One of the homiest, most comforting flavors around has to be that of taro. If you have never enjoyed this lovely tropical root, let me say that you should stop right here, head for an Asian store, buy some taro, and prepare to fall in love.
There is a warmth to taro that you just don’t find in other starchy vegetables. Yes, potatoes are nice in all their permutations, but they are, when you get right down to it, there is not an immense amount of flavor or texture. Sweet potatoes—especially delectable Garnets—are fabulous, but in a totally different way from taro. They are moist and honeyed, and when cooked the Shaanxi way, will ooze out caramel like nobody’s business.
Taro, though, has something else going on. Slightly fibrous, it cooks into a potato-like mass that smells slightly of vanilla and nuts (at least to my nose). My house has the most wonderful aromas whenever I cook with it, summoning my husband downstairs in an anticipatory trot to find out what’s on today’s menu.
|Taro with my mighty peeler|
Which brings us to today’s menu: baked taro buns. Nobody does baked buns like the Taiwanese. There is a lovely pan-Pacific carnival involved here, a perfect marriage between East and West. Like in those delicious green onion buns from two weeks ago, this is basically a variation on Parker House rolls, for they are rich and yeasty, with eggs and oil in the dough.
But what makes these so quintessentially Chinese are the taro filling and the spectacular shapes. I have, naturally, made these less sweet than what is traditional—you can of course make them as sweet as you want. I’ve opted instead for just a smidgen of white sugar in order to keep the pale lavender hue and a hunk of butter that is there just to keep things properly luscious. And since we have butter in the filling, I also used butter in the dough so that we have some happy harmony in each bite. Do note that I have not colored the taro, as way too many commercial bakeries do. (To be honest, I’m pretty sure that powdered mixes are involved, which sneaks in nasty old vanillin and a plethora of chemicals.) If you want, you can give this a violent violet hue. I’m not judging. Much.
Also note that the dough here is slightly less sweet than with those used for savory fillings. This will give you the proper juxtaposition between flavors so that you’re not overwhelmed with sugar. I’ve sanded them with coarse sugar, too, which is another reason to dial down the sweetness where you can.
As for the shapes, aren’t they beautiful? They look impossibly hard to make, but in fact are incredibly easy once you do a couple in order to get the knack down. Just fill a piece of dough as if you were making baozi, flatten it, and then slash it before rolling it up. How hard is that?
|Fresh from the steamer|
Like all of these buns I’m going to be talking about in the near future (I’ve been on a bit of a bun binge lately), these freeze well and heat up deliciously. Get a nice, crisp edge on them when you do that, and they might even be better than fresh out of the oven.
Taiwanese taro horseshoe buns
Yùní miànbāo 芋泥麵包
Makes 16 large buns
Around 1½ pounds | 700 g taro
½ cup | 115 g sugar
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons cream or milk
½ teaspoon sea salt
1½ cups | 300 ml warm water
|Filling the dough|
½ cup | 50 g powdered milk (nonfat or regular)
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
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water
¼ cup sanding sugar
1. First make the filling: Wear kitchen or latex gloves when working with raw taro unless you are sure you’re not allergic to it. Remove the skin with a potato peeler, rinse the taro, and cut it lengthwise into quarters. Then cut it into ½ inch | 1 cm slices. Steam the taro for 15 – 20 minutes, or until it can be easily flaked with a fork.
2. Mash the taro (make it as coarse or fine as you like), either by placing it in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, or in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or by hand. Add the sugar, butter, cream or milk, and salt, and mix thoroughly; if you’re using a food processor or stand mixer, you can beat it until it is light and fluffy. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you want to add food coloring, now is the time. Divide the filling into 16 even pieces.
|A baozi shape|
3. 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.
4. 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.
|Slash the dough|
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. Gently flatten the ball with the heel of your hand. Roll it out into a rectangular-ish shape about 8 x 4 inches | 20 x 10 cm.
7. Flip it over so the smooth side is on top, and then slash it horizontally about every ½ inch | 1 cm so that you just cut through the top layer, but not all the way through the dough. Flip it back over. Starting at the long edge, loosely roll the dough up so that the cuts are on the outside. Gently shape the bun into a horseshoe and use a pastry scraper to lift the bun onto a prepared baking sheet. You should be able to fit 8 of these buns on each sheet, but be sure to leave around 1 inch | 2 cm between them on all sides, as they will rise. Repeat this step with 7 more balls of dough in order to fill up the sheet.
|Roll it up|
8. Brush the egg wash all over each of the twists, and then sprinkle them generously with the sanding sugar. 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.
Use the large taro for this sort of filling, since it is very flavorful and starchy. Baby taro bulblets are much too moist and vegetal for this.
Some taro will be larger than footballs, and some will be cut into chunks. It doesn’t matter. Feel them all over and attempt to locate any soft spots, which indicates bruising and spoilage. Peel them with a heavy-duty potato or sugar cane peeler, remove any discolored or soft spots, and trim off the cut ends.
Prep more taro than you can use, as it will come in very handy once you become a taro addict. Simply place the cut-up slices in freezer bags and freeze. Use them before there’s a frost buildup, but otherwise these are ready to go when you are.
Reheat the buns before you eat them, if they’ve been refrigerated or frozen. Really try to aim for a crispy exterior, as this will magnify your eating pleasure immeasurably.
Video of the roll-making process