Chinese New Year is a warm, very family-centered time, when the doors of the house are thrown open to welcome anyone who even might be considered kin—which in the average extended Chinese family means that the cook has to expect a horde for every meal. My restaurateur friends, the Hu’s, count their hordes in the hundreds, and in their restaurant and their home they make this special bread a feature of the holiday. The shape is symbolic of wholeness and continuity, and the red jujubes that garnish the top mimic the Eight Trigrams of Chinese philosophy—an edible reminder of change at the turning of the new year.
Follow the for proofing the yeast and making the dough, letting it rise and punching it down, and incorporating the baking powder.
Shape the kneaded dough into a round loaf. If you are adding the ham and scallion, combine them in a small bowl, then sprinkle a third of the mixture at a time on the board and work it into the dough as you knead it.
Dust the board lightly with flour, then use a rolling pin to roll the loaf into a 9-inch round. If the dough is very elastic and keeps springing back, then cover it with a dry towel for 5–10 minutes and let it rest to allow the gluten to relax.
If you are garnishing the top with jujubes, take a small, sharp knife and make two parallel slashes about 1½ inches long and ⅜ inch deep an inch in from the perimeter of the loaf, aiming the slash marks toward the center of the loaf. Use the tip of the knife to cut through at the base of the slash marks to join them, so that you can poke a finger through and carefully lift up a band of dough. Press your finger down to make a hollow for the jujube, then slip it under the band of dough so it is held in place on top of the bread as illustrated. Continue slashing the bread, making a space with your finger, and inserting a jujube beneath the dough band at 7 more regular intervals around the loaf.
Transfer the bread wheel to a baking sheet lined with a 9½–10-inch circle of silicon no-stick parchment paper. Alternatively, use a greased circle of plain parchment or a greased circle of wax paper.
Center the bread on the paper, then cover with a dry kitchen towel. Let rise until almost double in bulk, when the dough feels very light and a finger mark pressed into the dough does not spring back, about 40 minutes to 1½ hours, depending on the temperature of the room.
At this point, the dough may be flash-frozen, sealed airtight on the baking sheet until firm, then bagged airtight and frozen for several weeks. Steam directly from the freezer or while cold and firm as directed below, allowing an extra 15–20 minutes’ steaming time.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Transfer the bread on its paper round directly to a bamboo or metal steaming tier. For an improvised steamer, transfer the bread and paper to a flat, heatproof plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steaming vessel.
Bring the water to a gushing boil over high heat, put the bread in place, then reduce the heat to medium-high to maintain a strong, steady steam. Cover the steamer and steam the bread for 20 minutes.
Turn off the heat and wait 5 minutes for the steam to subside before lifting the cover. Lift the cover slowly away from you to prevent a sudden draft of cold air that could cause the bread to wrinkle.
Discard the paper and slice the bread into 8 wedges with a long, serrated knife, centering a jujube in each slice. Restore the loaf to its original shape and serve in a bamboo steamer or on a heated platter of contrasting color. If you need to hold the bread before serving, leave it in the steamer over low heat for up to an hour; it will taste equally good.
After the bread has risen, brush the top and sides lightly and evenly with a wash. For a soft blonde crust, use com or peanut oil or melted butter. For a firmer, golden crust, use a mixture of 1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk or cream. Bake the bread on the paper-lined baking sheet in the lower third of a
Leftover steamed bread may be bagged airtight once cool, then refrigerated or frozen. Resteam on paper squares over medium-high heat until hot, about 10 minutes for room temperature bread, 20 minutes for bread steamed directly from the freezer. Steamed breads are incredibly resilient and may go from the freezer to the steamer and back again with no perceptible damage to flavor or texture.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.