growing up, i had a direct source for chinese food.
it came via my friend's mother and grandmother who cooked all sorts of things and whose family owned a restaurant. though completely not kosher, i remember being fascinated by the different things they ate and how different their kitchen, or rather pantry, was compared to mine and my other friends' .... it was a world away from anything i knew.
one thing i particularly remember well were spongy cakes and other sorts of breads that were texturally very different from what i recognized as cakes and bread. they were very sweet and called things i could not pronounce. the funny part is that my, at that time, six year old friend would always try to snatch the stuff given me by the grandmother as soon as she left the room and throw it in the garbage! she told me not to eat it because she thought it was gross and then went to the pantry to grab cookies bought at the grocery store. little did she know, i actually liked the things i had tried.
i always end up thinking of this when i make mantou or chinese steamed buns. these breads can be made plain or stuffed with a filling, where they are called baozi. mantou can be a bit tricky in that if not made properly, they can turn out very dense after being steamed or shrivel up and become hard. there are many different recipes for mantou and baozi and, depending upon from which country the recipe comes, various versions ask for different types of flours and leavening agents.
the recipe i use here is pretty straightforward: bread flour, yeast, water and sugar. nothing fancy or strange for bread. what is different is the way they are cooked. they are put in a steamer and cooked by the vaporized water whereupon they swell up to round spongy masses which can be used to mop up the sauces from a dinner dish or just eaten plain as a snack. they can also be kept in the fridge for a few days and reheated by steaming them again.
what i do find important in making these successfully is that the dough be somewhat sticky and that it be fully proved. if it has not risen long enough, they usually turn out dense. they can be steamed in the traditional bamboo steamers or in a stainless one which fits on top of another pot.
most importantly, to get big spongy mantou buns, we have to look at the world of physics. the secret in not getting shriveled up (and often hard) buns is to keep the lid on! do not peek until after they have fully cooked and rested. if the lid is taken off the steamer before the buns have had time to rest, the exchange of temperature (pressure) cause them to lose their shape. so, now you know ...... go steam those buns! :)
plain chinese steamed buns
this recipe only makes 6 fist sized (ok, a little smaller) buns. double it if you want more.
1/2 tsp regular dry yeast
1/4 tsp sugar
2 tbsp warm water
1 1/2 c bread flour (or all purpose)
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 c + 1 tbsp warm water
prove the yeast first with the water and sugar.
in another bowl, mix the 2 tbsp of sugar with the flour.
make a well in the center of the bowl.
add the yeast mixture to the well.
add the warm water to the yeast in the well.
with chopsticks or a wooden spoon, mix the dough into the liquids.
stir until you have a shaggy dough.
make a ball and knead the dough for a good 10 minutes. it may be a bit sticky. don't add more flour until it is absolutely necessary. the more you knead it, the less sticky it will become.
place the dough in a bowl and cover. let rise for 2 hours in a warmish place like in an oven with the pilot light on or in your microwave.
once it has risen, punch it down.
make a log which is about 6 inches long.
cut 6 one inch pieces.
make a ball from each of them.
place the balls on a floured place and roll them in the flour.
cover the plate and let it rise again for about an hour. make sure the balls have some flour on the tops of them so they do not stick to the plastic wrap. this is important.
set up your wok and bamboo steamer(s). i do it in 2 batches as i only have one steamer.
i use my le creuset and make foil balls to rest the steamer on top of.
fill the pot or wok with enough water to steam the buns. do not place too much so that it touches the bottom of the steamer.
place the buns on the steamer which you have lined with a cloth. i use a damp j-cloth i have for cooking.
steam them on high heat, for 15 minutes only, watching that the water does not boil away. add more if needed.
turn off the heat and let the buns steam further untouched for another 10 minutes.
remove the steamer and the buns. repeat with the last 3 buns.