Friday, March 25, 2016

Something Chinese for the Easter Bunny, part 2

(Here is a recipe modified from my upcoming cookbook, All Under Heaven. We just sent the 514-page book off to the printer! Yay!

Red date steamed buns are especially beloved around the Lunar New Year. Oftentimes it appears as one or two large steamed breads with large red dates secured in a ring around the top. But making them as individual buns polka-dotted with baby dates gives you something weird and wonderful for the holidays. And not just for the New year.

Now that it’s already spring, I’m thinking that Easter could use a little excitement, too, so I've come to think of these as bizarre hot cross buns that look like a cross between alien spaceships, deep sea mines, and Christmas ornaments.

Remove the date pits (see the Tips below) if you are serving these to children or people who have problems with things like olive pits and crabshells. I like to make the buns in this recipe with all white flour so that there’s a dramatic contrast between the red and the white.

Note too that I’ve upped the flavor here with the addition of ground ginger, the same stuff you use for your cookies and cakes. It adds a wonderfully tasty undercurrent to the buns and also is considered warming and healthful. Combined with the red dates, this is great for anyone who is on the mend, pregnant, or just in need of some TLC.

Small red Chinese dates
My Chinese friends add all sorts of things to their own versions of steamed bread, and so should you. Health food fiends who share their bounty with me make theirs almost into a steamed granola with all sorts of whole grains, seeds, nuts, wolfberries, and raisins. Others make a chocolate layer for those flower rolls from last week. Yet others knead in dark brown sugar and toasted walnuts so that they end up with tastes a bit like a maple bar. I love my friends.

All this goes to show you that Chinese steamed breads are incredibly versatile. We will be making more in the months ahead, so stay tuned.

By the way, this decoration uses 9 dates per bun, which is a lucky number especially around the New Year, since it conveys wishes that you get everything you want (jĭurú 九如).
Risen dough, ready to go

Red date steamed buns
Hóngzǎo mántóu 紅棗饅頭
Makes 16 buns

1¼ cups/295 ml warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
¼ cup/50g sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2½ cups/320g white Chinese flour, plus extra for kneading (see Tip)
2 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons baking powder
144 small red dates, with or without pits (see Tips)

1. Make the dough as directed for the flower rolls, using the additional ingredients of ginger and salt. When the dough has risen and rested, lightly dust your work surface and pat it out into an even rope 16 inches long. Then, cut the dough into 16 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and cover with a towel to let them rest while you prepare the dates and the steamer.

2. Rinse the dates and pat them dry. Remove any small stems you find, as well as any odd looking dates; be sure you have 144 dates when you’re through, though.

Pinch a seam over the top
3. Now comes the fun part: shaping the buns. Form one of the balls into a half-dome shape by sitting it squarely on a lightly floured work surface. Then, pinch a ½ inch/1cm wide band from the left all the way over the top to the right. Use a paring knife to cut an incision through the band at the very top and slip a date through so that it is held by the tiny band of dough. Then make a cut near the left and right sides of the band and slip dates into those, as well. Halfway up the side of the dome on either side cut two more holes and add 2 more dates.

Stick the dates in the holes
4. Now turn the bun 45 degrees and pinch a band up both sides almost to the top; make incisions near the bottom and halfway up the sides so that you can add 4 more dates to the bun, giving you a total of 9 dates per bun. Cover the finished bun with a towel to let it rise a bit. Repeat this step with the rest of the balls of dough and dates.

5. Prepare the steamer baskets as directed in the flower rolls recipe and steam the buns for the same amount of time. They can be frozen and reheated as directed in those recipes, too.

Halfway done

You may use all-purpose flour here instead of Chinese flour. The crumb will not be as light, but these will still end up rocking your world.

The best Chinese dates for this recipe are small ones. Look at the selection at your Chinese grocery store, where they will be in the dry goods aisle.

At the time of this writing, two smaller varieties are commonly available: "chicken heart dates" (jīxīn zǎo 雞心棗) and the even tinier "golden thread dates" (jīnsī zǎo 金絲棗). There probably won't be an English translation on there, other than "Chinese jujubes" or something, so refer to the Chinese.
Ready to get steamed

Lots of times you can even get the dates already pitted (called wúhé 無核), which makes eating these buns a whole lot easier. This is especially recommended for people like kids and the elderly. 

If you can't have pits in your dates but can't find them already pitted, soak the larger ones in water overnight, drain, and then cut them in half to remove the seed inside, which looks like an olive pit. In that case, you'll only need half (72) of the dates called for in the recipe.

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