Friday, April 20, 2012

Lotus leaf buns

The Chinese have wonderfully fantastical names for some of their dishes. Ants Climbing a Tree (ground pork and mung bean noodles). Fly Heads (ground meat and chopped green beans). Rolling Donkeys. Dragon Spitting Pearls (sea cucumber and quail eggs). Beating the Tiger (lotus roots steamed with pork). You get the idea.

Others are just plain pretty, like today's dish, Lotus Leaf Buns. Made from basically the same recipe for steamed bread that appears throughout most of North China, these are split half-moons that are as gorgeous to look at as they are delicious to eat.

The name comes, obviously, from their shape. And though they look impossibly beautiful, they are a snap to make. All you need to do is whip up some Chinese steamed bread dough and shape it. A quick steam and you're done. They also freeze perfectly, so consider making extra for another meal down the road.

Fully risen dough
I've played with this recipe (like I do with just about every Chinese classic) to produce more of the flavors and colors and textures that I enjoy. Here, I've added powdered milk and baking powder to the dough for a number of reasons. First, the milk adds a lovely aroma and gentle sweetness, while the baking powder gives the dough a head start on the rise so that the buns turn out light and slightly chewy. One or the other also does something which I really like, too: it adds tan speckles to the breads, making them more leaf-like than ever!

Use good Korean noodle flour here, as always, because you will notice the difference as soon as you take a bite. In Chinese restaurants, these buns are generally made with low gluten flour, which makes them rise quickly and saves time, but these breads turn out sticky and gummy. On the other hand, regular American all-purpose flour is too hard, so the buns become tough. Just like Baby Bear's things in The Three Bears, this flour is juuuuust right.

Oil one half of the oval
Buns like these are traditionally served with things like roasted duck or honeyed ham, but you can offer simpler dishes to stuff in these like a Crispy Omelet, and you will be rewarded by a dish that is elevated from good to celestial. 

Offer plum sauce and shredded green onions, if you like, as these add more flavors and textures to this beautiful way of transporting good food from plate to mouth. Then, show your guests how to open up a bun, dab a bit of the sauce and onion in there before tucking in a piece of the main attraction. Use your hands or your chopsticks to then pick up the sandwich and enjoy.

Lotus Leaf Buns 
Heye juan 荷葉卷  
Makes 20 buns

1 cup warm filtered water
Very foamy yeast
2½ teaspoons (one ½-ounce package) dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons powdered milk (any kind, see Tips), optional
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil (see Tips)
2¾ cups Korean noodle flour
Extra flour, as needed
Peanut or vegetable oil, as needed

1. Pour the water into the bowl of a food processor (or a medium work bowl). Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and add the sugar. Allow the yeast to wake up and foam, which will take at least 15 minutes. Add the salt, optional powdered milk, oil, and flour, and use the metal blade on your processor to beat the ingredients together until they form a nice, smooth ball. (Or, mix the ingredients together by hand.) Cover the dough and let it rise until double. It will be ready when you insert your fingers into the dough and the impression stays there.

2. Lightly flour a clean, smooth work surface. Dump the dough onto the surface and use your hands to shape it into a thick, even cord that is 20 inches long. Use a pastry cutter to cut the cord into 20 even pieces. Lightly dust the dough pieces with a bit of flour and use a dry tea towel to cover any you aren't working on.
Shaped & ready for rising

3. Use a small rolling pin to roll a piece out into an oval that is around 4 inches by 3 inches. Paint one half of the oval with some of the extra oil and then fold the other half of the oval on top to form a half circle. Lightly mark the moon with radiating spokes so that it looks like a leaf. (See the picture on the right.) You can even pinch the middle of the folded edge so that it has a bit of a stem. Place the finished bun on a clean tea towel and cover it, and then allow it to rise for around 15 minutes. Repeat with the rest of the dough until you have 20 finished buns.

4. You will most likely have to steam these in batches, as most regular steamers will hold around 5 of these buns (see Tips). Steam the buns for about 15 minutes until they are completely risen and puffy. Remove the steamer from the heat and place the buns on a clean towel to cool off a little bit if you are not serving them immediately. These can be made ahead of time and frozen. Just place the steamed buns on a lined cookie sheet in a single layer and freeze solid before transferring them to a resealable freezer bag. To serve, just steam them again until hot.


Cut into even pieces before rolling out
Experiment with the milk powders, if you like, as they give different results. Powdered nonfat milk is tasty and has a sweet aroma. Goat milk is slightly gamier, but I like it too, as it makes the buns' flavor more assertive.

Use whatever oil you like. Do note that peanut oil will give a slight peanut flavor to the finished buns, so use a more neutral oil if you think this might conflict with whatever you are using as the filling.

A bamboo steamer works better here, since the steam drips off easier and gets absorbed by the basket. Metal ones, though, tend to collect water around the edges and on the buns; this will make some of the buns wet on the bottom. If a metal steamer is the only kind you have, use a steamer liner of some sort -- paper or cloth -- and then remove the steamed buns to another clean towel, flipping them over so that the wet bottoms are on top; they will dry out quickly as they cool.

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