In Making Food on February 26, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Week 1, part 2

The pork belly was (literally) yesterday’s news. Today’s novelty: bao.

Bao (short for baozi) are rad. They’re yeasted buns stuffed with awesomeness, then steamed. They can be filled with savory stuff (i.e., pork belly) or sweet stuff, like sweet bean paste or coconut jam; they can be served at breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert; in China, they’re a common snack food. (My college boyfriend’s now working for the Wall Street Journal as a video-journalist in China, and when I went to his [excellent] website to send a quick note asking if I could legitimately use the phrase “in China, they’re a common snack food,” I discovered his most recent blog post was about: baozi.)

Google ‘bao recipes’ and you’ll most likely get suggestions for the char sui, sort of a barbecued pork, variety. (You’ll also get a Sandra Lee recipe that includes two cans of breadstick dough among its ingredients. Pass on the recipe, but read the comments, especially the one by the husband of a pro beach volleyball player who claims to have often completed formal education.) I looked at a few different bao recipes, took the most universal ingredients, and ran with it.

As you’ll see if you choose to follow me (in the blogging sense), I’m not a fan of fussy measurements like “one tablespoon plus one teaspoon” or 2 2/3 cup; I’m a rounder-upper by nature.

You should also know that yeast bread isn’t nearly as hard as you might think it is, and that you can skip any step that involves dissolving yeast and sugar in water and letting it stand for five minutes until bubbly, because this is two things: a conspiracy perpetrated by people who want you to think bread-making’s a pain, and a holdover from the long-gone days when yeast was unreliable (hence, the interchangeable terms “proofing” and “proving”). Just whisk the sugar and yeast in with the flour and you’ll be fine; I promise.

In a large bowl, whisk together 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1 package dry yeast (or two heaping teaspoons, if you’re using bulk, which you should because it’s cheaper), and 1/4 cup sugar. Add 1/4 cup neutral oil (like canola, sunflower or vegetable) and 1 cup warm water, and stir until a soft dough forms. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface, then hit the inside of the bowl with cooking spray and set it aside. (Don’t bother washing it, though if there are large sticky or floury chunks, you might scrape or wipe it out.)

Back to the dough: knead until it’s super-smooth and really elastic-y. I say this as someone who bakes bread at least twice a week and generally does the absolute bare minimum of kneading. Knead the shit out of this dough, not only because the gluten needs to be worked and the baking powder needs to be evenly distributed, but because it’s fun. Its transformation in your hands from kind-of-flabby to smooth and stretchy is hypnotic.

Put the dough into the oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for about an hour, or until it’s doubled in size. (My kitchen’s drafty and cold, so I usually let dough rise inside the [unlit] oven.) Punch the dough down, turn it out onto a clean surface, knead briefly, and let stand for 10 minutes.

Cut the dough into 12 equal portions, and form each into a ball. Cover the dough balls (I’m cheap enough to re-use the plastic wrap from the bowl-covering step) to prevent them from drying out, and work with one at a time. Roll the dough ball into a five-inch circle. Place a couple spoonsful* of filling (like, oh, pork belly) in the center of the circle, then bring the sides to cover the filling completely; you don’t want any holes. Pinch the dough together to seal, and give it a little twist. Repeat with the remaining dough balls and filling.

Once you’ve got the bao made, you can make them all now or freeze them for future use (or do a little of both). To freeze, place the buns on a baking sheet and put the sheet in the freezer; once they’re frozen solid, put the buns in a zip-top bag and store it for up to two months. When you get around to making them, add an extra five minutes to the steaming time.

For more immediate gratification:
Line a bamboo steamer or a flat-bottomed pasta strainer with cabbage leaves, and place the buns on top of the cabbage, leaving generous space between them since they’ll swell. If the buns touch each other, they won’t cook properly at the seams and that part’ll be like, well, raw dough. (Trust me on this, and sorry, potluckers.) Steam them for 15 minutes, and serve immediately.

*yeah: ‘spoonsful.’ I’m operating on the same premise as ‘passersby.’ Challenge?

  1. Sticky seams or no, these lil suckers were delicious.

  2. […] early! made several courses! felt like my old self (albeit not the old self who spent two full days making bao for a Chinese New Year dinner party) for an […]

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