Thursday, October 16, 2008

Char Siu Bao (Steamed Pork Buns)

I am entering a new world of breadmaking: Steamed bread. I love baking loaves of bread, smelling the cozy, yeasty aroma for the hour or so that it bakes, then enjoying that warm aura that seems to surround the loaf as it cools. What I'm about to do, however, is a bit different. I'm not baking this loaf--well, actually, non-loaf. I'm making steamed pork buns--a sort of Chinese stuffed bread. You make the bread dough as usual, kneading, letting it rise, etc., but then you fill each little dumpling with a pork mixture, seal it into a ball, and steam it in a bamboo steamer! This recipe has intrigued me since I first saw it in Cooking Light. Dan says he doesn't like five-spice powder. That's what seasons the pork tenderloin. Hmm. I'll make some green beans on the side. He likes those. 

Here we go.

Well, the one-pound (or so) pork tenderloin's been rubbed with the five-spice powder (1/2-3/4 tsp.) and a pinch of salt, and I can't believe I forgot how luscious it smells! It's been cold and rainy all day, and this is another one of those spicy-sweet smells that just fills the house in minutes with its incense-like soulfulness. I am completely at peace with myself, my day, and my wine--a necessary component of any end-of-the-week recipe. 30 minutes in a 400 F oven just doesn't seem long enough--I don't want to take it out for fear the smell will disappear.

What is it that five-spice powder reminds me of? I'd never heard of it until a few years ago when Rachael Ray, under whose expertly fun direction I learned that I loved to cook, got on her five-spice powder kick. The star anise, which just sounds festive, reminds me of a potent licorice, and though I don't even like licorice, I love this spice. In its whole form, it looks like one of the old-fashioned Christmas tree ornaments we used to hang on the Christmas tree and the Hanging of the Greens service on a cool Sunday night, usually rainy like this one, a month before Christmas. Yet there's something almost meaty about this spice blend, a heartiness all its own, that does not come from the pork its rubbed on. I'm reminded of the inviting scents of pine or cedar, a woodsy smell mixed with mulled wine and fire pits.

Now the pork is resting and I've just finished the dough. This has to be one of the easiest, most elastic doughs I've ever worked with. One package active dry yeast, one cup warm water, three tablespoons of sugar (this seems like a lot--I'm excited to find out what these buns will taste like) and the mixture got all foamy after ten minutes or so. Then I added 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (plus a little bread flour when I ran out of AP), three tablespoons of canola oil, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Stir, knead (I needed--no pun intended--a little extra flour) and shape into a ball and let rise in a warm place for an hour. The dough felt incredibly smooth and soft--kind of like a good pizza dough, but even more tender and light. I think that's one of my favorite things about bread-baking: the feel of the dough in your hands, and the knowledge that you created this strong living thing. I'm not trying to make a dough-as-child metaphor, though I could continue this easily by talking about the dough rising independently of you, and though you try as hard as you can to control it, all you can do is check on it often and admire its imperfect perfection. But enough of that. Time to make the filling.

Cut the pork into thin slices, then slice those into thin matchsticks. Place the pork slices in a bowl along with 1 cup  of sliced green onions, three tablespoons of hoisin sauce (nectar from the gods, I'm telling you) two tablespoons of rice vinegar, one tablespoon of soy sauce (low-sodium is good), one and a half teaspoons of honey, one teaspoon of peeled grated fresh ginger, one teaspoon of peeled grated (or minced) fresh garlic, and a pinch or two of salt. Mix all of these together, cover, and refrigerate. (Leftovers will be great on rice--just heat in the microwave.)

I was right--that is the coolest dough ever, and somewhat sweet. It is so elastic, which makes sense considering it is meant to be stretched over a chunky filling without breaking. But making the buns is so simple!. Spray the counter with a light coat of cooking spray--I think flour will make the dough too tough--and knead in 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder. Pat the dough into a circle and cut it (like a pizza) into 10 equal pieces. Cover the pieces you're not using with a damp dish towel so they don't dry out. Roll each piece of dough into a 5-inch circle with a rolling pin. Put 1/4 cup of filling into each. Gather the edges up and, holding the ball of dough and filling with your left hand, and twist the top with your right (or opposite if you're a leftie), patting and squeezing until it's sealed. Place on the bamboo steamer, seal-side down, and finish the rest--five per level of a two-level bamboo steamer. This is so much fun. I got Dan in the kitchen to try one, and you can't help but laugh--I don't even know why!--something about the fluffy dough and the twisting and the cute little dumpling/bun...this would be a great meal to make with kids. Also, if you want to make these ahead of time--up to two months ahead--place them, at this point, on a baking sheet instead of the steamer, freeze them, them put them in a ziploc. You can steam them straight from frozen whenever you need them. I'm totally doing this for a Top Chef night this fall.

Now I'm just waiting. Waiting. Checked on them--one broke open. Oh well. Waiting.

Done. 15-18 minutes of steaming, 10 minutes to cool, and they're done. 

Wow. The bottom layer stayed intact better and puffed more than the top. Note: Next time don't roll the dough too thin and try to cut the pieces more evenly. And careful getting them out--a metal spatula works well since they stick a little (only a little). But oh wow. So good. You could really make these with any filling--and I'm totally going to try them all!

If you want the recipe without my comments, here it is: Steamed Pork Buns


Ellie said...

That looks yummy. I might try just the pork part someday (I don't have a bamboo steamer).

I like five-spice powder. Once I mixed a little bit in some sugar cookies, and then dusted a little on top before I put them in the oven. They were excellent.

Sarah said...

I was wondering about that--I'm thinking about making a five-spice quickbread or using some in oatmeal cookies.