Citizens of TFD Nation! The Sagacious One – the incandescent and iridescent controlled explosion who alone is TFD! – salutes his fellow Americans on this day of independence! A day synonymous with good food, cold beer, and red-hot fireworks!
In the case of those living in Southern California, they were also just treated to a very long, protracted earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale only a few moments ago! That’s certainly one way to have a memorable holiday, though TFD prefers less movement of Terra Firma and more Aqua Vitae (aka strong alcohol) on this day of days!
Being the epitome of chaotic intent, I shall throw you a curve ball this Fourth of July and will avoid the obvious recipes for all-American apple pie, etc. – besides, I’ve already covered those in previous posts.
No, today I shall take you on a journey East – to the legendary home of fireworks themselves: China and to pan-fried scallion bread!
As noted in this highly excerpted article in Smithsonian magazine:
As early as 200 B.C., the Chinese were writing on green bamboo stalks and heating it on coals to dry. Sometimes if left too long over the heat, the wood expanded and even burst, with a bang of course. According to Scientific American, Chinese scholars noticed that the noises effectively scared off abnormally large mountain men. And, thus, the firecracker was born. By some accounts, fireworks were also thought to scare away evil spirits.
Sometime between 600 and 900 C.E., Chinese alchemists accidentally mixed saltpeter (or potassium nitrate) with sulfur and charcoal, inadvertently stumbling upon the crude chemical recipe for gunpowder. Supposedly, they had been searching for an elixir for immortality.
This “fire drug” (or huo yao) became an integral part of Chinese cultural celebrations. Stuffing the aforementioned bamboo tubes with gunpowder created a sort of sparkler. It wasn’t long before military engineers used the explosive chemical concoction to their advantage. The first recorded use of gunpowder weaponry in China dates to 1046 and references a crude gunpowder catapult. The Chinese also took traditional bamboo sparklers and attached them to arrows to rain down on their enemies. On a darker note, there are also accounts of fireworks being strapped to rats for use in medieval warfare.
A firework requires three key components: an oxidizer, a fuel and a chemical mixture to produce the color. The oxidizer breaks the chemical bonds in the fuel, releasing all of the energy that’s stored in those bonds. To ignite this chemical reaction, all you need is a bit of fire, in the form of a fuse or a direct flame.
In the case of early fireworks, saltpeter was the oxidizing ingredient that drove the reaction, as British scholar Roger Bacon figured out in the early 1200s. Interestingly, Bacon kept his findings a secret, writing them in code to keep them out of the wrong hands.
Firework color concoctions are comprised of different metal elements. When an element burns, its electrons get excited, and it releases energy in the form of light. Different chemicals burn at different wavelengths of light. Strontium and lithium compounds produce deep reds; copper produces blues; titanium and magnesium burn silver or white; calcium creates an orange color; sodium produces yellow pyrotechnics; and finally, barium burns green. Combining chlorine with barium or copper creates neon green and turquoise flames, respectively. Blue is apparently the most difficult to produce. Pyrotechnic stars comprised of these chemicals are typically propelled into the sky using an aerial shell.
Most modern fireworks displays use aerial shells, which resemble ice cream cones. Developed in the 1830s by Italian pyrotechnicians, the shells contain fuel in a cone bottom, while the “scoop” contains an outer layer of pyrotechnic stars, or tiny balls containing the chemicals needed to produce a desired color, and an inner bursting charge. Italians are also credited with figuring out that one could use metallic powders to create specific colors. Today, the shape that the firework produces is a product of the inner anatomy of the aerial shell or rocket.
Americans have been setting off fireworks to celebrate their independence since 1777, at least.
Even some of the very first Independence Day celebrations involved fireworks. On July 4, 1777, Philadelphia put together an elaborate day of festivities, notes American University historian James R. Heintze. The celebration included a 13 cannon display, a parade, a fancy dinner, toasts, music, musket salutes, “loud huzzas,” and of course fireworks. Heintze cites this description from the Virginia Gazette on July 18, 1777:
“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal. Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more.”
There is a scholarly article I stumbled across that goes into great detail about how fireworks achieve their colors – read all about it here.
Before the 19th Century, the only colors that could be produced in fireworks were yellows and oranges, achieved through the use of steel and charcoal.
Later development involved Chlorates which introduced basic reds and greens to the repertoire. Good blues and purples were not developed until this century and the quest for the creation of a deep forest green-colored firework continues still to this very day.
Asian fireworks range from the most sublime ‘normal’ fireworks but can also be decidedly low-tech and still be absolutely stunning! See the art of Japanese fireworks in this video or watch Chinese blacksmiths make ‘fireworks’ by dashing white-hot liquid metal against a wall here.
Now that you have a proper appreciation for the history of fireworks from a Chinese perspective, let us tear into the steaming bread that is the heart of today’s posting: scallion bread!
This pan-fried savory delight is a rare bread from China – only Northerners enjoy wheat-based products, and bread like this is a hallmark of the cold Northeast, where a pan-fried scallion bread can warm you up in the sub-zero Winter cold.
My recipe is based very closely on one from the sadly departed Dr. Barbara Tropp of Princeton University, whose Chinese recipe books taught me so much about Chinese history, linguistics and tastes! Her scallion bread recipe makes a true bread, not the scallion pancakes so often seen in most Chinese restaurants in the States. She is truly missed.
I have tweaked her recipe in a few ways, not the least of which includes using Birch-smoked salt flakes, which add a smoky hit to the bread that is truly addictive. You can buy it here.
Citizens, this scallion bread will assuredly become your new favorite snack – of this, I have every possible confidence!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
- COLD WATER DOUGH:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
- ⅓ cup cold water
- HOT WATER DOUGH
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- ⅓ cup boiling water
- additional flour, for kneading and rolling out the dough
- ¼ teaspoon sesame oil, TFD endorses only Kadoya brand
- 1½ teaspoons rendered chicken fat
- 1½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt, or use TFD’s preferred birch-smoked sea salt
- ½ tsp. freshly-ground Sichuan peppercorns (TFD change – very optional)
- 2 medium whole scallions, cut into thin rings plus the flowering heads of 1 package of garlic chives, minced (TFD change – original calls for 3 scallions, you can easily just use that)
- about ½ cup fresh corn or peanut oil, for pan-frying – TFD prefers corn oil
- Combine 1 cup flour and the baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add the cold water in a thin stream, stirring with chopsticks or a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together in a lumpy mass, adding extra water in droplets if required to make the flour cohere. Remove the cold water dough, add the next cup flour and the salt, then repeat the process with boiling water. Knead the two doughs together gently for about 10 minutes until smooth, earlobe-soft, and elastic enough so a fingertip impression bounces very slowly back. Add flour to the board as required to prevent the dough from sticking, but avoid working too much into the dough lest it become too stiff.
- Put the sesame oil in a small bowl, add the dough, then turn the dough so that both it and the inside of the bowl are coated with a thin film of oil. Cover the bowl with a dry towel and put the dough aside to rest for 30 minutes-2 hours at room temperature, or overnight in the refrigerator if more convenient. Seal the dough airtight with plastic wrap once cool, and bring to room temperature before shaping.
- SHAPING THE BREADS
- Turn the soft, rested dough onto a lightly floured board, and knead gently until smooth, dusting the board lightly if the dough is sticking. If you are making 2 breads, divide the dough evenly into 2 pieces with a sharp knife and form each piece into a smooth ball. Put one ball aside on a lightly floured surface, covered with a dry towel, while you shape the other.
- Flour the board lightly, then roll out the dough into a circle a scant ¼ inch thick for one giant bread, or ⅛ inch thick for two smaller breads. Dust the board and the top of the bread a second time if the dough is sticking and do not worry if the final shape is not perfectly circular. Spread the sesame oil or chicken fat evenly over the top with your fingers, then sprinkle the salt and scallions evenly over the oil. Remember to divide the seasonings in half if you are making two breads. (If you are using chicken fat, steam it until liquid, then let it cool before using until only mildly warm, not hot, to the touch.)
- Roll the dough up like a carpet, neither too tight nor too loose, and pinch the top seam shut. Place the cylinder seam side down, then grasp one end of the dough gently between your thumb and first finger to anchor it to the board. This is the “head” end. Next grasp the other, the “tail” end, of the cylinder with your other hand and wind this neatly around the head into a coiling, flat spiral, as illustrated. The coils of dough should be touching at every point, so there are no holes in the spiral. Finally, tuck the tail end under the spiral. Extract your pinned fingers by pressing down gently on the dough around them with your free hand so that the coil remains in place on the board.
- Press gently on the snail with your palms and joined fingers to flatten it a bit, then roll out the dough until it is about 10–11 inches in diameter for one giant bread, or about 7–8 inches in diameter for two smaller breads. Roll gently so you do not burst the layers of dough, though it is almost inevitable that a few scallions will pop through. If the dough does not roll out easily, cover it with a dry towel and let it rest for 5–10 minutes. This is an especially useful tactic when you are needing to form a second snail or when you must wait extra minutes for the company to arrive.
- Once rolled to the appropriate thickness, I like to cook the bread almost immediately. For a softer texture, put the coil aside on a lightly floured surface, covered with a dry towel, for up to 30 minutes, then roll it out fully just before cooking.
- Once rolled out, the scallion breads may be flash-frozen on a baking sheet until firm, sealed airtight in heavy-duty foil, and frozen for several weeks. Partially defrost in the refrigerator, and pan-fry while still thoroughly cold and firm, for a slightly longer time and over a somewhat lower heat. They turn out quite well, though not as perfectly as fresh.
- PAN-FRYING THE BREADS
- Choose a heavy, 12-inch skillet if you are frying one giant bread. Use a heavy, 10–12-inch skillet for smaller breads and fry them in two batches or simultaneously in two heavy pans. Do not use a lightweight pan. It will scorch the bread or toughen the crust before the inside can cook through.
- Heat the skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add enough oil to coat the bottom evenly with ¼ inch oil, swirl to coat the lower sides, then reduce the heat to medium. Adjust the pan on the burner so the oil is evenly deep. When the oil is hot enough to foam a pinch of dry flour, add the scallion bread, adjusting the heat so the bubbles sizzle slowly around it. Cover the pan, then cook over moderately low heat until the bottom of the bread is golden brown, occasionally shaking the pan back and forth to encourage the steam that will puff the bread. The bottom may take anywhere from 2–5 minutes to brown, depending on the thickness of the bread and the sort of pan you use. Check frequently, and do not let it scorch.
- When evenly golden, flip the bread over. If the pan is very dry, dribble in a bit more oil from the side, then shake the pan gently to distribute the oil under the bread. Cover, reduce the heat slightly, and cook for 3–5 minutes more, shaking the pan occasionally. Check the bottom, and, if it is not yet golden, raise the heat slightly and replace the cover. Check the bread at 30-second intervals so you can catch it when perfectly golden and not overcooked.
- Slide the bread onto a cutting surface, and cut it into pie-shaped wedges. Transfer to a heated round serving plate of contrasting color, the wedges pushed together to look like an intact bread, and garnish with a few scallion rings. Do not blot off the excess oil clinging to the bread. It contributes to the flavor like butter on a bun.
- If you are frying a second scallion bread, wipe the skillet clean, reheat the pan, and begin with fresh oil.
- Leftovers grow slightly oily when reheated in a hot oven but remain delicious!
- Calories: 271.99 kcal
- Sugar: 1.35 g
- Sodium: 298.32 mg
- Fat: 3.02 g
- Saturated Fat: 0.81 g
- Trans Fat: 0.0 g
- Carbohydrates: 53.64 g
- Fiber: 2.35 g
- Protein: 7.37 g
- Cholesterol: 1.71 mg
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