In a previous apartment, in a previous neighborhood, I used to order scallion pancakes from a nearby Thai restaurant pretty frequently. These were thick and moist, cut into little squares, probably deep-fried, with crisp edges and a chewy center. I’ve never since found scallion pancakes quite like them, and in retrospect it seems clear that they aren’t the types of scallion pancakes one typically expects when one orders them. Were they scallion pancakes at all? I still don’t know. But at some point the restaurant stopping having them. This was discouraging, because anything else I ordered was superfluous, a means of meeting the delivery minimum. Finally I went into the restaurant to place my order and asked what exactly had happened that they weren’t selling them anymore. I was told that the delivery—the shipment, I should say, for the woman at the counter boasted that those scallion pancakes came all the way from China—had been delayed. How on earth were they getting their scallion pancakes from China? Had they been frozen? Was she making this up? I lost interest, felt duped.
This reminds me of when, a year or two ago, Matt and I had just finished a terrific meal out and wanted to linger a little, so we ordered coffee. The coffee came and we were rhapsodic: “I’ve never had coffee like this!” we each exclaimed. I may have smacked my lips. It was so . . . toasty, and all the—I don’t know—“robust coffee flavors” were right there up front. All through the meal we’d been sitting next to a couple who’d made it clear to everyone in earshot that that they couldn’t be fooled with—they were “foodies,” one of them owned a bar or something. After they finished their soup, they reported to the waiter that it was not as good as last time. “It’s still good,” the talkative one said, while the other nodded in agreement, “but something—and I can’t identify exactly what—something is off.” (Bless them, I guess, for keeping the rest of us on our toes, but as a former server I can say pretty confidently that this isn’t very helpful criticism.) Anyway, they finished their meal, and then dessert, and when the waiter came hoping to hand off the check, the talkative one rubbed her hands together and asked, excitedly, “Have you got a yummy cappuccino for me?” The waiter shook his head. “Our coffee is crap, we don’t have an espresso machine,” he said. “It’s all instant.”
So all those years of plunging the French press may have been for naught (and now I know what it means for coffee to “lack depth”), but at least now I know how to make my own scallion pancakes. I recently read this terrific explanation in the Serious Eats “Food Lab”—as in-depth and fascinating as I’ve come to expect from the series—and started to understand what, exactly, a scallion pancake is supposed to be. I’d never thought of them as akin to puff pastry, where the flakiness is a defining virtue. I’d thought rather of the pleasant contrast of the crisp on the outside and the chew on the inside, with some nice scallion flavor through it all. But the Food Lab explains the appeal convincingly, while at the same time highlighting the hows and whys of the scallion pancake’s many other qualities.
I used the Food Lab recipe as the basis for this adaptation to include garlic scapes. Garlic scapes are technically the shoots of garlic that used to be broken off and discarded, but some smart farmer in recent years figured out how to market them (and market them he/she did! They’re now going for $8 a pound at my farmer’s market). They have a mild flavor and a slight crunch, and after a quick pan-fry that softens them, they slip into the pancakes with little fuss. As warning, I find the dough here to be quite sticky. You’ll want to be liberal with the flour on the working surface, and a dough scraper, one of my most multi-useful kitchen tools (especially for transporting large quantities of chopped vegetables from the cutting board to wherever they need to go), comes especially in handy. I also substituted a quarter buckwheat flour for some of the all-purpose in one test drive. This was almost imperceptible, but it may be worthwhile if you have buckwheat flour on hand. Lastly, this is a halved version of the Food Lab recipe, so double it if you have more than 2 or 3 people to serve.
Scallion and Scape Pancakes
Adapted from Serious Eats Food Lab
Makes 2 pancakes, serves 2 to 3 as a side
1 cup all-purpose flour (substitute 1/4 cup buckwheat flour for some of the flour if desired)
1/2 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 garlic scapes, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 heaping cup scallion greens, from about 1/2 small bunch (whites reserved for another use)
Neutral oil for frying
Dipping sauce (your favorite, or the recipe below)
1. Place the flour in a mixing bowl. Pour in three-quarters of the hot water and using chopsticks (preferred) or a wooden spoon, stir vigorously until the dough comes together. Add additional water by the tablespoon if needed. Gather the dough in your hands and knead a few times, just until it forms a smooth ball. Cover lightly with a towel and let stand for 30 minutes.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon sesame oil in a skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic scapes and sauté just until fragrant, bright green, and somewhat softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a small mixing bowl, aiming to reserve as much of the oil in the pan as possible. Add the scallion greens to the bowl and stir to combine.
3. Generously dust a working surface with flour. Split the dough into two pieces. Place one piece on the working surface and roll into a circle about 8 inches in diameter, adding additional flour to prevent sticking as necessary. Brush the surface with sesame oil, then roll it up, jelly-roll style, then wind it into a flat circle like a lollipop. Roll this into another 8-inch round, dusting with flour again as needed. Brush with another thin layer of sesame oil then sprinkle half of the scallion and scape mixture. Roll this up again, jelly-roll style, wind it up into a flat circle, and roll out into a 7-inch round, slightly less than 1/4-inch thick. Do the same for the remaining ball of dough.
4. Heat the sauté pan, which should have some residual sesame oil in it, over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon more of the neutral oil. When hot, add 1 pancake and cook, gently shaking the pan periodically, until golden brown all over, until golden brown. Flip and do the same for the other side. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate and sprinkle with kosher salt. Proceed in the same manner with the remaining pancakes, adding more oil to the pan if needed.
5. Serve as freshly cooked as possible, with your favorite dipping sauce.
1 part soy sauce
1 part seasoned rice vinegar or sherry vinegar
Additional seasonings as needed: fresh ginger, scallions, toasted sesame seeds, a few drops of molasses or pomogranate molasses
Whisk all ingredients together. Keeps for a few weeks, in a covered container.