Chinese bun making is one of those tactile, instinctive arts that has never, to my knowledge, been elucidated worth a penny in writing. The result is scores of would be bun makers who either can’t get their buns to rise in the first place, or who, when they put the buns in the steamer, are shocked to retrieve them 30 minutes later looking as if they’d been the victims of a big rainstorm! I too have suffered at the mercy of bad recipes, pooped yeast, improperly kneaded dough, and storms inside the steamer, and this is what I can pass on in the way of tips:
The dough must be fully
fingertip-firm, bouncy, and elastic when you are done kneading it and are ready to shape it. If it is too soft and wet, it will turn gummy in the steamer. Err on the firm side if in doubt. You may vary the amount of sugar in the dough to taste, anywhere from 2 teaspoons to 3 tablespoons. Less sweet is a northern Chinse taste, more sweet is southern Chinese taste and specifically Cantonese in style, but the amount of sugar will not affect the texture of the dough.
A richer dough, favored by Cantonese cooks for the most part, may be had by substituting 1 cup warm milk for 1 cup of the warm water called for in the recipe. In that case, proof the yeast and sugar in the remaining 2 tablespoons warm water, then add the milk to the dough after you have added the water mixture. Another Cantonese-style addition for richness’s sake is to cut 1 tablespoon soft lard (home-rendered or store-bought processed) into the flour before adding the liquid. Without them, you will still get a good-tasting dough.
Active dry yeast that is good and fresh (check the expiration date on the package) and double-acting baking powder are both helpmates in producing a high-rising dough. The baking powder must be kneaded in at the end, just before shaping the buns.
Longer rising in a cool place and two risings result in a perceptibly lighter dough with a finer texture. This is something I learned in
dim sum tea house kitchens, where doughs are typically left to rise overnight. The filling must be thoroughly cool and not liquidy, and the dough must be firm yet not dry, if the pleats are to stay securely shut and the bun is to hold its shape during the rising and steaming.
You must leave a thickish nickel-size “belly” (as it is called in Chinese) in the center of each dough wrapper when you are rolling it out. The way to achieve this is to roll from the outer perimeter of the circle toward the center (without rolling clear into the center), turning the wrapper after each roll. This puffy belly makes the smooth side of the bun equal in thickness to the pleated side, and insures that when the dough is stretched around the filling it does not become so thin that it will burst during rising or steaming.
To roll the wrapper with greatest ease and speed, use an inch-thick dowel 10 inches long. This enables you to roll with one hand on the top of the dowel, freeing your other hand to turn the wrapper after each roll, as
illustrated. Your hand on the dowel gives you maximum control, so you don’t roll over the belly. The dowel is a standard item in dim sum kitchens, occasionally sold in Chinese or Japanese hardware stores. For a perfect substitute, go to a hardware or lumber store where they will cut a 10-inch segment from an unfinished, inch-thick dowel or broomstick. Resist the natural temptation to stuff the bun too full! About 2–2½ tablespoons is the usual limit. If you stretch the dough too much to accommodate the filling or have filling popping out as you pleat it shut, it will burst open most every time. If filling seeps out when you are almost done pleating, spoon it out rather than try to force it in.
The amount of filling that will fit neatly into a bun is variable, depending upon the compactness of the filling, the character of the dough, and the cook’s agility in pleating. Chinese cookbook practice is generally to say “divide the filling into X number of portions,” and that’s one route. Another is to say, as I’ve done here, begin with 2 tablespoons and see whether that’s too much or too little. Extra filling can be eaten up by the bun maker as a reward for hard labor, and extra dough can be shaped into 1 or more small loaves and either steamed or baked for a morning bun.
The pleats must be tiny to hold well and be pretty. The traditional method is to pleat ½ inch of dough precisely in half to form a small pleat ¼ inch wide. The pleats should build out accordion-style in a straight line from your thumb; your thumb never moves and the pleat is pressed into place by your first finger. Study the
illustration and practice with a piece of material before you try making a bun. When you have gone as far as you can and the end of your thumb is preventing the dough from pleating entirely shut, you will be left with a small fluted hole like the top of a volcano. Close the hole by pinching it between your thumb and your bent first finger (just like you would chuck someone’s cheek), then secure the closure by twisting the dough into a tiny “topknot” in the same direction as you have been pleating (which is
opposite the direction that the pleats will be facing.) The buns may be left to rise and steam pleated side up, or they may be overturned if you like. Northern and central Chinese seem to favor steaming and presenting the buns pleated side up. The southern style is to turn them over, smooth face to the world.
After shaping, the buns should be placed on small squares of silicon (no-stick) parchment paper or lightly greased plain parchment or greased wax paper to rise and steam. Otherwise, they will stick to the baking sheet, the steamer, or ungreased paper, and be a mess to remove in one piece. Use solid vegetable shortening to grease the paper.
Steam the buns over moderately high heat, high enough to create a steady gush of steam, then turn off the heat and let the steam subside for 5 minutes before slowly lifting the steamer lid. If you lift the lid immediately and hit the buns with a gush of cold air, they will collapse or wrinkle.
Steam the buns in such a manner that there is no condensation dripping down on them. You may use a bamboo steamer, which absorbs condensation, a single-tier metal steamer with a dome-shaped lid, or stack several metal tiers on top of one another if you stretch a finely woven cotton cloth (like a fine cheesecloth or flour sacking) tautly between each one to asborb the water that drips from the metal. Water raining down during steaming will result in a water-logged, beached bun.
If you are short on steaming space, you should steam the buns in several batches, then return them in a pile to the steamer and let them heat through just prior to serving. When uncooked, they must be steamed in one layer with 1½ inches between them, but once steamed they will reheat perfectly in a pile without sticking.
You may choose to
bake any bun that is designed to be steamed. The texture, of course, will be different, but the taste is thoroughly good.
For baked buns:
The topknot must be securely twisted shut and the buns are best left to rise and bake
smooth side up to insure that the bun stays closed and the filling does not dry out. Just prior to baking, brush the smooth tops and sides of the buns with a mixture of 1 beaten egg plus 1 teaspoon water or milk (and ½–1½ teaspoons sugar, if you like, for sweeter, meaty fillings). Bake in the center of a preheated , until golden, spacing the buns 1½–2 inches apart on heavy-duty or doubled baking sheets, each bun atop its parchment or greased paper square. Rotate the tray after 10 minutes to insure even baking and have a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven (or mist the oven walls periodically with a flower mister) to create steam and prevent the buns from drying out. 350° oven for 20–25 minutes
Excess dough may be shaped into a round, left to rise, and then steamed or baked off as a miniature bread. Brush with beaten
egg if baking.