I have avoided making my own steamed buns due to the easy availability of the frozen version at H Mart, at least until recently. I inadvertently planned my shopping trips on the days when the freezer case is devoid of buns; the large empty space where the buns should be reminded me of my failure. The last time I chose to make pork buns – a Super Bowl party snack – I tried a different source, the Hong Kong Market in Malden, formerly a Super 88. I spent half an hour examining every bag in the freezer section, failing to find what I needed. As a last resort, I tried asking one of the employees for assistance.
“Steamed buns?” I asked, realizing he spoke little to no English.
He gestured to the case behind me, with an expression that seemed to say “Are you unaware of what’s behind you?”
“Mantou?” I asked, trotting out one of the few Chinese words I know.
“Ah, mandou,” he replied, and pulled out a bag of mini buns.
I held my hands together, spread them apart, and asked “bigger?”
“Ah, come,” he grunted, and shuffled away to the refrigerator case, where I found a package of buns – rolled instead of folded, but an acceptable substitute.
All of this is my roundabout way of explaining why I realized I would have to break down and make my own mantou from now on; it had to be less trouble than trying to buy it. Still, I was unhappy at the prospect of having to make fifty at a time, the minimum amount from the Momofuku recipe. Then I saw this recipe in A Bird in the Oven and Then Some. It looked simple, not too time-consuming, and the yield was an even dozen buns – just enough for dinner at Chez Belm.
The dough isn’t very complicated: it’s made from a cup of all-purpose flour, a half cup of cake flour, one and a half teaspoons each of yeast and sugar, an eighth of a teaspoon of sea salt, and half a cup of warm water (I wish all baking recipes would also include gram weight equivalents).
I whisked the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, added the water, and mixed the dough by hand, adding a tablespoon or two of extra water to bring everything together. I kneaded the dough for five minutes on a floured surface, then set it into an oiled bowl to rise.
During the first rise (about an hour, covered with a towel in my turned-off oven) I cut a dozen 2.5 inch squares of parchment paper. My OCD (actually CDO – the letters belong in the correct order, dammit!) thanked me for the diversion.
When the dough had doubled in size I punched it down and rolled it into a log a little less than two inches thick. I cut it into twelve pieces, rolled the pieces into balls, and set the balls on a baking sheet for a second half-hour rise after covering them with plastic wrap.
Using a rolling pin, I flattened each ball into an oval about five inches long and two inches wide.
I brushed the top side with oil, then folded it over, using a chopstick to provide a gap at the fold, a technique from the Momofuku recipe.
Each folded bun was placed on a parchment square, put back on the baking sheet, covered, and allowed to rise one last time for half an hour. I laid them out in my bamboo steamer to cook.
While the buns steamed I assembled the filling: sliced breast from the left over Tea-Brined Five-Spice Roast Chicken, some quick pickled cucumber slices, julienned scallions, hoisin sauce, sriracha, and a special pork preparation.
I unfolded the steamed buns, smeared hoisin on one side and sriracha on the other, added the meat, and topped with cucumber and scallion slices.
I folded over the tops, and we were good to go.
I wasn’t sure chicken would stand out when combined with the assertive flavors of hoisin and sriracha, but the five-spice and smoke flavors came through in perfect balance. Add in the crunch and bite of the scallions and cucumbers, and these these little packages barely lasted ten minutes on the plate. I’ll be making more buns soon, now that I know how simple the process can be.
And what about the “special pork preparation?” It’s miso-cured bacon, the subject of a future post.