Eating spring pancakes (春饼) is a time-honored tradition in northern China, to celebrate the arrival of spring and pray for a good harvest. A bite of the pancake symbolizes a bite of spring (咬春).

The truth is, when you use the warm and soft hand-made pancake to wrap around seasoning vegetables together with your favorite sauce, you are creating something so tasty that you would call it a bite of heaven.

The Chinese spring pancakes are made with a unique technique, by mixing wheat flour with very hot water (above 160 °F or 70 °C) to create a hot water dough. The hot water partially cooks the flour to reduce the degree of gluten development during kneading, which results in a very soft dough. Once it is rolled into pancakes and cooked through pan-frying or steaming, you will get the desirable “soft and chewy” texture which you won’t easily achieve with a regular cold water dough.

The filling of the pancakes can include any of your favorite vegetables, raw or cooked. You may also add meat or seafood if you want. In northern China, typical choices for the filling would be garlic chive, scallion, lettuce, celery, cucumber, bell pepper, carrot, wood ear mushroom, egg, as well as chicken or pork.  The favorite sauce there is tian mian jiang (甜面酱), which is spread onto the pancakes before wrapping.

You can learn the traditional way of making hot water dough and pancakes by following my recipe below.  It does take some practice if you’re trying for the first time, but the result will be immensely rewarding. Once you’ve mastered the technique, you can make other pancakes or dumplings that call for hot water dough, such as scallion pancakes, potstickers, and garlic chive turnovers which I posted before. As an alternative, you can use store-bought wrappers, such as moo-shu wrappers available in the frozen section of many Chinese grocery stores.  Or use Mexican-style flour tortillas, though they tend to be thicker and less pliable, and would not give you the same texture because they are made with cold water dough.

My recipe includes asparagus in the filling.  Although a nontraditional choice, this early spring’s iconic vegetable brings wonderful earthiness and crunchiness to the pancakes.  The stir-fried ramps recipe from my first post on this blog is also a great idea for the filling. Feel free to be creative in choosing your vegetables and protein. For the sauce, you can substitute tian mian jiang with hoisin sauce or any sauce of your choice.

If you’re hosting a spring pancake party, it will be fun to make an assortment of cold salads and stir-fried dishes, together with different sauces, so everyone can wrap whatever they like into their pancakes.

 

Spring pancakes with asparagus, eggs, and Chinese sausage

Makes 8 pancakes

Ingredients:

For the dough:
4 oz (120 g) all-purpose flour
85 ml hot water (above 160 °F or 70 °C)
½ teaspoon salt
Small amount of vegetable oil

For the filling:
8 oz (230 g) asparagus, preferably thin spears; trimmed
4 large eggs
2 oz (60 g) Chinese sausage, cut into thin slices
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
Tian mian jian or hoisin sauce, or any sauce of your choice
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Procedure:

To make the dough:

  1. Spread the flour in a large bowl and make a well in the middle.  Slowly pour the hot water to the flour, stirring quickly with chopsticks so the water is distributed evenly.
  2. When the dough is no longer too hot to handle, use your hands to form the dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly oiled work surface.  Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, 2-3 minutes.  Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.

To make the pancakes:

  1. Divide the dough into 8 even pieces and form each piece into a ball. On a lightly oiled work surface, press one ball down with your palm and roll into a 5” (12.5 cm) circle using a small rolling pin, ideally an Asian dowel-style rolling pin about one inch in diameter. You can use a tortilla press or a heavy-bottomed pan to make this process easier, by first pressing the ball into a flattened circle, followed by using a rolling pin.  Repeat the process with the remaining 7 balls.
  2. Brush some oil on the entire surface of a rolled circle, and stack the other circle on top. Roll the stacked circles with a rolling pin into a thin pancake at least 6” (15 cm) in diameter.  Repeat the process with the remaining 6 rolled circles.
  3. Heat a non-stick pan over very low heat. Cook each pancake without oil for about 3 minutes per side.  The pancake is done when the steam between the two layers creates bubbles to puff up the pancake and small brown spots start to appear.  Make sure to keep the heat very low, or the pancake will dry out before fully cooked.  Remove the cooked pancake from the pan, and when it’s hot, carefully separate the two layers, and wrap them in a towel to keep warm.  Repeat with the remaining pancakes.

To make the filling:

  1. Blanch the asparagus in boiling salted water until tender-crisp, about 1 minute. Transfer them to a bowl of ice water to cool, and drain well. If using thick spears, cut them in half lengthwise before blanching.
  2. Beat the eggs in the bowl and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat 2 teaspoons of oil in a hot wok or skillet over medium-low heat, and cook the Chinese sausage until slightly browned, about 1 minute. Transfer the sausage to a plate.
  4. In the same wok with the remaining oil over medium-low heat, add the egg mixture; stir until the eggs are just cooked, about one minute.

To service, spread some sauce of your choice onto the pancake, place some asparagus, sausage, and scrambled egg in the center, roll up and dig in.

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