I've experienced very few truly magical moments in my food life. There was that time when I walked into one of the fanciest restaurants in Boston with no resume and less experience and somehow landed a job. Or that time when Jacques Pépin, finally remembered my name after after the 7th time I met him.* Then there was that time when I learned how Chinese scallion pancakes are made.
*He forgot it again by the 8th.
With a brand new backyard and a brand new grill, I've been grilling pretty much all day every day lately. So it was only natural that when I decided to whip up a batch of scallion pancakes using some awesome Tokyo-negi (Japanese scallions) I found at a nearby Japanese market, my thoughts immediately turned to how I could incorporate the grill.
Turns out it's as simple as it sounds: scallion pancake dough grills up as marvelously as it fries, getting crisp, bubbly, and nicely charred.
But first, a quick recap on how to make regular scallion pancakes.
Turning a dense, unleavened dough made of flour and water alone into a light, flaky pancake is a tall order and the way in which it's done is truly ingenious. By brushing a disk of dough with oil, rolling it up like a jelly roll, wrapping it into a spiral, and rolling it out flat again, you create many thin, thin layers of dough separated by oil. Repeat the process a few times and those layers build up exponentially.**
**I've been meaning to see if I could make a quick cheaty puff pastry or croissant dough using this method, but that's another project for another time.
Need it spelled out for you with pictures? OK, here we go:
I start by making a hot water dough by pouring boiling water into a running food processor to which I've already added two cups of all-purpose flour. The boiling water rapidly denatures some of the proteins in the flour, which in turn prevents the dough from forming excess gluten. This helps deliver pancakes that are easy to roll and tender when cooked rather than tough or stretchy.
As soon as the dough starts riding around the blade in a solid lump, I know I've added enough water and it's ready.
Next I allow the dough to rest, covered, for at least half an hour. This allows what little gluten was formed to relax, making the pancakes even easier to roll out.
When I'm ready to start forming the pancakes, I dump the bowl out onto a floured surface and divide the dough into four even pieces.
I roll out each quarter into a nice, even ball.
Working one ball at a time, I roll the ball out into a thin, even disk. I like to use a French-style tapered rolling pin for this. It offers much more control than a ball-bearing-style American rolling pin (and it's much cheaper and lighter to boot).
Next I brush on a layer of sesame oil. This will keep the layers of dough separated as you form them. For a traditional Chinese scallion pancakes, you'd add your scallions right now before rolling up the dough, but I'm using my modified technique, which creates more distinct layers and flakiness.
I roll up the dough as tight as I can into a jelly roll-shaped log, then I...
...twist it tightly into a boil, pressing on the end to adhere it to the side of the roll.
I gently flatten it with the palm of my hand to make sure the coil is sticking to itself.
I roll it out again and brush it with another layer of sesame oil. At this stage, there are perhaps four to five layers in there, depending on how tightly you rolled it.
Now it's time to add those scallions (and be generous with them—at least a half cup per pancake, more if you can fit them).
I roll up the pancakes again, this time with the scallions inside.
...and another roll. Now we've got oursevles anywhere between, oh, 16 and 25 layers or so. I've tried pushing it to see if I could repeat the process once more to give my up to 125 layers, but at that stage you end up mushing the layers together. They simply don't stay distinct enough.
Now, with a traditional pancake you'd go straight into a frying pan to shallow fry in hot oil until the pancake is browned and puffy. But instead, we're going to put it directly on a hot grill. Grilling it completely naked didn't work out so well—the pancakes kind of dried out before they crisped or browned properly.
Brushing it with oil in order to accelerate browning and help it retain moisture proved to be the key.
I brush the pancake and draped it directly over the grates of a grill that I've allowed to preheat for around ten minutes. This preheating step is essential—you want these pancakes to cook hot and fast so that they brown without drying out.
That's about what I'm looking for: golden brown and crisp all over with a few charred grill marks here and there.
Check out all those layers! The eating experience of these is pretty different form their fried counterpart. Fried pancakes are a little moister on the exterior and doughier in the center while these tend to be nearly crackery on the outside and puffy in the center. It's a tough call to say which I like more.
In any case, they answer once and for all the question of what the heck I should serve with these awesome Beijing-style lamb and cumin skewers.