There's really no trick to these versatile little breads: this is straight-up bread making, only the dough is formed into little buns that are cooked in a steamer instead of formed into loaves. If you have a heavy-duty mixer with a dough hook, life becomes even simpler. And, once you master this basic recipe, you can then do all sorts of interesting things with it by changing the color and flavor, layering sesame paste or green onions in it (huājuǎn, or flower rolls), decorating the top of a big bread wheel with Chinese dates, filling the buns with sweet or savory stuffings (bāozi), kneading in green tea powder or nuts and grains, baking or frying them rather than steaming... the possibilities are endless, but over the next few months I'll do my best to make a dent in this delicious repertoire.
Shandong is the renowned center for steamed breads, and it bears its mantle well. I got to enjoy some of its many varieties when I lived on the outskirts of Taipei, as every morning a retired old soldier from Shandong would bike down my alley, singing out “Baozi mantou!” His bike was incredibly rusted and squeaky, and so I could hear him a few minutes before he hit my alley, giving me just enough time to get some cash together and rush outside. Sweet Mr. Liu would greet me with a big grin and shout out “Taitai!” (Madam) when he saw me, and his bike would lurch to a stop with a huge squeal.
|Ready for kneading|
Without even needing to hop off, he would turn around and fish into the wooden crate jerry-rigged behind his seat, peel back the clean white cloth that kept his steamed breads warm and fresh, and would count out into a plastic bag whatever I wanted that day: tan sweet mantou, plain white breads, the round buns filled with pork, and the triangular ones stuffed with red bean paste. I loved them all, and he would always throw in an extra one for good luck.
One day when I got back from a vacation, I ran out to buy some of his mantou and baozi as usual, and found that he was quite upset. “Where were you?” he asked, almost tearfully. “I thought you were mad at me!” And that was the way it was with all of my lovely food people; if I didn’t show up for three days, I’d get an earful the next time around.
Who needs Jewish guilt when you can have the Chinese version?
Plain steamed buns
Makes 12 to 16 buns
2 teaspoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1¼ cups warm filtered water
3 cups good quality Korean bread flour, plus ¼ cup for kneading (or, 2 cups all-purpose organic flour mixed with 1 cup pastry flour, and ¼ cup all-purpose flour for kneading)
2 tablespoons milk powder, optional but good
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Toasted sesame oil as needed
|Kneaded & shaped|
1. Start this the night before, if you can, as this gives the dough time to develop more flavor as it rises in the fridge. If not, start at least 4 hours before you want to serve the mantou. Place the water in a measuring cup and sprinkle on the yeast and sugar. Give the yeast time to wake up and foam, about 20 minutes; if it is not foamy by that time, the yeast is too old and you’ll have to buy a new batch (see Tips).
2. Pour the flour, milk, salt, and the yeast mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer (see Tips for doing this by hand) with a paddle attachment. Mix the ingredients together until it forms a dough, and then switch out the paddle attachment for a dough hook. Knead the dough with the mixer until it is smooth and shiny, adding more flour if necessary.
3. Lightly dust a flat surface with some flour and turn the dough out on the board. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes; when it is as soft and supple as an earlobe, clean out the mixing bowl, dry it thoroughly, and rub a bit of sesame oil all over the inside. Place the dough in the bowl, turn the dough over a couple of times so that it is completely coated, cover it with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise either on the kitchen counter for a couple of hours or in the refrigerator for about 8 hours, or until the dough is at least double in size. Check to see that the dough is ready by inserting two of your fingers deep into the top of the dough; if the holes remain after a minute or two, the dough is ready to be punched down. Smack it with your fist to break all of the bubbles in the dough, cover it again, and let it rise again until double, this time on the kitchen counter, since the dough will be easier to work with if it isn’t cold.
4. Sprinkle the baking powder on top of the dough and turn the dough over on top of the powder so that the baking powder is completely enclosed in the dough. Turn the dough out onto a flat surface and knead it again for a few minutes, dusting the dough with a bit more flour as needed to keep it from sticking. Prepare enough 2 x 2 inch wax paper squares, flattened cupcake liners, or Chinese mantou doilies for the number of mantou you are planning to make (i.e., 12 to 16).
5. Roll the dough out into a long rope, either 12 or 16 inches long. Use a knife or pastry scraper to cut the dough into 1-inch pieces of equal size. You can leave the dough in brick shapes or decorate them with knotting or slicing or pinching; see the top photo for one idea. Place each piece of dough on one of the prepared pieces of paper. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and let the mantou rise until they are double in size. While the dough is rising, prepare a double basket steamer and bring the water to a full boil under the steamer, giving the steamer baskets the chance to heat up thoroughly before the mantou are added. Place the mantou on their papers in the steamers so that they are an inch apart. Stack and cover the steamer baskets and steam them for around 15 minutes. Then, turn off the heat and let the steamer cool down for another 10 minutes, which helps keep the mantou puffy.
6. Serve while hot, or let the mantou come to room temperature. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag or frozen; to reheat, simply steam them again until heated through. (This is preferable to microwaving them, which tends to make them tough.)
Korean bread flour works best here; regular all-purpose is all right, but makes the mantou a bit less tender, so mix in pastry flour to give it just the right amount of gluten.
Some whole wheat flour can be added (as in the picture at the top) to give it extra flavor and color.
Buy yeast at a busy store and check the expiration date. Then, store it in the fridge. If you don't make a whole lot of bread, buy small envelopes of yeast as you need them.
To make this by hand, follow the directions for Silver Thread Rolls up to Step 2.