Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bao Wow

I always seem to undertake these massive cooking projects when I am the on a weeknight, when I've been cooking for work all day, helping with homework all afternoon, and shuttling children to their various extracurriculars. Such was the case with these Bao.

A childhood favorite of my husband, he used to eat them on Sundays when his family went to Dim Sum at a restaurant in Chinatown. For the uninitiated, Bao are steamed buns, usually filled with sweet barbecued pork. We'd had some disappointing ones recently at the Hollywood Bowl, and were craving a better version. When I saw this article in the food section of the Los Angeles Times, I knew I had to give them a try.

They were about as complicated as I expected--a multi-step process that took the better part of the afternoon. But, you've got to remember, I had lots and lots and lots of interruptions too.

Before I did anything else, I had to make the barbecued pork. I totally cheated and bought a jar of Chinese barbecue sauce...I thought it was quite flavorful (and very comparable to when I've made it from scratch)...and I wanted to save time since I knew assembling the Bao would be very time consuming. So....I used a jar (can you tell I feel guilty about this?). I marinated about 3 pounds of pork country ribs in the sauce overnight. The next day, I placed them on a cooling rack over a foil-lined baking pan and baked them at 250 degrees for about 3 1/2 hours....until they were tender and had a burnished exterior. I also reserved the marinade and basted them occasionally, and flipped them about half way through baking. With the meat chopped and set aside, I was ready to make the dough for the Bao.

The dough is leavened with a combination of yeast and baking powder and when steamed, it becomes light and airy, like a meat-stuffed cloud, if there were such a thing. After it had risen, I divided the dough in two, let is rest then patted each half into eight 6-inch disks. The Times article had some complicated business about using a special mini-rolling pin...blah, blah, blah. My fingers worked just fine. The dough was tender and yielding enough to handle a pat down. And frankly, it felt good to give something a hearty smack. The most important part is that the dough is thicker in the middle and thinner on the edges. We did just fine, I think...the dough and I.

The process of bundling the meat (which, by the way, had been sauced some more after it was chopped up) was not graceful or pretty by any means. In fact, it was kind of clumsy, especially at first. But the dough is forgiving and will stretch tons before finally ripping and spilling its saucy guts (it only happened a few times) and is also very easy to patch together, thankfully. Mine are a very bad imitation of what professional dumpling makers put out...but it's about the taste right? Basically, it goes like this (please forgive my tacky flash's getting dark EARLIER isn't it?)...Fold one side of the dough over the stuffing. Then pleat the dough, all the way around the sides, folding it up over itself, until you have a big bunch of dough in the middle. Twist the dough, the same direction you have been pleating it, to seal the top. Then set the dumpling on a square of parchment paper.

What you end up with, eventually after some trial and error, are pretty little twisted buns, ready for the steamer. They were two kids who eat "weird" food like this gobbled down several, as did my husband and I. Our final assessment, was that the meat needed to be a bit saucier, and the dough needed to be a bit below, are adjustments to the Times recipes that we think will give them the taste my husband remembers from the sunny days of his childhood, spent happily enjoying Dim Sum in Chinatown.

Bao Dumpling Dough
makes 16

1 1/2 teaspoons fast-acting dry yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 3 cups bread flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water mixture and let sit for 5 minutes.

Combine the sugar, baking powder and flour in the bowl of the food processor fitted with a steel blade attachment. Pulse a few times to combine. With the motor on, pour the yeast mixture through the feed tube in a steady stream and allow the machine to continue running until the dough starts coming together into a ball, about 20 seconds. Run machine for 45 to 60 seconds more to knead most of the dough into a large ball that cleans the sides of the bowl--expect some dangling bits. Press on the finished dough--it should feel medium-soft and tacky but should not stick to your finger.

Place dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest until it doubles in size, about 1/2 an hour. Pour dough out onto a floured board and cut in half. Set one half aside, covered with plastic, and roll the other half into a snake, about 12 inches long. Cut it into 8 segments and pat or roll each section of dough into a round disk that is thicker in the middle than the edges. Lay on a floured surface, cover with a cloth and repeat with the other half of the dough. Fill each round with meat (as described above) and place on a square of parchment paper, pleated side up. Cover with a cloth and let rest for 30 more minutes, or until doubled in size.

Prepare a steaming basket (bamboo is ideal, but my pasta pot worked fine too). Place buns, on their parchment, in the pot, leaving about 1 inch of space between, and steam for about 15 minutes, or until dough is cooked through. Repeat with other buns if necessary.

I made a delicious dipping sauce with a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce, a splash of toasted sesame oil, some sliced scallions, and a hearty pinch of black pepper.

Sauce for Barbecued Pork

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 pinch salt
1 pinch ground white pepper
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
4 teaspoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon dry sherry
2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil
4 scallions, chopped, white and green parts
1/2 pound Chinese barbecued pork, homemade (as described above) or store-bought, diced into 1/4 inch pieces
2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 4 tablespoons water

In a small bowl, mix together sugar through sherry. In a medium skillet, heat canola oil over medium heat. Saute scallions for 2 minutes, or until they become tender. Add meat, and stir until sizzling hot. Pour in sauce and heat to simmering. Add cornstarch mixture, and simmer until thickened, about 3 minutes. Take off heat and cool completely before stuffing into buns.


Trish said...

Gosh...I am so impressed! This is something of a task but I can so relate to taking a project like this on. Must say that we are not too much into pastry dough kind of things...of course my blog would not relay that message at all...but as far as heated foods, not dessert! But this looks promising and would be a great coup if I could do it. Thanks for the recipe!

Alison said...

Trish, it's not difficult, just time consuming. Of course, many of mine didn't turn out so! There is a definite learning curve involved. ;)

Ann Mah said...

Goodness, I am also impressed. I would never even THINK of attempting this, though I will say that my step-grandmother had a Shanghainese cook who made the best vegetarian bao -- the dough was so light, tender and fluffy. She had magic fingers. She showed me how to do it once, too, but we had quite a language gap, alas. Also, I was way too young to remember (only 10 yrs old or so). Congratulations on your pretty bao!