3 Apr 2008

Bao - Chinese Steamed Buns (with Pork for Maximum Joy)

By [http://ezinearticles.com/?expert=Mark_Hewitt]Mark Hewitt

Bao is a tasty sweet, chewy bread, with a consistency somewhere between a dumpling and a doughnut. It becomes something truly transcendent when it's made into char siu (barbecue pork) bao, and is stuffed with heavily seasoned savoury glazed pig lumps.

Bao (basic dough)

1 tablespoon of dried active yeast or 1 sachet of instant yeast
1 cup of warm water
1/4 cup of sugar
4 1/2 cups of plain flour
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1/2 cup of boiling water

As usual, if you have dried active yeast (and you really should) first activate it by mixing it with the warm water and sugar and letting it stand for about 10 minutes till the Big Blog O'Gak floats to the surface. Then chuck everything in the food processor (or, if you're very dedicated, a mixing bowl) and process or mix and knead until smooth. If you're using horrible instant yeast, just throw it all in together and mix as above.

Then put a bit of oil in the bottom of a clean bowl, put the ball of dough in there and roll it around till it's coated and put it somewhere warm to rise, either covered with a wet towel or sitting next to a pan of water to keep it moist, for 1 hour.

Now, take a lump of dough about the size of a kiwi fruit (can't think of anything else the right size!), and press it out into a thin circle on a floured surface - it should be about 3.5 inches across. Here is the point you need to decide what to do with it.

If you're going to make it into char siu bao, put a heaped tablespoon of a nice moist glazed pork mixture in the middle (I'd recommend frying some garlic, a couple of chopped pork chops and scallions till the meat's browned, adding a good slosh of soy, some sugar and 5-spice, a bit of water then cooking it all till the liquid is a thick sauce), then start pleating the edges with your fingers and thumbs - the bao will form up into a pouch around the meat mixture.

Once you've pleated all the way round the edge you'll be left (hopefully) with a moneybag shape - just pinch the pleats together at the top to seal it. You'll probably overfill quite a few and end up with sauce squeezing out a bit - don't worry about it. I do that too and I've got a website and everything.

If you're going to keep the bao as a plain bun, just brush the circle with sesame oil and fold it in half. The sesame oil stops the two halves sticking together so it keeps a pocket which you can put delicious things in at a later date. I usually have a batch of glazed pork ready (actually that's a lie, I usually forget and knock out a batch of glazed pork at the last minute just before the dough finishes rising), fill as many bao as possible then leave the rest as plain buns for future stuffing.

Once each bun is either stuffed and pleated or oiled and folded, put it on a square of oiled foil. Which is a nice phrase to say. Oiled foil. Just don't spoil the oiled foil. With soil.

Anyway, put all the bao on baking trays and put them back in the warm place for another hour to rise again. Then steam them for 10 minutes, after which they will go from soft and squidgy to firm and slightly chewy, and unutterably delicious. I use a pan-top steamer which just sits on top of an ordinary saucepan of boiling water - saves on space and cost. It is a bit small for bao-making, since it holds only 4 at a time, but we just tend to eat each batch as they're done and it paces the meal nicely. Whether the bao are filled or plain, once they've been steamed they can be frozen with really no loss of texture or taste.

When you're ready to use them just take them out of the freezer about an hour before (or even a bit less), and steam them again for 10 minutes. That'll heat them all the way through to the filling quite nicely. Another very handy thing to have in the freezer.

So, that's bao. My freezer still holds 7 excess buns, ready and waiting to be filled with delicious things (I tried one with salsa before I froze the rest and it went amazingly well - possibly a new culinary fusion discovery). The recipe generally makes about 16 buns all told, it did for me this time. And obviously you could fill the pouches with all sorts of different things - numerous possibilities await.

Mark Hewitt is an English foodie, cook, philosopher, geek, shaman and writer. At the start of 2007 he sold or gave away almost all his possessions and left on a backpacking journey round the world, the purpose being (at least in part) to figure out why he would want to do such a thing. You can follow his journey and find other articles at: http://www.scadindustries.com/sael/journal.html

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