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little packages

I’ve been having a rough time with my mochi experiments. I began the experimentation with one success, and have been riding a streak of failures ever since. The frustrating thing is that I can’t figure out what could have possibly gone wrong. So I’ll be needing a break before I start up on the mochi again. How long this break will last is still undetermined, so in the meantime, please don’t hold your breath.

Determined to have some success in the kitchen, I set my mind on making bao zi, or Chinese buns (the Chinese name translates to “packages.”) These buns are made with yeast dough and stuffed with a filling. The filling can be savory or sweet, and the buns can either be steamed or pan-fried. I remember my grandma used to make these a lot. She would make them the size of adult fists, and steam them in bamboo baskets stacked two or three layers high over the stove. They were stuffed with pork and cabbage, or a vegetable and glass noodle filling. They were the ultimate hand-held meal.

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Our kitchen is rather small, so we don’t have the space to store many kitchen appliances, let alone a bamboo steamer. It’s been nice to make do with what we have, since it’s so easy to want to accumulate more and more things. (Although I did purchase a meat mallet/tenderizer the other day, as my method has been to bang cuts of meat with the side of a mug and then pierce them with a fork in a million different places. It was getting kind of messy and maybe, just slightly, inefficient.) Anyway, making do with what I have, I decided to make sheng jian bao, pan-fried buns that fall a little more on the dainty side. Sheng jian bao are a bit like potstickers with a yeast dough. They are cooked the same way as potstickers — sizzled in some oil first before water is added to the pan. Essentially, they are steamed, and then fried so that a nice crust forms at the bottom. And small enough so that more than a few fit in a pan.

In my family, recipes are vague. Ingredients are thrown together willy-nilly — a bowlful of this, and a spoonful of that — nothing is really measured. So when I had to make the yeast dough, I looked for a recipe and found one in the Los Angeles Times. A recipe for the filling also came with the dough recipe, but I already had a bao zi filling recipe up my sleeve — a family-style recipe that I’ve conjured up by watching my grandma as she made her dumplings. Only this time, I recorded the measurements as I made the filling by eye and feel.

To make these little packages, begin by making the dough. While the dough rests and rises, make the filling. Then wrap, cook, and enjoy.


Dough (fa mian)

adapted from here

Total time: 50 minutes

Servings: Makes enough for 32 small or 16 medium buns

Note: All-purpose flour with a moderate amount of gluten, such as widely available Gold Medal, works best to yield tender, yet slightly chewy dough. Unbleached flour produces terrific flavor, but bleached flour imparts a brighter finish that some Asian cooks like.

1 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tsp sugar (I reduced the amount of sugar called for, which was 2 tbsp — the only change I made to the recipe. I did not want the dough to be too sweet. I would, however, recommend a sweeter dough if using a sweet filling.)
2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 3 cups (12 1/2 ounces) flour

1. Put the yeast in a small bowl, add the water and set aside for 1 minute to soften. Whisk in the oil to blend and dissolve the yeast. Set aside.
2. 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.
3. 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 to 45 minutes. Timing will vary depending on the temperature of the room. The dough is now ready to use.
4. If not using immediately, cover and refrigerate the dough until needed.

Filling

1/2 head Napa cabbage, finely chopped
1 lb ground pork (pork with more fat content works better and feels softer to the bite)
1/2 cup scallions, finely chopped
1 packed tbsp minced ginger
1 to 1-1/2 tsp salt

1. Place the chopped cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle on a generous amount of salt. Using your hands, lightly mix in the salt. Allow cabbage to sit for 30 minutes.
2. After 30 minutes, the cabbage should have released a lot of water. Take cabbage by the handful and squeeze out the excess water. Combine the drained cabbage with the ground pork in a separate bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients, taking care not to add too much salt, since the cabbage is already salted.
3. Mix the ingredients enthusiastically and vigorously (I like to use two chopsticks). This helps to combine the ingredients well, and also breaks up the pork to make it more tender.

Preparing the Wrappers

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When the dough is ready to be used, cut the dough ball in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll one of the dough pieces (while the other half remains covered) out into a 12-14 inch rope, and cut into 16 pieces, rotating the rope a quarter-turn each time before the knife comes down. Mold these pieces into little cylinders, cut sides facing up/down, and dusted in flour to prevent them from sticking. Then take the cylinders and squash each one with the palm of your hand to form them into rough disks. Take a disk with your left hand and position a tapered rolling pin just beneath it (use tapered end) using your right hand. If you’re left-handed, you can switch these positions. Roll the pin forward and press down on the dough, up towards the center of the disk, while simultaneously pulling the disk in the forward direction. After rolling the pin backwards to the starting position, rotate the disk a 1/8 turn counter-clockwise with your left hand. (It can go either way, but to me, it was mechanically easier this way.) Continue doing this until you have a flat disk about 3 inches across. The disk should be thicker in the middle, which helps for wrapping the filling. The thinness of the outer edges will be compensated for when the dough is pleated to wrap the bun. Repeat with the remaining half of the dough, after the first half is used for wrapping.

Wrapping
adapted from here

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Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly dust with flour. To assemble the buns, hold a dough circle in a slightly cupped hand. Use a bamboo spatula, dinner knife or spoon to center about 2 teaspoons of filling on the dough circle, pressing down very gently and keeping about one-half to three-fourths inch 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 while the fingers of the other hand pulls up the dough edge and pleats and pinches the rim together to form a closed satchel. Completely enclose the filling by pinching and twisting the dough closed. (I twist as I pleat, making a little spiral. I also connect my last pleat with the first pleat by pinching the pleats together, and give it a final twist.) Place the finished bun on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough circles and filling. Loosely cover the buns with plastic wrap and set aside until almost doubled in size, 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the temperature of the room. (Don’t be discouraged trying to wrap the buns. Mine started out ugly at first, but they looked better and better each time. After a few tries, you’ll get a feel for how to do the pleating, and how to use your fingers most comfortably.)

Cooking and Serving

from here

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1. To pan-fry the buns, use a medium or large nonstick skillet. Heat the skillet(s) over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of canola oil for a medium skillet and 1 1/2 tablespoons for a large one. Add the buns 1 at a time, arranging them, pleated side up, a half-inch apart; they will expand during cooking. The buns will need to be cooked in batches. (In general, medium skillets will fit 8 or 9 buns; large skillets will fit 12 or 13 buns.) Fry the buns for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they are golden or light brown on the bottom. Use your fingers to gently lift them to check the color.
2. Holding the lid close to the skillet to lessen the spattering effect of water hitting hot oil, carefully add enough water to come up the side of the buns by one-fourth inch, about one-fourth cup. The water and oil will sputter a bit. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil, placing it very slightly ajar to allow steam to escape, so condensation doesn’t fall on the buns and perhaps cause their collapse. Let the water bubble away until it is mostly gone, about 6 minutes.
3. When you hear sizzling noises (a sign that most of the water is gone), remove the lid. Let the dumplings fry, uncovered, for about 1 minute, until the bottoms are brown and crisp. At this point, you can serve the buns, crisp bottoms up, like pot stickers. Or you can use chopsticks to flip each bun over (separate any that are sticking together first) and then fry the other side for about 45 seconds, until golden.
4. Remove from heat and wait for the cooking action to cease, then transfer the buns to a serving plate. Display them golden side up. Serve with the gingered vinegar, chile oil and soy sauce. Eat these buns with chopsticks — they’re a little greasy on the fingers. Leftover buns can be refrigerated and reheated with a touch of oil and a bit of water in a nonstick skillet.

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