Monday, July 29, 2019

Taiwanese raisin cream buns

One of the mainstays of any Taiwanese bakery worth its salt is the raisin bun. It’s unlike anything we have in the West. The filling is creamy, and yet not like pastry cream, but rather with a slightly sandy texture that contrasts wonderfully with the yeasty dough.

My main complaint whenever I ate these (yes, I found time to complain between big mouthfuls) was the tiny little nuggetty raisins. They were chewy and often blah, and so seemed to be there more for visual contrast than anything else. 

I guess it's because I’ve always been a major fan of plump raisins, which aren’t that hard to achieve: all you need are relatively fresh raisins (dried up fossils are beyond redemption) and boiling water, and voila, they’re delectable.

Plumped-up raisins
The other thing I’d get cranky about was the use of margarine instead of butter. I go totally Julia Child when it comes to pastries. Go butter or go home is my mantra. But not all butters are made equal. There’s salted and unsalted, organic and not, cultured and not, and so forth. Here’s my suggestions: salted is fine for the pastries here. The advantage of unsalted is that you can calibrate the salt levels a little easier, but truth be told, the pastries will turn out great no matter what kind you use here.

I’d always head for the organic butters simply because they’re better for me (and you). But use your own judgment. 

When it comes to cultured butter, though, if you can find it, do try it. There’s a fabulous depth of flavor in cultured butter that makes other butters seem bland by comparison. And in pastries like this one, where butter turns up everywhere, a really great butter will make a world of difference in the aroma and taste. So try it and see what I mean.

Fill the dough with cream & raisins
This recipe was a lot of fun to figure out. The main thing to nail down here was the creamy filling, which is called naisu in Chinese. 

I got rid of the things like custard powder that tend to clog up too many things with their stale vanillin flavor, and then played around with the ratios until it was like the buns of my dreams. 

The topping is pretty much the same thing, but without the egg, so that it ends up like little snowflakes on the top.

Beautiful and delicious.

Raisin cream buns
Pútáogān năisū miànbāo 葡萄乾奶酥麵包
Makes 16 large buns

Shape the filled bun
½ cup | 75 g raisins (see Tips)
Boiling water, as needed
½ cup | 110 g | 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup | 85 g powdered sugar
1 cup | 100 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk
1 tablespoon bread yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 cups | 600 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g more for kneading
The snowy topping
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons powdered sugar
¼ cup | 50 g Chinese flour
2 teaspoons powdered milk
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened

Egg wash:
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water

1. First make the filling: Place the raisins in a heatproof bowl and cover them with boiling water. Place a saucer on top to speed up the plumping process. When they are fat and juicy (say, around 20 minutes), drain off the water and let the raisins sit on a paper towel to soak up the extra moisture. Cream the butter, powdered milk, powdered sugar, egg, and vanilla together with a food processor, stand mixer, or large work bowl until you have a light and relatively lump-free cream. Stir in the raisins. Divide the filling into 16 even pieces.

2. Now make the dough: Mix the warm water, powdered milk, yeast, and sugar together in your food processor, stand mixer bowl, or a large work bowl. (BTW, you don’t need to wash out the bowl before you do this.) Give the yeast time to wake up and become very foamy, which should take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t get a good head of foam, buy fresh yeast and start over.

Final rising
3. Stir the egg, flour, salt, and oil into the yeast mixture to form a soft dough. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the hook attachment; use a metal blade for the food processor, of it you’re doing this by hand, flour a smooth work surface and dump the dough out on top. Quickly knead the dough, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking, until it is smooth and bouncy. Roll the dough into a ball and lightly flour it. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel, stick the bowl over the top to help keep the dough moist, and wait until the dough has risen to at least twice its original size, which will take about an hour.

4. While the dough is rising, make the topping: Mix together all of the ingredients until smooth. That’s it.

5. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to keep them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat a convection oven to 350°F | 175°C (375°F | 190°C for a regular oven) and set 1 rack near the center.

6. Working on one piece at a time, and working on a lightly floured surface, roll a piece into a disc about 5 inches| 13 cm in diameter. Place one ball of filling in the center and bring up the edges around it to seal the filling well. Shape the bun into a oval shape with the smooth side on top. Repeat with 7 more of the buns and filling so that 1 baking sheet is filled. Let the buns rise for about 15 minutes.

Better than Taipei's!
7. Brush half of the egg wash all over each of the buns, and then break up the topping so that it can be easily scattered over the buns, sort of like snow. Sprinkle half of the topping along the center of each bun so that it becomes glued to the buns—don't worry if some of it ends up on the baking sheet. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the buns are a lovely golden brown. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 for the remaining 8 pieces of dough while the first batch is cooking.


I like to use Middle Eastern raisins for these buns because their flavor is often incredibly intense. See if you can find really dark, really deeply flavored raisins, since they will make these buns almost magical.

Use good quality butter for this recipe—there is so much of it that a really tasty butter becomes the main flavoring.