Week Thirteen: Filled Breads
When I decided on the theme for this week, I knew this dish had to be included. I love, love, love steamed buns! They’re usually quite delicious; and they’re single, discrete units of food, which somehow appeals to me on a visceral level. Steamed buns are similar to dumplings, but more bready. When well-made, the dough is so perfectly sticky and mildly sweet, with the fluffiest texture you’ve seen since you blow-dried your kitten’s fur.
I had made steamed buns once before, but it had been years (how is there always something else new and interesting to cook?). I remembered it being quite good, so I dug out my old recipe, and realized with a modicum of horror that the dough I had used to great success had in fact been nothing more than… canned biscuits. Oh dear. It was time for some research, and I own no Asian-themed cookbooks. To the internets!
I quickly found that recipes for steamed buns fell into two camps: one with homemade dough that rarely turned out well, and one that used canned biscuits. Apparently, that canned biscuit dough turns into a fairly decent – if a bit ersatz – steamed bun dough. (My taste memory had not failed me, after all! Vindication!) And sure, if I was merely craving steamed buns, I would probably have resorted to that trick, making sure to bury the cardboard tube very well in the garbage before anyone saw. But it’s called “A Bread A Day”, not “A Can Of Biscuits A Day”. I had to find a good recipe.
Within the Homemade Dough camp, there were two basic factions: those who used yeast, and those who used baking powder. Neither seemed to perfectly produce that unique, soft, spongy texture so characteristic of a good steamed bun. Occasionally, though, I would run across a recipe that used both. This is unique and interesting, because baking powder becomes activated and starts to raise a dough as soon as it gets wet; whereas yeast needs time and moisture to leaven dough. (Side note: double-acting baking powder, which is what you probably have in your pantry, activates a second time when it is heated. Neat!) So how does that work? Well, first, the dough is mixed with the yeast, and then the baking powder is kneaded in later. This gives the dough a good flavor from the acids produced by the yeast, but takes advantage of the tiny bubbles produced by the chemical leavening of the baking powder. You get the best of both worlds!
Another problem I noticed people running across quite a bit was that the dough cooked up tough, meaning the gluten was getting over-produced. One solution to that is to handle the dough less; but it’s nearly impossible to handle these buns less. You have to mix the dough, divide it, roll it out, fill it, and seal it. That’s a lot for the poor little dough to handle! So, then, the next solution is to reduce the protein count of the flour used. The more protein a flour has, the more gluten it will produce. That’s why you have bread flour (the highest protein at around 12%), all-purpose flour (moderate protein at about 10%), and cake flour (the lowest protein at about 9%). So if all-purpose flour wasn’t cutting it, there was not choice but to go down to cake flour.
Okay, we’ve got our flour, and our two leavening agents. But still, comments I read online said again and again how extremely difficult it is to get the proper texture. People had tried time and time again, only to be disappointed at every turn. This one was too tough, that one just didn’t taste right. My confidence was shaken. Maybe I should just pick something else? Something simpler? But no; I was determined. Visions of glistening buns, fresh from my own pot, filled my head; and I persevered.
So, scared a bit from the tales of horror I had read, I carefully selected a recipe, and I began it one day when I knew I would be able to finish everything completely. I had put so much effort into it already, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Geez, I had even made my own kimchi for the filling, since I just could not find any in the store. (Incidentally, if you like kimchi as much as I do, I highly recommend making your own. It’s really easy! And it’s so, so good!) Nothing was going to stand between me and steamed-bun-perfection. I was not going anywhere until I had some steamed buns on my counter. No way was I going to leave anything to chance. I was not going to mess this up. Do you see where this is going?
Yeah, I abused this dough. I ended up running an errand after mixing the dough, so it went into the fridge. The errand took too long, and I had no time to finish the buns that day. So into the freezer went the dough, overnight. In the morning, it was microwaved (on low) to defrost, then left to rise a bit, then filled, and refrigerated again. When I finally lowered the poor things into the steamer, my hopes were not very high, but it was far too late to start anything over. Fifteen minutes of steam later, taunting wisps of steam smelling of kimchi and pork wafting out from under the lid, I took my first peek. Well, they didn’t look awful, but the proof would be in the tasting.
They felt properly sticky, they looked properly puffy, so I took a cautious bite. My teeth sunk through that familiar soft skin, into the sweet interior. Holy cow, it worked! Despite all the improper handling, that familiar taste was there. The slight stickiness, the pillowy texture, the sweetness, it was all spot on. (And the spicy filling was just perfect, too!) Success was mine! Dipped into a mixture of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, rice vinegar, and scallions, they were just right. And if that dough could take that much abuse and still turn out so well, I might never go back to canned biscuits again. Now I just need to work on making the tops look prettier…
Steamed Buns (Char Siu Bao)
Adapted in part from David Chang, via Gourmet Magazine
1 cup warm water (105º-115º F), divided
1/2 teaspoon active-dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar, plus a pinch
2 tablespoons nonfat dried milk
15 ounces cake flour (about 3 1/2 cups), plus extra for dusting
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
White vinegar, for steaming
1/2 pound ground pork
1 cup kimchi
1/3 cup sliced green onions (1 large or 2 small)
2 1/2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1. To make dough: add a pinch of sugar to 1/3 cup of the warm water, and stir to dissolve. Sprinkle yeast over, stir, and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Whisk dried milk into remaining water.
2. Sift together flour and remaining sugar in a large bowl. Stir in yeast mixture with a fork until a dough forms. Do not add baking powder at this point. Turn dough out onto a surface, and knead with your hands until all flour is incorporated. Add additional cake flour only as needed to keep dough from sticking to hands or counter. Knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.
3. Shape dough into a round ball. Transfer to a lightly-oiled large bowl, and turn to coat all sides. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
4. Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured work surface, press gently to deflate, and flatten slightly into a round disc. Sprinkle baking powder over the surface, then gather the edges of the dough in, and pinch to seal in baking powder. Knead until baking powder is fully incorporated, about 5 minutes, using only enough flour to keep dough from sticking. Return dough to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand 30 minutes.
5. While dough is resting, make filling: finely chop kimchi and green onions. Using a fork to prevent smushing the meat, mix pork, kimchi, green onions, and remaining filling ingredients together. Set aside.
6. Cut 16 squares of parchment or wax paper, each about 3 inches square. Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured surface. Divide into 16 equal pieces, quickly shape each into a roughly round shape, dust with flour, and set aside. Covering pieces not being used, and flouring counter, rolling pin, and your hands, roll out each piece of dough into a circle. Fill round with a scant 1/4 cup of filling. Bring sides up around filling, and seal with your fingertips by pinching and giving a little twist. Set each on a square of parchment paper, and set aside. Cover loosely with plastic wrap to prevent drying out, and repeat with remaining dough and filling. Set aside to let rise again for about 20 to 30 minutes.
7. Set a steamer rack inside a large-enough pot or skillet, one with a tight-fitting lid. Add enough water to come to within 1/2 inch of bottom of rack, and add about 1 tablespoon vinegar. Bring to a boil. Carefully place as many buns (still on the paper) as will fit on the steamer rack, being sure not to let them touch. Cover tightly, reduce heat to keep water at a low boil, and steam until buns are puffed and set, about 15 minutes. Add additional water and vinegar as needed. Cool a few minutes before serving.
1. If you can’t find kimchi, you can use the following ingredients instead: 1 cup sliced napa cabbage, 1/3 additional cup green onions, 1 tablespoon fish sauce (nuoc mam), 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger, 2 large cloves minced garlic, 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes. Mix the ingredients together while dough is rising for the first time (after step 3), using your hands and squeezing the mixture to crush the cabbage a little, and let stand at room temperature while dough rises.
2. Be sure to use cake flour any time flour is called for in this recipe, i.e., when dusting the work surface. This dough absorbed a considerable amount of flour from the counter, and all-purpose flour would add too much protein to the dough (and therefore more gluten, resulting in toughness).
3. You can freeze the filled, uncooked buns, for steaming at a later date. You can either thaw them in the refrigerator before cooking, or steam them straight from the freezer, giving an additional 5 minutes or so cooking time. Just be sure the filling is thoroughly cooked before serving by using an instant-read thermometer. Ground meat of all types should be cooked to 155º F.