Monday, November 13, 2017

Taiwanese raisin cream buns

One of the mainstays of any Taiwanese bakery worth its salt is the raisin bun. It’s unlike anything we have in the West. The filling is creamy, and yet not like pastry cream, but rather with a slightly sandy texture that contrasts wonderfully with the yeasty dough.

My main complaint whenever I ate these (yes, I found time to complain between big mouthfuls) was the tiny little nuggetty raisins. They were chewy and often blah, and so seemed to be there more for visual contrast than anything else. 

I guess it's because I’ve always been a major fan of plump raisins, which aren’t that hard to achieve: all you need are relatively fresh raisins (dried up fossils are beyond redemption) and boiling water, and voila, they’re delectable.

Plumped-up raisins
The other thing I’d get cranky about was the use of margarine instead of butter. I go totally Julia Child when it comes to pastries. Go butter or go home is my mantra. But not all butters are made equal. There’s salted and unsalted, organic and not, cultured and not, and so forth. Here’s my suggestions: salted is fine for the pastries here. The advantage of unsalted is that you can calibrate the salt levels a little easier, but truth be told, the pastries will turn out great no matter what kind you use here.

I’d always head for the organic butters simply because they’re better for me (and you). But use your own judgment. 

When it comes to cultured butter, though, if you can find it, do try it. There’s a fabulous depth of flavor in cultured butter that makes other butters seem bland by comparison. And in pastries like this one, where butter turns up everywhere, a really great butter will make a world of difference in the aroma and taste. So try it and see what I mean.

Fill the dough with cream & raisins
This recipe was a lot of fun to figure out. The main thing to nail down here was the creamy filling, which is called naisu in Chinese. 

I got rid of the things like custard powder that tend to clog up too many things with their stale vanillin flavor, and then played around with the ratios until it was like the buns of my dreams. 

The topping is pretty much the same thing, but without the egg, so that it ends up like little snowflakes on the top.

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Beautiful and delicious.

Raisin cream buns
Pútáogān năisū miànbāo 葡萄乾奶酥麵包
Taiwan
Makes 16 large buns

Shape the filled bun
Filling:
½ cup | 75 g raisins (see Tips)
Boiling water, as needed
½ cup | 110 g | 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup | 85 g powdered sugar
1 cup | 100 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Dough:
1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk
1 tablespoon bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
The snowy topping
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

Topping:
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
¼ cup | 50 g Chinese flour
2 teaspoons powdered milk
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

Egg wash:
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water

1. First make the filling: Place the raisins in a heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Place a saucer on top to speed up the plumping process. When they are fat and juicy (say, around 20 minutes), drain off the water and let the raisins sit on a paper towel to soak up the extra moisture. Cream the butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, egg, and vanilla together with a food processor, stand mixer, or large work bowl until you have a light and relatively lump-free cream. Stir in the raisins. Divide the filling into 16 even pieces.

2. Now make the dough: Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in your food processor, stand mixer bowl, or a large work bowl. (BTW, you don’t need to wash out the bowl before you do this.) Give the yeast time to wake up and become very foamy, which should take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t get a good head of foam, buy fresh yeast and start over.

Final rising
3. Stir the egg, flour, salt, and oil into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the hook attachment; use a metal blade for the food processor, of it you’re doing this by hand, flour a smooth work surface and dump the dough out on top. Quickly knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is smooth and bouncy. Roll the dough into a ball and lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, stick the bowl over the top to help keep the dough moist, and wait until the dough has risen to at least twice its original size, which will take about an hour.

4. While the dough is rising, make the topping: Mix together all of the ingredients until smooth. That’s it.

5. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to keep them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat a convection oven to 350°F | 175°C (375°F | 190°C for a regular oven) and set 1 rack near the center.

6. Working on one piece at a time, and working on a lightly floured surface, roll a piece into a disc about 5 inches| 13 cm in diameter. Place one ball of filling in the center and bring up the edges around it to seal the filling well. Shape the bun into a oval shape with the smooth side on top. Repeat with 7 more of the buns and filling so that 1 baking sheet is filled. Let the buns rise for about 15 minutes.

Better than Taipei's!
7. Brush half of the egg wash all over each of the buns, and then break up the topping so that it can be easily scattered over the buns, sort of like snow. Sprinkle half of the topping along the center of each bun so that it becomes glued to the buns—don't worry if some of it ends up on the baking sheet. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking.

Tips

I like to use Middle Eastern raisins for these buns because their flavor is often incredibly intense. See if you can find really dark, really deeply flavored raisins, since they will make these buns almost magical.


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Use good quality butter for this recipe—there is so much of it that a really tasty butter becomes the main flavoring.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Taro horseshoe buns

One of the homiest, most comforting flavors around has to be that of taro. If you have never enjoyed this lovely tropical root, let me say that you should stop right here, head for an Asian store, buy some taro, and prepare to fall in love.

There is a warmth to taro that you just don’t find in other starchy vegetables. Yes, potatoes are nice in all their permutations, but they are, when you get right down to it, there is not an immense amount of flavor or texture. Sweet potatoes—especially delectable Garnets—are fabulous, but in a totally different way from taro. They are moist and honeyed, and when cooked the Shaanxi way, will ooze out caramel like nobody’s business.

Taro, though, has something else going on. Slightly fibrous, it cooks into a potato-like mass that smells slightly of vanilla and nuts (at least to my nose). My house has the most wonderful aromas whenever I cook with it, summoning my husband downstairs in an anticipatory trot to find out what’s on today’s menu.
Taro with my mighty peeler

Which brings us to today’s menu: baked taro buns. Nobody does baked buns like the Taiwanese. There is a lovely pan-Pacific carnival involved here, a perfect marriage between East and West. Like in those delicious green onion buns from two weeks ago, this is basically a variation on Parker House rolls, for they are rich and yeasty, with eggs and oil in the dough.

But what makes these so quintessentially Chinese are the taro filling and the spectacular shapes. I have, naturally, made these less sweet than what is traditional—you can of course make them as sweet as you want. I’ve opted instead for just a smidgen of white sugar in order to keep the pale lavender hue and a hunk of butter that is there just to keep things properly luscious. And since we have butter in the filling, I also used butter in the dough so that we have some happy harmony in each bite. Do note that I have not colored the taro, as way too many commercial bakeries do. (To be honest, I’m pretty sure that powdered mixes are involved, which sneaks in nasty old vanillin and a plethora of chemicals.) If you want, you can give this a violent violet hue. I’m not judging. Much.

Lavender-specked slices
Also note that the dough here is slightly less sweet than with those used for savory fillings. This will give you the proper juxtaposition between flavors so that you’re not overwhelmed with sugar. I’ve sanded them with coarse sugar, too, which is another reason to dial down the sweetness where you can.

As for the shapes, aren’t they beautiful? They look impossibly hard to make, but in fact are incredibly easy once you do a couple in order to get the knack down. Just fill a piece of dough as if you were making baozi, flatten it, and then slash it before rolling it up. How hard is that?

Fresh from the steamer
Like all of these buns I’m going to be talking about in the near future (I’ve been on a bit of a bun binge lately), these freeze well and heat up deliciously. Get a nice, crisp edge on them when you do that, and they might even be better than fresh out of the oven.

Taiwanese taro horseshoe buns
Yùní miànbāo 芋泥麵包
Taiwan
Makes 16 large buns

Filling:
Around 1½ pounds | 700 g taro
½ cup | 115 g sugar
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons cream or milk
½ teaspoon sea salt

Dough:
1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
Filling the dough
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk (nonfat or regular)
1 tablespoon bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

Toppings:
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water
¼ cup sanding sugar

1. First make the filling: Wear kitchen or latex gloves when working with raw taro unless you are sure you’re not allergic to it. Remove the skin with a potato peeler, rinse the taro, and cut it lengthwise into quarters. Then cut it into ½ inch | 1 cm slices. Steam the taro for 15 – 20 minutes, or until it can be easily flaked with a fork.

2. Mash the taro (make it as coarse or fine as you like), either by placing it in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, or in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or by hand.  Add the sugar, butter, cream or milk, and salt, and mix thoroughly; if you’re using a food processor or stand mixer, you can beat it until it is light and fluffy. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you want to add food coloring, now is the time. Divide the filling into 16 even pieces.

A baozi shape
3. Now make the dough: Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in your food processor, stand mixer bowl, or a large work bowl. (BTW, you don’t need to wash out the bowl before you do this.) Give the yeast time to wake up and become very foamy, which should take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t get a good head of foam, buy fresh yeast and start over.

4. Stir the egg, flour, salt, and oil into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the hook attachment; use a metal blade for the food processor, of it you’re doing this by hand, flour a smooth work surface and dump the dough out on top. Quickly knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is smooth and bouncy. Roll the dough into a ball and lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, stick the bowl over the top to help keep the dough moist, and wait until the dough has risen to at least twice its original size, which will take about an hour.

Slash the dough
5. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to keep them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat a convection oven to 350°F | 175°C (375°F | 190°C for a regular oven) and set 1 rack near the center.

6. Working on one piece at a time, and working on a lightly floured surface, roll a piece into a disc about 5 inches| 13 cm in diameter. Place one ball of filling in the center and bring up the edges around it to seal the filling well. Gently flatten the ball with the heel of your hand. Roll it out into a rectangular-ish shape about 8 x 4 inches | 20 x 10 cm.

7. Flip it over so the smooth side is on top, and then slash it horizontally about every ½ inch | 1 cm so that you just cut through the top layer, but not all the way through the dough. Flip it back over. Starting at the long edge, loosely roll the dough up so that the cuts are on the outside. Gently shape the bun into a horseshoe and use a pastry scraper to lift the bun onto  a prepared baking sheet. You should be able to fit 8 of these buns on each sheet, but be sure to leave around 1 inch | 2 cm between them on all sides, as they will rise. Repeat this step with 7 more balls of dough in order to fill up the sheet.
Roll it up

8. Brush the egg wash all over each of the twists, and then sprinkle them generously with the sanding sugar. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking.

Tips

Use the large taro for this sort of filling, since it is very flavorful and starchy. Baby taro bulblets are much too moist and vegetal for this.

Some taro will be larger than footballs, and some will be cut into chunks. It doesn’t matter. Feel them all over and attempt to locate any soft spots, which indicates bruising and spoilage. Peel them with a heavy-duty potato or sugar cane peeler, remove any discolored or soft spots, and trim off the cut ends.
Love

Prep more taro than you can use, as it will come in very handy once you become a taro addict. Simply place the cut-up slices in freezer bags and freeze. Use them before there’s a frost buildup, but otherwise these are ready to go when you are.

Reheat the buns before you eat them, if they’ve been refrigerated or frozen. Really try to aim for a crispy exterior, as this will magnify your eating pleasure immeasurably.




Video of the roll-making process

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sichuanese smoked ribs

This last time I visited Chengdu, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with some of the ranking members of the retired Sichuanese chef’s association, Chuānlăo huì 川老會. We talked about my book a bit, but what I really wanted to ask them was what Sichuanese food was all about. Had it changed much? What were the classics? What did they think about current food trends in Chengdu? Things like that.

One of the biggest surprises—for me, at least—was that they were more than a bit miffed that everyone thought that Sichuan’s foods were always hot and numbing. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” one master chef told me. He pointed out that while street foods like noodles might be heavily seasoned, the finer dishes rarely were.

As always, with anything that concerns China, this has a whole lot to do with history. Sichuan does not have a single, time-honored family of cuisines like, say, Shandong or Guangdong. Sichuan has indeed been around for a very long time, but massacres and epic disasters have required massive infusions of immigrants over the centuries, and each wave brought with it their own culinary traditions.

Remove the membrane
For that reason you will eat endless variations here on everyday Hui Muslim foods, with their intensely creative takes on pastas and breads and goat and beef. Sichuan beef noodles, for example, is a kissing cousin to what you’ll find at a roadside stand in the Northwest, just with a bit more chile oil tossed in. Guangdong plays a major role in the banquet dishes here, as well as in fried rice and the wontons known as chāoshŏu 抄手 that are so beloved throughout this province.

But one of the truly unsung forefathers of classic Sichuanese dishes has to be Jiangsu. One bite of these tender and incredibly tasty ribs and you’ll taste the connection. But at the same time, these are a bit more hairy-chested and intense than what you’d find in the more nuanced recipes of Jiangsu.

The inspiration for this recipe came from an old cookbook I dug up in one of Chengdu's lovely used bookstores. Fermented rice wine lees, fresh ginger, and lots of green onions work their magic deep down inside the meat, while just the right amount of sea salt and a good spoonful of ground toasted Sichuan peppercorns lends the meat a welcome edge of perfume. Smoke, though, is what sends these ribs over the edge into utter perfection.
 
Your dry rub
Serve these as an appetizer before a fine Sichuan-style dinner, as a bar snack with beer or something decidedly stronger and fully flavored (I recommend a Boulevardier cocktail, which is a Negroni, but bourbon is tossed in instead of the usual gin), or simply as a main entrée with some greens.

This might look fussy, since you need to cook the ribs in three steps, but most of this consists of waiting around. You can do as I do and make these over three or more days, which turns these into something even easier than seems possible. Plus, these are also excellent when made ahead of time. Just cover the ribs and microwave on high for a minute or two to return them to their full glory.

Sichuanese smoked ribs
Chuānshì xūn páigŭ 川式薰排骨
Sichuan
Serves 4 as an appetizer or bar snack, 2 as an entrée

Pork and marinade:
1 side pork ribs of any kind (about 1 to 1½ pounds | 450 - 600 g)
½ cup | 120 ml fermented rice lees (laozao)
1 finely chopped green onion
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon five spice powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
Deep fry the ribs for texture

The rest:
1½ cups water | 360 ml water
2 cups | 470 ml peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup | 55 g sugar
¼ cup | 8 g dry tea leaves of any kind
¼ cup | 50 g dry rice of any kind

1. Pat the ribs dry. Flip the ribs over so that you can see the underside with the bones. Use a paper towel to grab one corner of the fine membrane covering the inside of the ribs, loosen it with a paring knife, and then peel it off—it should come off in more or less one big sheet. If not, pluck off the stubborn bits.

2. Mix the fermented rice lees, green onion, ginger, five spice, Sichuan peppercorns, and salt together, and then rub this all over the ribs, paying particular attention to the meatier, thicker bits. Place the ribs in a resealable bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24.

3. Starting at the widest end, cut the side of ribs into groups of 3 or so ribs. As you get to the smaller end, use your judgment to figure out whether you want to cut between 3 ribs or 4—the point is to make these pieces pretty even. Whatever you do, don’t cut them into single ribs, as these will dry out too fast.
 
In the smoker
4. Set a trivet or a steamer basket inside your pressure cooker. Add the water and any remaining marinade to the pressure cooker, arrange the ribs on the trivet or steamer basket, lock on the top, and pressure cook on high for 25 minutes. Remove from the heat, release the pressure, and remove the lid. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, place the ribs on a trivet in a wide pot, cover, and cook on the stove for about 90 minutes, or until tender, adding more water as needed.) Cool the ribs down until they are warm or room temperature.

5. Pour the oil into a wok and set it over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, slide the cooked ribs into the oil so that they don't spatter. Fry only as many as will easily fit without crowding. Brown them on both sides before removing them to a plate.

6. Prepare your smoker. Scatter the sugar, tea leaves, and rice in the bottom of your smoker. Set it on your stove, cover it, raise the temperature to high, and as soon as smoke is streaming out of the valve, remove the cover and arrange the ribs on the rack over the smoking fuel so that they touch each other as little as possible. Cover the smoker, reduce the heat to medium-low so that the fuel doesn’t turn sour or bitter, and smoke the ribs for about 10 minutes. Remove the smoker from the heat, wait about 10 to 15 minutes, and then take off the cover. Cut between the bones and either eat immediately (highly highly highly recommended) or at room temperature. Serve pickles or something tart on the side to really add zing.