Each New Year’s Day I try to cook something unique and different and much more complicated than a typical Sunday dinner. Last year was lamb chops, the year before that was a 26-ingredient Oaxacan Mole. This year, it was Peking Duck. It helps that I have a plethora of cook books (many of them Asian) to fall back on, but when trying something new I typically find several recipes, read them all, and then tackle it myself.
I picked up an old cookbook at the local antique store and it had the most famous Chinese dish, Peking Duck, as one of the recipes. I thought, this is the time to give it a go. But I didn’t just go off the recipe in the book. It gave me the inspiration to track down several recipes and a few videos before I felt comfortable enough to give it a go.
I bought the duck and let it thaw (only afterwards did I find several recipes that recommended a fresh duck); after removing the innards, I carried on as normal with the plan. Some recipes suggested pouring boiling water over the duck over the sink to seal the pores and make the skin puff. Others suggested a quick dunk in boiling water. I opted for the latter and let the bird bubble for about two minutes. I was a little nervous it would actually start to cook, but while the boiling water does seal the skin, cooking is not a problem at this stage. So pick your method, whichever works better for you.
Next came the drying. This was a tricky one because I had read so many options. The book said hang in a cool place . . . and that’s it. There was nothing about refrigeration, temperature or anything. A couple of blogs mentioned making room in the fridge (which wasn’t an option for me), some said hang up in the house somewhere (with a disclaimer that they had never gotten sick from doing it this way). That alone seemed a little dicey so we opted for our own makeshift fridge out of an old insulated cooler. We positioned a cookie rack on top and used zip ties to poke through the cooler, through the duck tail and back up again to let it hang free. We put a drip cup in the bottom to catch any liquid.
This was fine for most of the day but then I realized it wasn’t getting the air flow it really needed. I left the cooler in the garage since it was a brisk 45 degrees that day but eventually removed the lid and let the air flow around it for the remainder of the day. Total time of hanging was about six hours. I read various times from three to 24 hours. The point is to get the skin as dry as you can; the dryer the skin, the crispier the duck.
Onto the Pancakes
I was really excited to make my own pancakes and while some things I can go out and buy (pie crust, puff pastry) this was one I wanted to attempt myself. I really wanted those super thin pancakes, so again I went online to find a perfect recipe. I blended a couple of great ideas from recipe sites and videos into my own attempt, in which I made the basic pancake dough with flour, sugar and boiling water. I then combined the trick of cutting the dough after rolling it into circles and painting the circles with toasted sesame oil, putting two pieces together, and rolling them out again into super thin circles. I then fried them using a dry, non-stick griddle pan until charred on both sides and pulled the two layers apart. This worked perfectly! I kept the layers under a damp towel until ready to use.
Because Peking Duck is so basic, meaning not a lot of ingredients, I wanted each of those to be perfect, hence the making of my own pancakes.
Once the duck was dry, I stuffed the cavity with a ginger chunk, two anise pods and some Chinese 5 spice. I put it on a roasting pan in a 400 degree oven for about an hour and half. Once the skin was nice and dark and the duck was cooked through I removed it and let it rest while I prepared the julienned scallion and cucumber.
I then sliced the duck off the bone and sliced the duck breast. Many recipes said to remove the skin separately, but it didn’t seem to come apart so I left it on. It was mostly crispy although I am wondering if the fresh duck would have lent itself to a crispier skin.
Sliced up and plated, all there was left to do was consume. We put the duck on a pancake topped with hoisin and duck sauce and the sliced cucumber and scallion, rolled and ate it. Even the kids loved it! It was a hit and not so difficult as once imagined. Peking Duck? Done, and will do again!