Monday, June 24, 2019

Taiwanese pineapple buns

Today's delightful pastries are an inescapable part of any good Chinese bakery’s landscape. They also confuse the heck out of people who try them for the first time because there is absolutely no pineapple in there. 

Pineapple buns get their name from the scored surface, which, you have to admit, does look more than a bit like a pineapple’s skin. 

I’ve loved these ever since I first moved to Taiwan and figured out through repeated tasting trips that they were remarkably good even though no fruit was involved.

It’s really a genius pastry: a crunchy cookie coating hides a soft raised bun, and that’s about it. When done right, the flavors are also super simple, as you taste little more than good butter, sugar, and yeast.
A thing of beauty
I’d like to give Taiwan all the credit for this, but I can’t. I am also unable to tell you that this was the invention of some clever Japanese pastry chefs, even though this bread wound its way to Taiwan via Japan. No, this is a variation on the Mexican concha. Next time you go to a Mexican market, check out their bakery, as you will find all sorts of buns with airy toppings there. Most of them will be shaped like shells, which is what concha means, of course.

Anyway, good things to eat have a way of finding new and appreciative audiences, and these conchas eventually came to look more like little pineapples.

What I like about making these myself is that I get to taste really good ingredients in here instead of too much sugar, cheap fats, and poor quality flour. Since there really are not that many things in here, the best eggs, butter, and flour will turn these into wonderful pastries.

The soft cookie dough
I’ve also put more cookie on top than is usually called for. I mean, a commercial bakery is probably going to cut corners, but when you make these yourself, you should emphasize whatever aspects of that recipe genuinely appeal to you, and that crunchy topping is definitely something that makes me smile.

To be honest, I’ve tried and tried to make these, but they never turned out right. Then, one time I figured out that cake flour had to be used in the bread, rather than all purpose, even though it was a yeast dough. The results were perfection: soft and light, yet just tensile enough to rise into light bubbles, almost like a brioche.

But the cookie dough threw me another curve ball, since I found that bread flour was needed to give this paste enough body to work with it without it falling apart.

None of this makes any sense, if you have much experience as a baker: cake flour for the bread, bread flour for the cookie part. And yet it works. Go figure.
Cookie dough on top of bread dough
So, throw these together soon. They don’t take much time, and if you give one to a Chinese friend, your reputation as a great baker will become a thing of legend.

Pineapple buns
Bōluó bāo 菠蘿包
Taiwanese cuisine
Makes 16

Bread dough:
1 package | 2½ teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons | 30 ml warm water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup | 240 ml very warm water
¼ cup | 25 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Around 4 cups | 560 g unbleached cake flour
1 teaspoon unsalted butter, softened, to grease the bowl

Cookie dough:
2 sticks (1 cup | 120 g ) unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons | 80 g sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Foamy yeast = live yeast
1½ cups | 240 g unbleached bread flour

Water, as needed
1 large egg, lightly beaten, for the egg wash

1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the 2 tablespoons warm water and let the yeast soften and bloom while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Stir the yeasty water after about 10 minutes – it should be foaming at this point, which shows that the yeast is still alive. If nothing is going on in the cup, get some new yeast.

2. Stir the softened butter and salt into the cup of very warm water until the butter melts, and then stir in the powdered milk. Place 3 cups | 320 g cake flour in a medium work bowl and then stir the yeast mixture and the egg to form a sticky dough. Add more flour until it is manageable, and then turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead the dough, adding more flour as needed, until it is soft and tensile. Clean and dry the work bowl, then smear the teaspoon of butter inside. Form the dough into a smooth ball and place it in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm place until it is double in bulk. Punch it down, turn it over, and cover again until it is again double in size.
Scoring the top

3. As soon as the bread dough is given a chance to rise, make the cookie dough, since it needs to chill for at least an hour. Use a stand or hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar together until light. Add the egg and flour, and then mix until smooth. Scrape the cookie dough into a smaller container, cover, and chill for at least an hour.

4. Line two baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper. Divide the bread dough into 16 even pieces and roll these into balls. Set 8 balls on each lined sheet. Let the dough rise while you work on the cookie dough.

5. Arrange two racks in the oven toward the center and then heat the oven to 350°F | 170°C. Prepare 2 sheets of plastic wrap and set them on your work surface. Divide the cookie dough into 16 even pieces and roll these into balls. Try to use only your fingers and the heel of your hand, rather than your palm, as these will not warm up the dough. Place a ball of cookie dough on a sheet of plastic wrap, cover it with the other piece, and press down on the dough with the heel of your hand to form a wide disc about 3 inches | 7.5 cm wide. Drape the disc over one of the balls of bread dough and pat the edges against the bread. Repeat with the other buns on that sheet.

6. Dip a plastic pastry scraper in flour and make 4 even lines across the top of a bun, then crisscross these with 4 diagonal lines. Wipe your scraper often on a wet towel and dip the edge in flour, as otherwise it will stick and make raggedly edges. Repeat this with the rest of the buns. Use a pastry brush to dab water over the cookie topping on each bun. Let the buns rise for about 20 minutes.
A water + an egg wash

7. Just before you place them in the oven, brush that last beaten egg over the top of each bun, hitting the whole cookie, so that it will brown evenly. Bake the buns for about 30 minutes, rotating the sheets top to bottom and front to back halfway through the cooking time, until the tops are a golden brown. Slide the sheets with the buns onto a counter so that they stop cooking on the bottom, and nudge them free once they have cooled. Eat warm or cooled. They are wonderful with a pat of butter in the middle, too. Store in an airtight container.