Monday, February 19, 2018

Fried gold thread buns

Happy Year of the Dog!

This is one of the first banquet foods that completely blew my mind during that initial year in Taiwan. Why fried buns like this aren’t sold everywhere in the world is beyond my comprehension. 

For, they are like doughnuts, but not as sweet. and they're like beignets, but better. And, if I'm going to get all poetic on you, these are like the toast and jam the angels must dine on. And if they don’t, I would like to know why.

Gold thread buns are a variation on silver thread buns (also known as yínsījuăn 銀絲卷), which are a variation on mántóu 饅頭, or plain steamed buns. 

Silver thread buns are, I admit, much more common just about everywhere in Taiwan and North China. And you can make them easily from this recipe by simply not adding the sweet potatoes in Step 3. It’s that simple. And this will give you something that is honestly amazing.
Steamed gold thread buns

But the sweet potatoes here are so good. They make these buns look like a gorgeous cross between sushi and eggs. Plus, that mild vegetal sweetness transforms into something magically aromatic in here.

These buns are also all about texture, for the dough threads offer up a silky quality that teases the tongue underneath the tensile outer dough wrapper. 

Mashed sweet potatoes
And that’s the reason why these buns are so beloved at big northern-style banquets, at least back when I was a student in Taipei. This was treat food reserved for holidays and weddings, not something you could get every day. And yet, even then, these hadn’t reached the absolute pinnacle of dream food status, at least in my book.

No, for that you had to fry them. And serve them with a little dish of sweetened condensed milk on the side. Yes, I understand your trepidation, since we just don’t serve bread with condensed milk in the West, but stick with me here. Try this. It’s an insane level of delicious. 

Ask your Taiwanese friends whether they’d like to try a batch and watch them start to drool as their eyes roll back into their heads. Yup, they are that good.
Wrap the mash in the dough

Fried gold thread buns
Zhá jīnsījuăn 炸金絲捲
North China
Makes 24, serves 6

1½ teaspoons bread yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1¼ cups | 300 ml warm water
Spray oil
3 cups | 450 g Chinese flour (or ⅔ all purpose flour + ⅓ pastry or cake flour), plus extra for kneading and shaping the dough
1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter or butter substitute, or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 70 g cooked and mashed red sweet potatoes, pumpkin, or carrots
Butter up the "threads"
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar or coconut sugar
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or butter substitute, or vegetable oil, divided in half
Vegetable oil, as needed
Sweetened condensed milk, homemade or store bought, as needed

1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the warm water, stir them in, and wait until the yeast has a heavy head of foam, about 30 minutes. While the yeast is blooming, set up your steamer. You’ll need two baskets lined with steamer paper. Spray the paper with oil. Cover the baskets, fill the pan with water, and bring the pan to a full boil with the baskets on top. This will warm up the baskets and make them ready for the buns.

Arrange the "threads" on the white dough
2. Measure the flour into a medium work bowl and pour in the yeast mixture, butter, and salt. Mix these together to form a flaky dough, and then turn this out onto a clean work surface. Knead the dough with a bit more flour until it is as soft as an earlobe and no longer sticky. Divide the dough into approximately two-thirds and one-third. Set the large ball of dough back in the bowl and cover it with a towel to rest while you prepare your “gold threads.”

3. Pat the smaller ball of dough into a cup-like shape on a heavily floured surface and pile the mashed sweet potatoes and brown sugar into the center. Use a pastry scraper in one hand to corral the dough while you knead it with the other. Add more flour as necessary until you have a soft dough that is no longer sticky.

4. Scrape your work surface clean and then smear it lightly with oil. Flatten the orange dough out into a thin rectangle, about 18 x 9 inches | 45 x 22 cm in size. Use a pastry brush to smear half of the melted butter over the dough. Fold the dough in thirds, so that you have a packet about 6 x 9 inches | 15 x 22 cm in size. Roll this up from one of the wide edges into a cylinder about 9 inches | 22 cm long. Use a sharp knife to cut the cylinder into thin strips, about ⅛ inch | 0.3 cm wide. Lay these strips out flat on a clean work surface, brush the rest of the melted butter on them, and let them rest while you prepare the bun wrappers.

5. Scrape your work surface clean and lightly flour it. Divide the white dough in half. Working on piece at a time, roll one piece out into a thin sheet, about 20 x 7 inches | 45 x 11 cm in size. Pick up a small bunch of the orange dough threads and pull on them gently so that they turn into strings. Don’t worry if some of them break—no one will notice later on. Lay these strings lengthwise down the center of the white sheet of dough. Repeat with the orange dough threads until you have used up half of them.

6. Fold one long end of the dough over the orange dough threads and then continue to roll it up and over the orange threads to form a long rope. Pinch the end of the dough into the cylinder to seal it. Then, lightly roll the dough with the palms of your hands to even it out, and then gently pull on it to make it around 10 inches| 25 cm long.

7. Trim off the ends and cut the rope into 12 even pieces. Roll each one of the little buns to return it to a nicely round shape (see photo on the upper right). Set these on the oiled paper in the steamer and steam the buns over high heat for about 10 minutes. Once the buns have cooked through, nudge each one loose from the paper while they are still hot. Repeat with the rest of the orange and white doughs until you have formed 24 small buns. These can be frozen at this point, refrigerated and then reheated, or eaten immediately. But for pure sensory overboard, go to Step 8.
Frying up the buns

8. To fry these buns, set a 1 quart | 1 liter pan over medium-high heat and fill it with about 2 inches | 5 cm oil. The oil will be ready when chopsticks inserted in the hot oil are immediately covered with bubbles. Slide in 4 or so buns. Do not overcrowd them, as they will fry up fast, and you don’t want them to stick to each other. Turn the buns over as they brown. When they have turned a golden brown all over, remove to a plate lined with paper. Serve immediately with a saucer filled with sweetened condensed milk.

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