I miss Chinese restaurants.
Not in the “I moved somewhere where I can’t find a restaurant I like” or “my favourite place closed down” sort of way. I grew up frequenting Chinese restaurants of various types but developed a soy allergy in adulthood, and my tour of favourite spots came to a bitter end after my refusal to give up soy sauce landed me in the hospital. Now, any time I want Chinese food (or something resembling it), I generally make it myself and as a result have a small repertoire of dishes that satisfy those cravings.
Scallion pancakes aren’t something I grew up eating- these are based on a northern style dish, something I didn’t have a lot of as a kid- though the flavours are familiar to me. They do have big Chinese Restaurant Energy, at least in my opinion. Full disclosure, these may not be perfectly in line with restaurant or street vendor versions, and at this point it’s a bit of a challenge to verify that on my own. My personal recipes are a reflection of my experience and relationship with Chinese food- I have a taste repertoire of a lot of great dishes I was lucky enough to try earlier in my life, but newer things are strongly influenced by my own preferences and skill set.
Because I’m the one that makes my own scallion pancakes, they’ve really come to reflect my own tastes. Since I’m a big fan of green onions, I use more of them than any one person should probably consume. There’s white pepper and sesame oil in the dough. The oil between the layers has been replaced with butter, inspired by viennoiseries but yielding a “scallion pancake made by a person who likes parathas” sort of vibe. Note that the fat can be swapped for neutral oil, an oil+flour combo, butter, ghee, chicken fat (yum), lard, etc. depending on your preferences, pantry situation, or dietary needs.
These pancakes are made using a dough rather than a breakfast-style pancake batter- the rolling technique produces a flaky, layered texture that’s slightly chewy and studded with a generous amount of green onions. The rolling method is conceptually similar to puff pastry- a lean, unleavened dough is layered with fat to separate the layers. Unlike puff pastry, the dough in question is mixed with hot water (93°C/200°F, just under boiling), which denatures some of the proteins in the flour and limits gluten network formation. The heat also allows the water to gel some of the starch in the flour, which increases the amount of water the flour can hold but thickens the dough without creating more gluten. This makes the dough a lot less springy and makes the rolling process a lot easier, since the dough is stretchy but doesn’t fight back as much as puff pastry dough does when it’s worked. The assembly is fun but a bit hard to describe- for that, I’ve included short clips at the end of the post.
If you make the dipping sauce with soy sauce, please note that my recommendations are based on a fond but distant memory, and you might need to make adjustments to suit your preferences, amount of salt, etc. I seldom measure the sauce components, and they usually contain some combination of: soy sauce (or a substitute in my case), rice vinegar, sesame oil, green onions, ginger, honey, fish sauce, mirin, sambal oelek, or whatever we’ve got in the fridge.
Yields 8 pancakes
- 325g all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 3/4 tsp ground white pepper
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 225g water, 93°C (200°F)
- 3-4 bunches green onions (about 400g, or 5 cups sliced thinly)
- 115g unsalted butter (1/2 cup), room temperature
- 120 mL (1/2 cup) neutral oil (sunflower, canola, corn, etc.) for frying
- Flour, for dusting
Bring water to 93°C (200°F). While that heats up, whisk together the flour, salt, and white pepper in a medium bowl. Once the dry ingredients are thoroughly combined, mix in the sesame oil.
Add the water to the dry ingredients all at once, and stir together with a spoon. The flour may appear sort of gel-like and it’ll look like there isn’t enough water for all the flour, but keep mixing and it’ll work itself out.
As soon as the dough is just cool enough to handle, turn out onto a clean surface and knead by hand until the dough is smooth and cohesive, about 4-5 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for one hour.
During that hour, wash the green onions and pat them dry. Slice both the green and white parts into thin rounds, about 3mm wide. Discard the roots. Ensure the butter is room temperature, as it needs to be easily spreadable.
After the dough has rested for an hour, divide it into 8 equal pieces. While you work with one piece, keep the remaining pieces covered so they don’t dry out.
Lightly flour the countertop and rolling pin and gently press your piece of dough into a circular disk. Roll it out on the counter until as thin as you can make it, or about 9 inches (23cm) wide.
Spread about 1 tablespoon (15mL) of butter over the surface using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Sprinkle evenly with about 1/3-1/2 cup of sliced green onions (example below recipe).
Starting with the edge closest to you, roll the dough up over itself like a cinnamon bun (clip below), ensuring the green onions are encased. You should end up with a dough log- press gently to get rid of any large air bubbles without squishing the dough.
Starting with the left end of the log, curl it in on itself like a spiral. Tuck the outer tail under the spiral if it doesn’t stay in place, and gently squeeze the spiral so it stays together.
Cover with plastic wrap on a lightly floured surface while you repeat with the remaining dough. Keep track of the order you finish the spirals in as the next step will be done in that order.
Heat a medium frying pan over medium heat with 1 tbsp of neutral oil, tipping the pan as needed to ensure the oil covers the bottom.
Going back to the first spiral you rolled, gently roll flat (pressing the rolling pin straight downward) on a lightly floured surface into a flat disk about 7mm thick. If a couple of green onions poke out, it’s not a big deal, but try not to tear the dough too much. You can roll these all at once and then fry back-to-back, or roll them out as the previous one cooks. Do not stack them unless you have plastic wrap or parchment paper between them.
Transfer the rolled out pancake to the frying pan and fry about 3 minutes per side until golden brown and cooked all the way through. When you flip, take a second to swirl it around the pan to get even oil coverage on the bottom, adding a teaspoon of oil if needed. If they take much less than 3 minutes to brown on one side, turn the heat down slightly- you want to make sure they get the chance to cook all the way through before the outside gets dark. If they take longer than 4 minutes to brown on one side, turn the heat up slightly. Repeat the rolling and frying until all are done, adding oil to the pan as needed- they can be kept warm in an oven set to low heat or in a stack under a kitchen towel.
If you’re precooking these for later use, do the frying step in a dry pan (they’ll brown a bit less) and then fry in oil for about 1 minute per side to crisp before serving. They can be frozen after cooking in a dry pan, just keep them separated with parchment paper or plastic wrap to avoid them sticking together.
Serve immediately with dipping sauce (suggestion below).
Dipping sauce suggestion:
- 3 tbsp (45mL) soy sauce (or soy sauce substitute like coconut aminos)
- 1 tsp (5mL) rice vinegar
- Pinch sugar (or honey, in equal amount)
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt (omit if using soy sauce)
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 1/4 tsp toasted sesame seeds or 1/8 tsp sesame oil