Scallion pancakes: crunchy, salty, flaky pan-fried dough with sweet oniony morsels throughout. When made with care, they’re a perfect snack or first course — and not only in the context of a Chinese meal.
At this time of year, I take advantage of the young members of the onion/garlic (allium) family to make seasonal variations on these crisp discs. I’ve done it with leeks no wider than my thumb and, perhaps best of all, with that mild springtime garlic whose cloves have just formed and are not yet enclosed in their papery capsules. This change of ingredient doesn’t alter the essence of the pancakes: Beyond the flavor of whichever allium you choose (some caramelized as the pancake fries), they are about dough and fat.
But it’s dough and fat combined in a very clever way, perhaps the easiest way of all to make a multi-layered pastry. If you’ve ever made flaky pastry or croissants, you’ll know that those laminated doughs take considerable time, skill and labor. Scallion pancakes take very little.
The basic dough is simple to make and easy to handle. I use the food processor, but a bowl and wooden spoon, plus some extra kneading, will do the job, too. For a pancake about 10 inches across, put a cup of all-purpose flour and a 1/2 cup of boiling — yes, boiling — water into the workbowl and run the machine until a dough forms. (It must be pliable, but shouldn’t be sticky, so be ready with another tablespoon or two of flour.) A quick knead to smooth it out, a 10-minute or longer rest wrapped in paper or plastic, and it is ready to roll. (At this point, it can also be used to make dumpling wrappers, especially for potstickers.)
While it rests, peel the outer coat from three heads of spring garlic and mince the bulbs — not ultra-fine, but small enough that the garlic will cook when the pancake is fried. Include some of the green tops for color and flavor. (You would do the same with scallions or spring onions, but using more of the greens in the case of scallions.) Melt a tablespoon of lard (I do it in the microwave). Other fats work perfectly: duck, of course, but also sesame oil (possibly mixed with a more neutral oil) or, if you want to erase all Chinese associations, clarified butter.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a roughly 12-by-18-inch rectangle, which means that it will be quite thin. Lightly brush the entire surface with melted lard and sprinkle it evenly with coarse salt and the minced spring garlic. With your fingers, roll it up tightly, jelly-roll fashion, into an 18-inch-long rope, then coil the rope into a thick disc. Roll this into a 10-inch circle with a rolling pin. A little extra bench flour may or may not be needed, and it is not impossible that a patch of the lard-slicked interior structure will be exposed — that doesn’t matter, as the pancake will be fried anyway.
See what happens? By jelly-rolling, coiling and rolling out the greased dough, you create multiple layers separated by fat — the same theory as pastry, but with no advanced skills needed.
Heat a scant 1/8-inch of peanut or other oil (plus the lard leftover from the pancake-making) in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, carefully lay the pancake in; it should more or less fit the flat base of the skillet. When you hear it sizzling, lower the heat to medium-low and brown the first side slowly, but well. This could take as little as seven and as long as 12 minutes, and at a certain point, you may wish to raise the heat a little. Turn (tongs are helpful here) and brown the other side. If you need to flip the pancake again to make sure the first side is brown and very crisp, don’t hesitate to do so.
With your tongs, move the pancake onto a chopping board or platter lined with paper towels to soak up any extraneous frying fat, and cut it into wedges. In most Chinese restaurants, these are served with a dipping sauce, but with good alliums, good fat and enough salt, none is needed.
There will be no leftovers whether you be two, three or four people — or even if you’re eating alone in the kitchen.