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So many uses for flour and water 

Zhajiang noodles: Made with miracle dough.

Photo by David A. Ross

Zhajiang noodles: Made with miracle dough.

Cuisine is the art of dressing starch. The root task is getting the starch right. The rest is a matter of sprinkling cheese. If you master a few simple doughs—let's say tart, pie, puff, choux, pizza, pasta, tortilla—you can parlay them into vast smorgasbords of cuisine that will silence the sniffiest mother-in-law or big-city sibling.

Consider the tortilla. This circlet of masa harina and water is like a stem cell. It metamorphoses into tacos, nachos, enchiladas, tostadas, taquitos, chilaquiles and Tex-Mex casseroles, all of which have dozens—even hundreds—of their own permutations.

To this list of high-utility doughs let me add a Chinese "miracle dough" devised by my Taiwanese wife, next to which her other accomplishments (a doctorate, a few books) are impressive but basically secondary.

We use our "miracle dough" to produce scallion pancakes, fried "pockets" (blistered, veggie-stuffed savories known as hezi), mandarin pancakes (to be eaten taco-style with Peking duck or red-glazed cha siu pork) and homemade noodles (to be laden with a hefty scoop of the spicy ground-pork sauce known as zhajiang).

Unlike me—a carboholic prone to "lost weekends"—my wife uses the word "dough" in the pejorative sense: "This is doughy," "This is nothing more than a dough ball," "I'm not eating dough for dinner." Preferring a ratio of less dough to more protein, and not much caring to exercise those useful appendages known as arms, she devised a soft, relaxed dough that is easily rolled (by me, as it turns out) into thin sheets.

"I can't remember how I invented it," she says, busy with something else. "You can invent a quote for me. What's the difference—it's just dough."

Couples tend to disagree about sex, money and politics; as you can infer, we disagree about the relative importance of flour and water.

Chinese "Miracle Dough"

400 grams King Arthur-brand unbleached all-purpose flour

240 grams room-temperature water

Place the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and gently kneed (Kitchen Aid level 2) with the dough hook for 20 minutes. The finished dough should pull away from the bowl. It should be smooth, soft and slightly tacky, but not loose or sticky. Cover with a slightly damp paper towel until you are ready to use it.

Note: Measurement by volume is wildly imprecise and—in this case—predictably catastrophic. A kitchen scale is the only way to avoid the sabotage of the measuring cup. I recommend the My Weigh KD-8000 ($35.95 from Amazon).

Mandarin Pancakes With Barbecued (Cha Siu) Pork

1 recipe kneaded dough

1/4 cup sesame oil (for pancakes)

2 1/2 lbs. well-marbled pork butt

3/4 cup honey

2 Tbsp. sesame oil (for pork)

2 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 Tbsp. hoisin sauce

1 Tbsp. rice wine

1 tsp. kosher salt

10–15 drops red food coloring (optional)

For the pancakes: Pluck off two pieces of dough, each weighing 10 grams, and roll into pellets. With the palm of the hand, flatten each pellet to a diameter of 1.5 inches. Generously slather a single face of the first dough round with sesame oil. Press the two rounds together, forming what looks like a French macaron. Thoroughly dredge the joined dough rounds in flour and roll to a diameter of 6 inches. Cook the double-pancake tortilla-style on a hot cast-iron griddle until charred and puffed. Locate the seam joining the two pancakes and gently separate them. (If they stick, the explanation is insufficient sesame oil). The pancakes can be prepared in advance and stored in a bowl tightly covered with plastic wrap. Reheat them in a steamer or microwave.

For the pork: Slice the pork into ¾-inch-thick steaks. In a large bowl, combine the honey, sesame oil (2 Tbsp.), soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine, salt and food coloring. Add the pork slices. Cover and refrigerate for 4–24 hours. Grill over a charcoal flame until cooked through and appealingly charred (gas grilling is viable but not preferable). Slice the cooked pork and serve with a stack of warm pancakes, a mound of julienned scallion and a ramekin of hoisin sauce slightly diluted with water or chicken stock. Serves 6

Noodles With Zhajiang Sauce

1 recipe kneaded dough

3 Tbsp. canola or peanut oil

1 lb. ground pork

6 garlic cloves, finely minced

2 Tbsp. hot soybean paste (douban jiang), sold jarred in Asian grocery stores

2 tsp. sugar

2 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 Tbsp. rice wine

1 1/2 cup water or unsalted chicken stock

4 stalks scallion, chopped into quarter-inch segments

1/2 tsp. dark soy sauce

1/2 tsp. sesame oil

1/4 tsp. MSG (optional)

1 Tbsp. corn starch dissolved in 1 Tbsp. cold water

For the sauce: Coat a sauce pan with 3 Tbsp. oil. Fry the pork until all moisture has released and evaporated (8–10 minutes). Add the garlic, soybean paste and sugar. Fry the meat mixture until it is fragrant and oil sheened. Add the soy sauce and rice wine. Cook until absorbed. Add the water or unsalted chicken stock, followed by the scallion, dark soy sauce, sesame oil and MSG. Bring to a boil. Add the corn starch mixture, stirring until slightly thickened.

For the noodles: Tear off a 150-gram dough piece. On a well-floured wooden surface—a large cutting board, for example—roll the dough into a 6- by 14-inch rectangle. Generously flour the surface of the dough. Fold into thirds, letter-style. Cut the folded dough into 1/2- inch strips (perpendicular to the creases). Unfold each strip and loosely pile the noodles, tossing with flour to avoid sticking. Repeat the rolling and cutting process with the remaining dough.

Bring 1.5 gallons of water to a boil. Add the noodles all at once. Cook for 2–3 minutes, or until the noodles float to the surface (taste to ensure that they are properly al dente). Drain and serve in ample bowls. Garnish with zhajiang sauce, julienned carrots, julienned cucumbers and a drizzle of chili oil. Serves 3–4

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rolling in the dough."


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