Monday, August 5, 2019

A chewy take on a Taiwanese classic bread

Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to live in Taiwan for any length of time has probably been seduced by the bakeries there, and I proudly count myself among the many who can never say no to a fresh hot bun. 

These bakeries tend to offer Chinese takes on Western breads, pastries, and cakes, which can be odd and confusing at first. I remember biting into my first pork fluff bun and wondering what was going on in my mouth. (And if you’ve never tried pork fluff, or ròusōng 肉鬆, it’s a light and flossy creation that takes braised boneless pork and then tosses it with oil in a wok over heat until it falls apart into feathery bits. It’s totally strange and totally delicious.)

Anyway, back to that bun: the bread was on the sweet side, like a Parker House roll with a bit more sugar added, and mayonnaise had been used to glue the pork fluff onto the top of the bun. But after a few cautious nibbles, I realized what a great thing I had in my hand, and it disappeared in a flash.

Get lively, super fresh onions
Other local bakery delights – and many of these you can find in a Chinese bakery if you happen to live near a place with lots of Chinese folks – include pineapple buns (which don’t have any pineapple in them, as they are actually more like Mexican conchas and are topped with a crumbly layer that’s shaped like a pineapple skin), taro buns with the mashed purple paste inside, the usual suspects like red beans and custard, buttery fillings studded with raisins, and a million other concoctions.

One of my all-time favorites, though, are these Green Onion Baked Buns. They smell absolutely heavenly, and I adore the salty, oniony layer that cuts into the gentle sweetness of the bread, giving this particular pastry a lot of personality. The fact that it’s more savory than sweet also makes it especially attractive to me, since that means I can wolf down quite a few without feeling too ill.

This dough's ready to go
I’ve messed around with this classic, though, since I am of the opinion that bread should have more texture. (If you’re a purist, just pull out your favorite recipe for Parker House rolls like this one and use it instead of my bread recipe.) Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the green onions. You really want to pile them on, for the bread will rise in the oven and give those onions plenty of surface to grab on to.

In order to give the onions as skid-free a surface as possible, I’ve learned to cut a deep cross into the top of the buns after they’ve been shaped, since this opens up air holes that are rough enough to give the onions something to cling to and nestled down into as the breads bake away. And because they are cut this way, the circles turn into squares, like magic. 

Traditionally the bakeries brush these with a light sugar syrup to make them glossy and add another layer of sweetness. Again, I don’t do that since I just find it messy and I’m aiming to veer away from too much sweetness here, but if you prefer, you can boil up a light sugar syrup (1 part sugar boiled with 3 parts water until the sugar completely dissolves) and dab it on at the end.

Mound on the onions
I’d store any leftover buns in the fridge for a day or two. But I’m just guessing here. We plow through these the same day they’re made. These are great for rainy days when you want to stay at home, steam up the windows, and then revel in some good food while the storm rages outside.

Green onion baked buns
Táishì cōnghuā miànbāo  台式蔥花麵包
Makes 16

2 teaspoons active yeast
¾ cup | 175 ml warm water
6 tablespoons | 85 g sugar

1 cup | 140 g Chinese flour, or ⅔ cup all-purpose and ⅓ cup pastry flour, plus extra as needed
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3½ tablespoons | 50 ml water
¼ cup | 55 g salted butter, softened
1 teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil

8 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 to 2 teaspoons sea salt
Spray oil

1. Mix the yeast with the warm water and sugar, and let it proof for 20 to 30 minutes. You should have a nice froth going on in there, and if you don’t, toss it out and buy new yeast.

2. Mix the flour and salt together in a medium work bowl. Whisk the egg and water together, reserve 1 tablespoon for the topping, and add the rest of the egg mixture to the flour, along with the yeast mixture and butter. Combine to form a soft dough, and then knead it on a lightly floured board until the dough no longer is sticky, but rather is as supple and smooth as an earlobe. Rinse out the bowl, oil it lightly, return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise until double. Turn the dough over on itself (fold the edges into the center all the way around), flip the dough over, cover, and let it again rise until double. It is ready when you poke two fingers into the dough and the holes don’t collapse on themselves.

"Tiger's mouth"
3. While the dough is rising, prepare the topping by tossing the green onions with 1 tablespoon salt. Scrunch the onions and salt together and then take a taste – if you prefer a slightly saltier taste, add more salt. (I do.) Prepare 2 baking sheets by spraying them with oil. Heat the oven to 350°F | 175°C and arrange the racks near the center of the oven.

4. To form the buns, cut the dough into 16 even pieces. (The easiest way to do this is to roll the dough out into an even rope 16 inches long, and then cutting it into 1-inch pieces – or you can figure out something equally easy using the metric system.) Toss the bits of dough lightly with some flour. Turn these knobs into evenly shaped balls using the “tiger’s mouth” technique: pop them through your fist as shown to the upper right.

Cut open each ball of dough
5. Use a sharp knife to cut a cross halfway through each ball (see photo to the lower right), and then set 8 balls on each baking sheet. Dab the insides of each cross with the leftover egg mixture and divide the green onions among the buns.

6. Let the dough rise another 20 minutes or so, and then bake until golden brown, or about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and back to front so that they all cook evenly. Remove the buns from the oven, cool them on a cake rack, and enjoy them as soon as you can without burning your mouth.