Meet Carolyn Phillips (aka Madame Huang), the author of All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China. Watch her make Chinese steamed buns in the shapes of bunnies and hedgehogs.
Makes 16 buns
1 recipe Fast Mantou (below)
1 recipe Red Bean Paste with Walnuts (below)
For decorating: red food coloring, cocoa powder, egg white, and black sesame seeds
Equipment: basket steamers, toothpicks, sharp kitchen shears
Fast Mantou (fast steamed bread)
For a long time, this was my go-to recipe for steamed bread. And it is pretty darned good, if I do say so myself. My ample pride in this recipe was corroborated by the unexpected praise I received from the daughter of a famous northern warlord: When she came over for dinner a long time ago, I served her these breads shaped into flower rolls alongside a big plate of Beijing-style smoked chicken. Delighted at their taste, she asked for the recipe, and I can’t think of higher praise than that.
Note: These rolls can be prepared up to 3 days in advance if they are refrigerated after steaming, or up to a few weeks in advance if frozen.
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water
3 cups Chinese flour, plus more for kneading (see Tip)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Peanut or vegetable oil for bowl and dough
2 teaspoons baking powder
Spray oil, optional
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water. Allow the yeast to expand for about 20 minutes. If it is not foaming at this point, discard it and get some fresher yeast.
Stir the flour and salt together in a large work bowl. Use chopsticks or a wooden spoon to mix in the yeast solution until fat flakes form. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured smooth surface and use a pastry scraper and your free hand to scrape and knead the dough. When the dough is elastic and no longer sticks to the board, check the texture: a pinch of the dough should feel like an earlobe. Form the dough into a ball.
Clean the work bowl, dry it, and lightly oil both the bowl and the ball of dough. Transfer the dough to the bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, place the bowl in a warm place, and let the dough rise until dou-bled in size, about an hour. Punch down the dough and fold the edges into the center. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise again until it has doubled in size.
Turn the dough out onto a clean, smooth work surface and sprinkle with the baking powder, which will give it a bit of extra lift. Lightly knead the baking powder into the dough, cover the dough with the plastic wrap, and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
Lightly dust the board and then roll the dough into an even rope 16 inches long. (Use a ruler at this point for accuracy.) Cut the rope into 1-inch pieces and then roll each piece into a ball before shaping them as directed below in “How to Fill and Shape the Buns.”
When all of the buns have been shaped, line two Chinese basket steamers with either steamer paper or cupcake liners and then spray the paper with oil. Alternatively, rinse coarse-weave cheesecloth with water, wring it out, and use it to line the baskets. Leave about 1 inch between the buns as you fill each basket with 8 buns.
Heat up your steamer, setting the filled baskets over the steam source. Steam the buns over medium heat for 10 to 15 min¬utes, until they have fully risen and are cooked through. Turn off the heat and allow the buns to sit in the cov¬ered steamer for about 10 minutes to prevent them from deflating once the steamer is uncovered. Enjoy them while they’re hot or let them cool down com¬pletely. They can be refrigerated in resealable plastic bags, or they can be frozen in a single layer on plastic wrap and then packed into resealable freezer bags. You can then steam them directly from the refriger¬ator or freezer.
Tip: Chinese flour, like French flour, is lower in gluten than American flour, so you end up with a much silkier texture in your breads, pastas, and pastries. Korean wheat flours are excellent and easy to find in most Chinese grocery stores. An acceptable substitute is 2 cups all-purpose plus 1 cup pastry flour.
Red Bean Paste with Walnuts
This filling recipe, which uses canned sweetened bean paste, is a quick and easy substitute for the recipe I include in All Under Heaven, which starts from dry beans and uses chestnuts instead of walnuts.
Makes enough filling for 16 steamed buns
1 (16 ounce or so) can sweetened red bean paste (Ogura-an recommended)
6 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup toasted chopped walnuts
Place the bean paste in a wok with the sesame oil and salt. Stir constantly over medium-high heat with a silicone spatula until the bean paste is dark and thick. Mix in the walnuts, then taste and adjust the seasoning.
Cool the bean paste and divide it into 16 even portions, then roll these into smooth balls.
How to Fill and Shape the Buns
Work on 1 piece at a time and keep the rest of the dough covered so it does not dry out. Lightly roll the piece into a ball between the palms of your hands.
Press down on the ball with the palm of your hand to flatten it into a disk. Lift up a side of the disk with one hand and use a Chinese rolling pin in the other to roll the disk out into a thin circle. Do this by rolling down one edge of the disk from just below the center outward to the edge. Turn the disk counterclockwise (or clockwise, If you are left-handed) about 45 degrees and roll it out again; you will do this 8 times before you get back to the starting point and end up with a fairly even circle. Keep rolling and turning the dough until you have a circle about 3 inches wide.
As you roll out the dough, leave the exact center alone so you end up with what looks like an egg fried sunny-side up.
To fill the buns, make a cup shape with your left hand and poke the dough disk into that cup, so the base of the dough is cuddled up against your middle finger.
Carefully place a ball of bean paste in the center of the dough and pleat the top of the bun closed. Gently roll it between the palms of your hands to form an egg shape and place it seam-side down in your steamer.
To make a rabbit: Lightly pinch and press down on one end of the bun to form a vague outline of the face. Let the bun rise 15 minutes, and then press down again in the same places so that the bun keeps its shape. Steam the buns for 15 minutes and leave the baskets unopened for around 10 minutes so that they do not suddenly deflate.
Clip open the ears by aiming the scissors toward the “nose” and cutting thin wedges from the “mid-back” to the “forehead.” The ears will pop up. Clip open a little tail at the other end. Dip a toothpick in red food coloring to dot the eyes.
To make a hedgehog: Follow the directions for the rabbit, but elongate the nose into a snout. Dust the body with cocoa powder. Dip a toothpick in egg white and dab the areas where the eyes and nose go so that you can glue on a couple of black sesame seeds there.
When the bun is steamed through, clip open the “quills” that cover the hedgehog’s back, and you’re done.