Monday, January 8, 2018

Cheesy pork fluff buns

I’m pretty passionate about these savory pastries, for the Taiwanese bakeries of my well-fed Taipei years back in the seventies and eighties offered them everywhere. 

Up on the main drags and down through the backstreets, they ranged from really good to downright fabulous, depending upon the genius of the local baker.

When made with care, these are sort of like ham and cheese sandwiches that went to heaven and grew wings. For, instead of ham, you get a nice mouthful of that crunchy, porky cotton known as rousong, and instead of a boring old slice of cheese, well, the cheese is baked into puff pastry. And everything is contained in a delicious egg dough. 

I mean, am I alone in thinking that this is downright brilliant?
Everything I want in a sandwich

Now for the bad news: I just cannot find good ones in any bakery anywhere anymore. Plain old puff pastry (and not very good pastry, at that) covers the top. Boring. A smidgen of pork fluff hides inside (and not very good pork fluff, at that). Boring. The bread lacks personality and flavor. Boring. And the puff pastry is never crisp and flavorful. Sacrilege. Last time I bought one, I took a bite and tossed it out, it was that bad.

These have to be made at home, at least until we get the Taiwanese-style bakeries around here to stop fooling around and back to making these with pride. And so, in the hopes of prodding this dream into reality, here is my recipe. As usual, I went a bit nuts, but if you get a chance to make a sammie just the way you want your sammie, why would you make your sammie any way else, I ask you?
Cheese & butter!

And so, there’s lots of cheese in the puff pastry. No other recipe I've been able to find does this anymore. In fact, no cheese at all is now the standard. Goodness knows why... I mean, that's the whole point of these buns! The name in Chinese literally starts with the word for “cheese,” for Pete's sake.

I’ve looked everywhere for a good recipe, but no one uses cheese in these things anymore, just puff pastry, and so I decided to tackle this. After much experimentation, I have the answer. Two (yes, two) kinds of cheese are layered into the puff pastry along with a smidgen more of butter. This permeates the pastry with cheesiness, while the butter acts as glue and helps amp up the puffiness factor.

You can use whatever hard cheese you like here in any combination. Please note the word “hard." You don’t want mozzarella and you don’t want Brie. It has to be dry enough to grate and it also has to be something that won’t turn gooey as it melts, since otherwise you end up with pizza-like buns and soggy puff pastry. 

The bouncy bread dough
No, you want that cheese to brown into pure crunchiness and solid flavor, so go with the hard cheeses. Something flavorful is great—the sharpness of Parmesan and cheddar, for example, contrasts nicely with the milder flavors hiding underneath in the bun itself. I wouldn’t recommend using expensive cheeses in these buns, as the shredded stuff from Trader Joe’s works just dandy.

For the puff pastry itself, I went the easy route and sprang for some frozen Pepperidge Farms. You can, of course, go totally homemade, but it’s really not necessary. A good quality frozen pastry will do just fine once it’s been tweaked a bit.

Now, for the filling: I couldn’t leave well enough alone there, either, could I? So, in addition to some storebought pork fluff, I tossed it with toasted sesame seeds for nuttiness, as well as  a little bit of oil to clump things together and add a touch of unctuousness. The sesame seeds really send this over the top with their lovely little explosions of flavor and texture. I am so proud.
Pack in the filling

Yes, I am more than a little bit obsessive. But as I keep saying, I love my job…


Cheesy pork fluff buns
Zhīshì ròusōng miànbāo  芝士肉鬆麵包
Taiwan
Makes 16 large buns

Dough:
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
1½ teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons | 30 g unsalted butter, softened

Topping:
Pleat the edges around the filling
1 sheet (about 8.5 ounces | 245 g) good quality frozen puff pastry, defrosted under a tea towel
A little extra flour
¼ cup | 55 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
½ cup lightly packed | 60 g grated cheddar cheese
½ cups lightly packed | 60 g shredded Parmesan cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten, mixed with 1 teaspoon water
Black sesame seeds, as needed

Filling:
1 cup | 150 g toasted sesame seeds (any color is ok)
¼ cup | 60 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Butter, cheese, cheese, butter
2 cups lightly packed | 130 g pork fluff (commercial is fine)

1. First 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. 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.

2. Stir the egg, flour, salt, oil, and butter 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; or, if 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.
16 squares

3. While the dough is rising, make the crunchy cheesy topping: Prepare a smooth, clean work surface (see Tips) and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Have a rolling pin, pizza cutter (see Tips), and flour ready. Lay the defrosted puff pastry sheet out (it will be about 9 inches | 23 cm direct from the package) on the work surface and sprinkle it lightly with flour before rolling it into a 12 x 12 inch | 30 x 30 cm square. Use your pizza cutter to cut it in half to create 2 rectangles. Spread half of the softened butter over the puff pastry. Sprinkle half of both cheeses over the right half of the dough, and then flip the buttered side of the left piece of dough on top of the cheesy side. Gently roll this rectangle out until it is more or less a 12 x 24 inch | 30 x 60 cm rectangle.

4. Again, use your pizza cutter to slice this in half to make 2 squares. Spread the rest of the butter on the right-hand square, sprinkle it with the rest of the cheese, and lay the other square on top. Gently roll this out to make it even. Cut this into 16 more or less even squares (3 vertical cuts and 3 horizontal cuts). Cover these with a clean tea towel.

First egg wash
5. Now prepare the filling: Toss together all of the ingredients until they sort of stick together. That’s it.

6. Cut the dough into 16 even pieces. Toss them with flour and cover with a dry tea towel to prevent them from drying out. Cover 2 baking sheets with either Silpat or parchment paper. Heat your oven to 350°F | 175°C and set 1 rack near the center.

7. 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, with the edges rolled out thinner than the center. The best way to fill these breads is to pack one portion (3 tablespoons | 20 g) into a small cup. Then, with the disc of dough centered on the forefinger and thumb of your non-dominant hand, push the center of the dough down gently into your fist to make a little basket. Dump the lump of filling into the center of the dough, and press down on it so that it too sits more or less inside your fist. Bring up the edges around it and pleat them as you go to seal the filling in well. Shape the bun into a round 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.
Second egg wash + sesame seeds

8. Brush the egg wash all over each of the buns. Set a square of the topping on each of the buns and then brush these again with the egg wash. Finally, sprinkle some black sesame seeds in the center of each bun. Set the pan in the center of the oven and bake for about 18 to 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. Cool slightly and eat. These freeze well and only need to be heated up again before serving.

Tips

This recipe is a whole lot easier than it looks. Do it once, and you will have it down pat.

Rolling pin & silicone mat
Whenever I work with pie pastry or puff pastry now, I’ve come to rely on a nonstick pastry mat to keep things corralled. These are silicone and slip-proof, plus they are all marked up with measurements, so I don’t need to whip out my ruler all the time. Highly recommended for those of you who love to bake.

Also great for these pastry sessions is a large French rolling pin. This has tapered ends, which makes it easier to direct pressure in certain areas as you shape a big piece of dough. Again, this is something you should consider adding to your culinary arsenal.

Use a pizza cutter for slicing up the dough, rather than a knife. Only light pressure is needed, which will save your work surface, especially if you have opted to use a silicone mat.

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