A Chinese Cheese “Baklava” (16th century)
Updated: Aug 8, 2019
People in Shanghai were once crazy about dairy. As my recent paper in Gastronomica shows, the eastern seaboard was famous for its butter, clotted creams, and curds between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Sixteenth-century foodies loved cheese in particular. They ate it stretched, fresh, and preserved, lightly seasoned, or breaded. They consumed cheese inside their dumplings and pastries, savored it with their pork, fish, and shellfish, and added it to their sweets.
The following recipe comes out of Song’s Book of Nourishing Life (1504). The author, a minor official and a descendant of the Song imperial family, apparently took great pride in his mother’s culinary prowess. He not only recorded all of her recipes, but also urged his descendants to preserve her knowledge of gastronomy.
The Central and Western Asian elements of this pastry are striking. The dough is a phyllo, and there is the sweet nut filling so typical of desserts from the Middle East. The recipe also uses fresh cheese or the rendered fat of cows or sheep to make a dough. But you will not taste the cheese here. The dairy adds richness to the dough and sturdiness to the paper-thin sheets. The recipe is also cooked on a hot oiled griddle. Voilà, layers of flaky pastry!
Flour, 2 cups
Hot water (mix a half cup of boiling water with a quarter cup of cold water)
Fresh unsalted paneer, ½ cup (follow steps 1-3 of Song’s recipe)
Salt, ¾ teaspoon
Honey or sugar
Pine nuts, 1/4 cup
Walnuts, 1/3 cup
Hazelnuts, 1/3 cup
1. Prepare the fresh paneer. You can heat the milk to 190 degrees and then add a little diluted vinegar. Strain the paneer in a cheesecloth.
2. Combine flour and salt. Then add the hot water slowly and incorporate it into the dough.
3. Crumble the fresh paneer and knead it into the dough. Let the dough rest for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour, until it is soft and malleable.
4. De-skin the walnuts and hazelnuts by blanching them in hot water for a minute. Dry out the nuts in the sun or in a warm oven. Mince the nuts and mix.
5. Divide the dough into small balls and roll them out as thin as possible on a surface dusted with flour. A Chinese rolling pin, which is thinner than its Western counterpart, is best suited for this purpose. The dough should be virtually translucent and paper thin. You can also use a pasta machine.
6. Oil a hot pan with a generous serving of vegetable oil or ghee, preferably one with a high smoke point. Wait until the oil is hot, and then carefully place a sheet of the dough on the pan. Leave the sheet on the pan until it has turned golden brown, then flip and repeat the process. Remove from the heat.
7. Add honey or sugar to one side of the sheet and then sprinkle on the nuts. Roll the pastry into a cigar. If you find the pastry too hot to handle, wait a minute or two before doing this. It will still be malleable.