming, I know, but it was so deserving. You could taste all kinds of layers of flavor and freshness and juniper and I'm sure of it, the essence of the Pacific Northwest where he lives.

I immediately asked if he wanted to do a guest post on the how-to. Selfish reasons? Perhaps, but also I just found it so awesome I had to share.

Along with St. George's Terroir Gin (inspired by the mountain I grew up on), Henry's concoction is the root of my newfound love of gin. So thanks Henry!

Henry was apologetic about the quality of his photos, but I kind of fell for their Unabomber-makes-moonshine quality.

So here you go, Henry's Guide to Home Distillation:

This here is an absolutely bare-bones method of home distillation that is reliable, costs about ten dollars, and is likely the simplest and easiest way you’ll find to make high-quality gin at home. Moonshining is a very old art with a long history in America, but seeing how it remains illegal to operate an unlicensed still (mainly because the guv’ment makes boatloads in liquor taxes), I’ll stick to the premise that you readers are just curious intellectuals.

Before we get our hands dirty though, I’d like to lay to rest a couple of misconceptions regarding moonshine that might be gnawing at you.

1. You don’t need any fancy equipment. The setup I describe here is simple, cheap and workable. Without a little patience though, you’d do better to run to the corner for a fifth of Gordon’s and go back to daydreaming.

2. Properly made moonshine isn’t poisonous, and won’t make you blind. This type of rumor probably stems from unscrupulous moonshiners during prohibition who would stretch their liquor with toxic methylated spirits, or ignorant ones who would use lead-based solder in their stills. A quart of the gin I describe here will have less methanol in it than a glass of orange juice.

Now, to work:
The first thing to do is start fermenting. Might as well start now, as the process will take 10-21 days. One glossarial note: the mixture you’re about to make of sugar, water and yeast is called “must.” When it’s done fermenting it’s called “wine.” This recipe for moonshine must comes straight from Dolly Freed’s incredible book Possum Living, which I highly recommend you read if this sort of thing is interesting to you. 

Now, assemble:

1. A five gallon paint bucket or similar (one of those big blue Alhambras would work too).
2. Five pounds regular granulated sugar.
3. A big soup pot.
4. One packet ordinary active dry baker’s yeast.

Put a gallon and a half of water in the pot and put it over a burner, then mix in the sugar until it’s all dissolved and turn the heat off.

Pour the sugar-water you just made into the bucket, then pour another gallon and a half of cold water in after. If it’s about room temperature, add the yeast. Yeast like a steady temperature between 65 and 90 degrees. Much hotter and they’ll die, much colder and they’ll go dormant. Cover the bucket with an old t-shirt, something so air can get in and out but flies and dust are excluded. Within 24 hours, the yeast will start eating the sugar and producing ethyl alcohol and CO2. You’ll hear them bubbling; it’s a glorious sound. Leave your must alone until they stop bubbling, and go set up your still.

This still is made of a teakettle and costs about four dollars (assuming you already have a teakettle). Besides that, you’ll need a rubber stopper the size of your kettle’s spout, and a 4-5 foot length of 5/8ths inch copper tubing, both of which you can get at the hardware store. Don’t use any metal in your still besides aluminum, copper or stainless steel. Hammer a nail through the rubber stopper, then thread the tubing through the hole the nail made. This tubing is your still-pipe, and it needs a specific shape in order to work properly. Taking care not to crimp the tube, jam the stopper in the kettle and bend your still-pipe to create a short rising section, then a dip to run the pipe through a cold water bath, then a sort of shepherd’s crook to bring the end of the pipe closer. Take a look at the picture to see how it’s done. When you’ve finished, blow through one end and hold your finger over the other to make sure air flows easily. That’s it: now you have a still.

When your must has stopped bubbling and turned to wine, pour it into your still no more than two-thirds full. With a three-quart kettle you’ll do “runs” of two quarts at a time. If you’ve done everything right, the wine is 10% alcohol (the natural limit of baker’s yeast), and there’s pretty much no unfermented sugar left in the solution. You can taste a little to see if it’s still sweet.

Assemble your still and turn the heat on medium while you fill a tub with cold water and place it under the dip in your still-pipe so a length of pipe is submerged. Ready a large jar and a shotglass.

When liquid begins to come out the end of the still-pipe, turn the heat down low and collect the first third of an ounce of so. These are the “heads,” and should be discarded. After that start collecting the drops in the large jar and take a taste of twenty drops or so every once in a while to check how it’s coming along. The first few ounces will be very near pure liquor, and after that more and more water will come up the pipe too. When it doesn’t taste of alcohol any more your run is over. You should have about half a quart of 25-30% liquor. 

Congratulations! You’ve made moonshine.

Two or three more runs like that and you’ll have enough liquor for a fifth of gin. Combine the product of all 3-4 runs in a jar and add a big handful of juniper berries.

Press them a little first, but don’t crush them. You can find juniper fresh by the side of the road in winter, or at your favorite food co-op. When they’ve sat for two hours, put everything (berries too) in the still pot and distill. Keep the heat low to go a little slower than usual so the juniper berries have a lot of time to soak in the hot moonshine. When this run is over, your finished product will be very strong, very tasty gin that you can water down to a more standard proof if you’d like.

Henry, maker of excellent spirits