Chinese New Year is tomorrow (2/3) and It’s the Year of the Rabbit, according to the Chinese Zodiac calendar. I did a little research (i.e. one google search) and discovered that people born in this year (‘15, ‘27, ‘39, ‘51, ‘63, ‘75, ‘87, ‘99) are said to be articulate, talented and ambitious as well as virtuous, reserved and have excellent taste. Rabbit people are admired, trusted, and are often financially lucky. They are fond of gossip but are tactful and generally kind and seldom lose their temper. Hmmmm. Good to know. I think I read this on a Chinese placemat once. This year I’m going to celebrate by indulging in one of my all-time favorite things: dim sum.
I’m a dumpling fan of unparalled levels. Hitting a dim sum parlor early on a Sunday morning (gotta get there early to beat the crowds!) is on my list of top 5 meal experiences. I long to go the Hong Kong dim sum parlors and watched that No Reservations episode with glee and supreme jealously. Sitting at a small corner table in Chicago’s Chinatown, sipping jasmine tea while little carts cruise by and the ladies lifting steaming lids on various things is a hoot. Wait too long and it becomes a competitive sport, everyone jockeying for that cart with the shu mai and har gow. I’ve seen grown women sprint across the room to get the best offerings. My secret? Get a table right by the kitchen so every cart has to pass you first. Just know that your bill amount is directly proportionate to how close to the kitchen you sit.
While nibbling at various tasty things, I always keep an eye peeled for the bao cart. You can usually tell which one it is, as the steamer baskets seem to be piled higher than the other carts. I adore a good bao or steamed bun. Filled with char sui (roast pork) or a spicy chicken filling there is nothing better and an order of 3 will disappear in no time. I’ve had them everywhere – from dim dum parlors to Chinese bakeries to local asian market freezer section. To celebrate Chinese New Year this year, I decided to make my own bao with an easy chicken filling. Let me tell you, it’s a surprisingly easy project.
I recently purchased a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s fantastic book Asian Dumplings and promptly post-it noted at least 50 pages. Page after page of all my favorites; I want to eat the whole entire book. I need to have a dumpling party pronto. If you haven’t visited Andrea’s blog, please do as it’s chock full of wonderful information and it’s where I turn when I need my asian dumpling questions answered. Through her site, I found a great article she wrote for the LA Times a few years ago on bao. For this go-round, I used her dough recipe which was easy to make and worked out well.
For a yeasted dough, this is an easy one. Whip it together in the food processor, leave it alone to rise then roll it out into 3” circles. This dough cooks up a bit firmer than the fluffy cottony ones from the dim sum parlors but I like it. I have a little dumpling pin that I picked up in Chinatown that works great and Andrea has mentioned something about cutting down hardware store wooden dowels, which is a great idea. A regular rolling pin will work but the smaller pin gives you a little more dexterity.
The filling comes together in no time using some pre-cooked chicken. I use a purchased pre-roasted chicken if I don’t have time to roast my own and it works great. Simply pull it off the bone, discard the skin and dice it up. Stir fry with some flavorings and a little cornstarch slurry to thicken and you’re done.
Putting them together takes a little practice to get the pleating part right but it’s not that difficult and as they rise, the dough puffs up covering any major mishaps. There’s a great nifty little video on how to do this here. Then steam ‘em and you’re done. You can eat them right away or at room temp. For a filling, pretty much anything goes within reason of course. Roast pork is classic, a curried chicken filling is lovely and a flavorful vegetable mix is good too. The best part? These freeze great. Just resteam right from the freezer to reheat and thaw. So much better than the frozen ones I’ve bought at the market. Really … so much better.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: 奇妙 (I really hope that means “fantastic” like google translate tells me it does.) These are awesome; they make great snacks, they come together easily (if not quickly) and freeze beautifully. Plus the sense of amazement that you actually made these is pretty damn good. Sharing a favorite treat with pals while celebrating Chinese New Year is a fabulous idea. How fun! Just make sure to invite me over.
BBQ CHICKEN BAO – dough adapted from Andrea Nguyen’s recipe in the LA Times; I found I needed more water than originally called for and for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first lifted the filling recipe from I’ve been making it for so long. So props to whomever you are.
Makes 16 medium buns
For the dough:
1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm water (just warm to the touch)
2 Tablespoons canola oil
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
for the filling:
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 scallion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups cooked shredded chicken (approx ½ of a whole pre-roasted chicken)
1 ½ Tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon garlic chile paste (sambal olek)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 Tablespoons room temperature water
16 2” squares of parchment paper
- The dough: Put the yeast in a small bowl, add the water and set aside for 1 minute to proof.
- Whisk in the oil to blend and dissolve the yeast. Set aside.
- Make the dough: you’ve got two options here
- Food Processor Method: Combine the sugar, baking powder and flour in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse 2-3 times to combine. With the motor on, pour the yeast mixture through the feed tube in a steady stream and allow the machine to continue running until the dough starts coming together into a ball, about 20 seconds. (If this doesn’t happen, add lukewarm water by the teaspoon.) Let the machine continue for 45-60 seconds to knead most of the dough into a large ball that cleans the sides of the bowl; expect some dangling bits. Press on the finished dough; it should feel medium-soft and tacky but should not stick to your finger.
- Or By Hand: Combine the sugar, baking powder and flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture. Slowly stir with a wooden spoon, moving from the center toward the rim, to work in all the flour. (Add lukewarm water by the teaspoon if this doesn’t happen with relative ease.) Keep stirring as a ragged, soft mass forms. Then use your fingers to gather and pat the dough together into a ball. Transfer to a work surface and knead for about 5 minutes, until smooth, fingertip-soft and slightly elastic. (You shouldn’t need any additional flour on the work surface if the dough was properly made. Keep kneading, and after the first minute or two, the dough shouldn’t stick to your fingers. If it does, work in a sprinkling of flour.) Press your finger into the dough; the dough should spring back, with a faint indentation remaining.
- Let rise: Lightly oil a clean bowl and add the dough.
- Cover with plastic wrap and put in a warm, draft-free place to rise until nearly doubled, 30-45 minutes (timing will vary depending on the temperature of the room). The dough is now ready to use.
- If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate the dough until needed.
- The filling: heat 1 Tablespoon of oil in a wok or skillet over high heat until smoking hot.
- Dissolve the cornstarch in the 2 Tablespoons of water and set aside until needed.
- Stir-fry the scallion and the garlic for 30 seconds.
- Add the shredded chicken and stir-fry for 1 minute.
- Add hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and chile paste. Mix until thoroughly combined.
- Add the cornstarch mixture and stir-fry quickly until the chicken is glazed.
- Turn the filling out into a bowl and allow to cool. Note: filling can be made up to 1 day ahead, keep refrigerated.
- Assemble: Transfer the dough to a very lightly floured work surface, gather it into a ball and then pat it to flatten it into a thick disk.
- Cut the disk in half and keep the second half covered to prevent it from drying out.
- Roll the first half into a 12” log, then cut it crosswise into 8 even pieces.
- Flatten one piece of dough into a ¼” thick disk, moistening your hands with a little water if the dough becomes too dry.
- Use a Asian dumpling pin (or regular rolling pin) roll the pieces into circles about 3 ¼” in diameter, rolling the outer edges thinner than the center.
- To assemble the buns: hold a dough circle in a slightly cupped hand.
- Use a spoon or fork to center about 4 teaspoons of filling on the dough circle, pressing down very gently and keeping about ½”-3/4” of the dough clear on all sides; your hand will automatically close slightly.
- Use the thumb of the hand cradling the bun to push down the filling; using the fingers of the other hand, pull up the dough edge and pleat and pinch the rim together to form a closed bun.
- Completely enclose the filling by pinching and twisting the dough closed.
- Place the finished bun on a piece of parchment, pleated side up. (The parchment is important otherwise the buns will stick to the steamer.)
- Repeat with the remaining dough and loosely cover the assembled buns with a kitchen towel until puffed and nearly doubled in size, 10-30 minutes, depending on the temperature in the room.
- Steaming: When the buns are almost ready, bring water to boil in a wok and placing a steamer basked on top.
- Place buns in the steamer basket, spacing them 1” apart and 1” away from the basket wall.
- Cover the buns and steam until puffed and the dough is cooked through, about 15 minutes.
- Transfer the buns, still on their parchment paper squares, to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Repeat steaming until all the buns are cooked.
- Serve warm or room temperature with a sauce made from soy sauce and a bit of garlic chile paste (sambal olek).
- Make ahead: Can be made up to 6 hours in advance – shape and fill the buns then keep refrigerated to slow the rising process. Steam directly from the refrigerator.
- To freeze: May be frozen up to 2 months. Prepare the buns fully and after steaming allow to come to room temperature then place on a parchment lined sheet pan and freeze until solid. Place frozen buns in a Ziploc for longer storage. Allow to thaw at room temperature for 15 minutes then resteam 12-15 minutes to warm through.