Monday, March 21, 2016

Something Chinese for the Easter Bunny, part 1

Easter is becoming a bit of a thing in China. The Chinese are great that way, adopting just about every Western holiday as another excuse to have fun and eat stuff. Peeps and hot cross buns have not taken the country by a storm, though, probably because there’s something so much better to chomp on there: bunny buns.

Baozi are made into all sorts of shapes in China, but the best and most traditional of all are rabbits. When I lived in Taiwan, these used to sometimes appear at the end of a major banquet, and they never failed to charm. Birthday celebrations for someone particularly old might produce buns shaped like longevity peaches, but, like today's recipe, they were basically plain steamed bread dough with a red bean filling.
Beautiful Easter Bunnies

Nowadays Chinese bakeries and dim sum parlors will offer steamed buns in any number of animals (like hedgehogs or pigs), vegetables (lifelike mushrooms are my favorite, followed by pumpkins and ears of corn), and even cartoon characters (such as Hello Kitty and panda heads). It’s clever and always entertaining, and the kids sure love this obvious nod in their direction.

Rabbits are traditional in China, though, and are deeply ingrained in its legends and art. One of the members of the Chinese zodiac is, of course, the rabbit, which puts it in pretty rarified company. (For some odd reason, the Japanese subbed out the rabbit for a cat. Boo.)

Dough and filling
The moon seems to have been connected to the rabbit since ancient times, probably because you can see the Jade Rabbit pounding out the elixir for longevity when the moon is at its fullest. So, think of cracking this out for the Moon Festival too if you want a break from all those moon cakes!

If you do an Internet search on rabbit-shaped baozi, you will see that most are not very successful. The reason for this is that the ears and other decorations are first added to the buns before they are steamed. But, if you clip open the ears and tail after the bread is steamed, you get very high detail and an almost lifelike appearance for these little guys. Thanks to the great Sichuan chef Chen Kenmin 陳建民 for this wonderfully easy and magical way to create rabbit buns. This idea came from the recipes he developed for a lovely 1980s cookbook called Zhōngguó diănxīn 中國點心. 
Wrap the filling in the dough

Note: Because Easter is this coming Sunday (3/27), I am going to put next week's blog post up a bit early - on Friday instead of Monday - so that you have time to make this other treat for the holiday, too. It's something that I like to think of as Chinese hot cross buns. It's not really the same thing, but you'll see...

Red bean bunny buns
Xiăotù dòushābāo 小兔豆沙包
Makes 16 buns

1 (15 ounce/430g) can red bean paste (see Tips)
¼ cup/60 ml toasted sesame oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
Make a plump half circle
½ cup/65g shelled walnuts, chopped and preferably toasted (see Tips), optional

1¼ cups/295 ml warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon/12g sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
2½ cups/320g white Chinese flour, plus extra for kneading
2 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons baking powder

1 drop red food coloring
Pinch in one end for the head

1. First make the filling: mix the red bean paste, oil, and salt together in a small pan over medium heat until the paste is bubbly and glossy, and all the oil has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Scrape the paste into a heatproof bowl and let it cool off. Cover and chill the paste for a couple of hours, if possible, so that it is easy to shape without squishing. If you are using them, mix in the chopped walnuts.

2. Make the dough as directed for the flower rolls, and be sure and add the 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 a double layer steamer and line it with steamer paper. Prepare the steamer baskets as directed in the flower rolls recipe.
Mr. Mantou & Miss Doudou

3. Divide the filling into 16 pieces and roll these into balls; keep the filling cold.

4. Now, before we start filling and shaping the buns, first study the pictures of our own buns on the right. Their names are Mantou (Steamed Bun) and Doudou (Little Bean). Cute, huh?

5. Working on one piece of dough at a time, flatten it into a circle about 3 inches in diameter. Place a ball of filling in the center and pinch the edges of the dough together over the filling so that you have a fat half-circle. Gently roll this between your hand and place it smooth-side up on the steamer paper; because they rise, be sure and leave an inch or so between the buns. This means that you probably will have to steam them in two batches, with four buns per basket. 

Blobs in the steamer
6. Now, pinch one end of the bun to form its head. Repeat these two steps with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 16 blobs that will improbably turn into bunnies. Just watch.

7. Let the buns rise for about 10 minutes, and then gently press in on either side of the faces once again so that they keep their shape in the steamer. Steam these for around 15 minutes, then let them sit in the steamer for another 10 minutes with the heat turned off so that they do not suddenly deflate.

The ears appear
8. Have a clean tea towel, a pair of kitchen shears, a bamboo skewer or toothpick with a flat end, and that drop of red food coloring ready in a small bowl. 

9. Here comes the fun part: making the rabbits appear. First, hold one of the hot buns on a tea towel so you don't burn your hands. Use your shears to clip the ears by aiming the tip of your scissors at the nose and then cutting the triangular ears from atop the rabbit's back.

10. Then, snip open the tail.
Then the tail

11. Finally, dip the flat end of your skewer/toothpick in the red food coloring and dab a little red eye on both sides of the head. 


I always get the Japanese brand of red bean paste called Ogura-an, which is slightly coarse in texture, not as sweet as the Chinese brands, and of great quality.

And then the eyes
It’s still pretty sweet and one note, though. To remedy this, I like to fry it with the sesame oil and a dash of salt, which rounds out the flavors. This also gets rid of the metallic flavor that hovers in the background.

To toast the walnuts, bake them at 300°F/150°C for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool before using.

These buns can be steamed and decorated, and then frozen. Steam them directly from the freezer for about 10 minutes. I'd strong suggest that you wait until you steam them the second time around before painting in the eyes, as you don't want the coloring to run. 

The end

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