Out of all my bread and baking cookbooks, and I have too many, I can’t think of a one that gives a recipe for Chinese steamed buns. Bread books may shed light on such boules as pancakes and crumpets—cooked on the griddle, waffles—baked between hot metal plates, and even dumplings—simmered atop stew or fruit. And of course you’ll find that American classic, steamed brown bread. To get instructions for Chinese-style steamed breads, however, we must consult our Chinese cookbooks. Or the internet. That erudite expert on culinary sinology, Barabara Tropp offers generously detailed, friendly guidance on bun-making in her excellent reference, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking. Here’s my version of steamed buns, goated.
You can prepare the goat meat filling a couple days in advance of forming the buns. Plan on making the dough at least the night before you intend to steam ’em up. The dough should also hold for a couple days, refrigerated, to await a convenient time. You will need a large diameter (10″) tiered steamer. I prefer the inexpensive bamboo models. Mine came from the thrift store but you can easily find one at an Asian grocery store.
- 1/2 pound eggplant. Lots of eggplants at the markets right now. I love the little lovelies from Ringger Family Farm.
- 1/2 pound ground goat meat. Premium Lamb markets their meat at Sunset Valley and downtown.
- 1 large scallion, finely chopped. Or substitute whatever allium you have on hand
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 Tablespoon soy sauce. Eden organic is delicious.
- 1 Tablespoon peanut oil or other high smoke-point oil. Whole Foods now carries Spectrum organic peanut oil.
- 1 plus 1/2 teaspoon curry powder, preferably Chinese-style. Barbara Tropp’s China Moon version is excellent.
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon turbinado sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 Tablespoon cornstarch—Rumford packages a non-GMO cornstarch.
- some chopped garlic chives, optional. They’re easy to grow year-round here and add a welcome nuance when scallions are unavailable.
Cut up your eggplant into bite-sized pieces. “Bite-sized” is open to interpretation. Toss the eggplant pieces with the 1/2 teaspoon curry powder and a pinch of kosher salt (I use Diamond brand.) Combine the goat meat with the remaining ingredients and mix together until well amalgamated.
Heat up a non-stick or well- seasoned pan or wok on medium-high heat. Add the oil and then the eggplant. Stir fry until eggplant is browning, then add the goat mixture. Continue to cook until the meat is done, showing no pink. Remove from heat and drain off the excess fat in a fine-meshed sieve set over a bowl. For this and other straining tasks I often use a re-purposed splatter screen–found frequently and inexpensively at thrift stores. I like the wide surface area. I also like to re-purpose the flavorful oil that drips out of the filling. It’s fine and tasty for brushing onto tortillas for quesadillas or just adding to the quinoa pot.
Cool your goat off, then either refrigerate it or get ready to roll!
TOTALLY UNORTHODOX CHINESE STEAMED BUN DOUGH makes enough dough for 20 buns
- 1 cup plus 3 Tablespoons warm water
- 2 1/2 teaspoons turbinado sugar
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast—NOT rapid-rise, instant, or “bread machine”
- 224 grams (about 1 ¾ cups plus 1 ½ Tablespoons) organic all-purpose flour. I’m finding the best flour prices at Whole Foods lately.
- 224 grams (about 1 ¾ cups) organic white whole wheat flour. Ditto.
- rounded 1/8 teaspoon salt, optional. Omit if using baking powder.
- 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil. Spectrum bottles an organic version.
- 1 teaspoon baking powder, optional
Stir the sugar into the water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let sit about 10 minutes, while you get the rest of the recipe together.
I use a stand mixer to knead this dough. You can also use a food processor (much faster) or your own hands (much greener, probably more therapeutic, too). For the mixer, put the flours into the bowl, add the liquid and use the dough hook to work the mass until springy and well-kneaded. If using salt, add it after the ingredients come together. You’re going for a firm dough here. If necessary, add drops of water or spoonfuls of flour (all-purpose) until the dough masses together obligingly.
For the food processor, put the flour into the work bowl, turn the machine on and pour the liquid in through the feed chute. Run the machine until the dough comes together, adding water or flour as necessary to achieve cohesion. Run for another 1/2 minute to work the dough. Remove the dough from the work bowl (add the salt now, if using) and knead it by hand for about 3 minutes, until the it’s firm and springy.
If you’re making this dough entirely by hand, first of all, bless you. That’s green and good exercise, to boot. I know from my firstborn that as soon as I get my hands into some dough the baby will be pooping on the carpet or diving face-first onto the floor. So I use a machine. At any rate, put the flour into a bowl, make a well in the center and pour in your liquid. Stir with your fingers until a dough starts to form, adding water or flour as needed to develop a cohesive mass. Turn it out onto a lightly floured board or countertop—actually a silpat is the ideal surface for most dough deeds. Work that mound, kneading vigorously for 10 minutes or more, to achieve a smooth, firm dough.
Coat a large (3-quart or so) bowl with the sesame oil. Ball up your dough into a round and wipe it around the inside of the bowl to grease it up. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and refrigerate it overnight. In the morning, punch the dough down and commence to bunnin’ your goat or return the dough to the fridge to rest coolly until you’re ready to roll.
When it’s time to make the buns, watch this video clip. I won’t say that that’s how I do it, or that it’s even how Barbara Tropp explained the process. But I think you’ll get the idea, and frankly, if you’re not selling your buns at a dim sum joint or entertaining Chinese dignataries, you can get away with non-traditional, best-effort technique. As long as you don’t overstuff the buns (VERY important) and you seal them well, you’ll turn out a terrific snack.
Cut out 20 approximately 2″ X 2″ squares of silicone-coated parchment paper. I use If You Care brand unbleached parchment, available at Central Market and Whole Foods. Remove your ingredients from the refrigerator and punch down your dough to remove accumulated air. Now I get out my silpat again. A lighty floured counter or board will suffice, but if you do much dough work, you’ll really appreciate that slippy yet grippy surface. If using baking powder (a la Tropp), press it through a fine-meshed sieve onto the dough and knead it in by hand. I usually forget to add the baking powder, and my buns are always fine.
Divide the dough into two halves and return one half to the bowl and the refrigerator. Roll your working dough piece into a log (for more accurate eyeballing) and divide it into two halves. Cut each half into 5 pieces. I use the back of a knife to first score the dough, for better guestimating. Then I commit to my cuts.
Working with one piece (1/20th) of dough, first form a ball. Flatten it into a round pressing the heel of your hand around the perimeter. You’re aiming for a 4 ½” circle that’s slightly thicker in the middle, with evenly thinner edges. See the video. Tropp recommends a 1″ thick dowel rolling pin. I feel more adept at the primal hands-only method. Go at it however you feel most comfortable. Place 2 Tablespoons (cooled!) filling in the center of the dough round. DO NOT OVERSTUFF! Notice in the video that the bun maker removes the excess portion of the filling.
Pick up the bun, cradle it in your palm, and begin pleating the edges together, over the top of the filling. Tropp instructs in great detail the interplay of your various digits in plaiting the pleats. The video illustrates yet another method nearly impossible to explain with mere words. How do you describe the digital do-si-do? I work the bun intuitively, reliving my childhood Play-doh days. Do the best you can. You’ll get better and faster as you go. When you’ve completed the pleating, pinch all the pleats together and twist the bun shut. Set the finished bun on top of a parchment square and place it on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. If you have extra filling, eat it with rice or feed it to the baby. If you have extra dough, let it rest, covered air-tight in the fridge, and I’ll give you a bonus recipe.
When you’ve rolled all your rolls, cover them loosely with a piece of plastic wrap (or green alternative, such as a large aluminum roasting pan), and let them rise until springy to the touch, about 30 to 60 minutes. The timing will depend on the usual doughy factors such as ambient temperature and humidity. I may even turn the ceiling fan on to slow ’em down to my own speed. And unless the kitchen is cold (how long has that been?), I keep the dough I’m not presently handling in the fridge. That way I can keep up, even if we have a baby emergency–which we certainly will!
Towards the end of risin’ time, get a 10″ diameter (to match your steamer basket) pot of water boiling. Use plenty of water ’cause you’ll be steaming your buns for 15 minutes. Place each bun, still on its parchment square, into the steamer baskets, leaving about 1 ½” between them, to allow for their expansion. Stack your steamer atop your boiling pot—be sure to place the lid on the steamer—and steam for 15 minutes. Remove the entire contraption from the heat and WAIT for 5 minutes before slowly opening the lid away from yourself (so’s not to get a face full of hot steam).
Your buns are hot and ready now! Store leftovers in the fridge and reheat them by steaming for another 15 minutes.