There are two loads of laundry in a basket on the floor and a list of patients waiting for return calls. I am in the kitchen slicing scallions and working on a shopping list for a new recipe I want to develop.
In the shadow of months of turmoil, loss, and illness, my peculiar priorities emerge with confusing clarity. I have little energy or patience for work or social obligations. To be in nature, to be quiet, and to nourish myself and my partner well, these needs are strong. I want to run, to walk, to hike, to cook, and to eat.
Comfort foods with strong, bold flavors, that’s what I want now. These plump little buns call to mind my Mom’s favorite dim sum dumplings. On the cusp of pasta and bread, with the appeal and versatility of both, they are chewy, pillowy, and mildly sweet.
I made them on Tuesday and served them that stormy night with crispy nuggets of pork belly, hoisin, and a slew of crunchy and soft additions. Thursday, they got a reinvigorating steam bath, and were filled with grilled shrimp and a similar array of garnishes. Sadie and the hummingbirds kept us entertained on the deck while we munched.
Versions of baozi or bao buns trace back in history to the third century, AD, in China. There are many versions across myriad Chinese cultures. They are often served for breakfast or for snacks. I’ve made a similar dish that is a steamed bun filled with sweet barbequed pork. This style (the bun and fillings served separately) allows for the incorporation of different textures and flavor combinations in every bite.
Here, I give you a recipe for the buns and for the quick pickle that I served on both nights. I also provide links to recipes for the pork belly and the grilled shrimp.
Thanks to Yi Jun Lo at Food 52 for her mother’s bao recipe, which I used as the basis for mine.
The bun recipe is vegan. If you want to keep the fillings plant based, too, glazed tofu makes a wonderful filling.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some extra for rolling out the dough
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup warm water
¼ cup cane sugar
1 tsp. active dry yeast
1 teaspoon neutral cooking oil
Combine all ingredients in a stand mixer or food processor and mix or process until a smooth, elastic dough forms. Place in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let dough proof for an hour or until doubled in size.
In the meantime, cut out 10 squares of parchment, 4 x 4”.
Divide the dough into 10 equal pieces. Using your hands, roll each piece against a cutting board to create a smooth ball. Let all the balls rest for 5 minutes. Then, working with one at a time (cover the rest with plastic while you work), use a rolling pin to flatten the ball into an oval about 5 inches long and 3 inches wide. Then fold the oval to create a sort of half moon that looks a bit like the tush of a person lying on their side (now you know why they are called buns). Place the little dough butt on a square of parchment. Cover all the finished tushies with plastic and let them proof again for 45 minutes or so. They will be puffy and lush.
Set up a steamer basket over boiling water. Steam the buns for 10 minutes. You may have to do this in batches. Serve immediately. If you need to reheat them, they resteam beautifully in just a minute or so. Or, place them on a plate under a damp towel and microwave for a few seconds until they’re hot. Be careful not to nuke them for too long or they’ll become tough.
The traditional filling for these buns is pork belly. Here is a terrific recipe.
We also like them with glazed grilled shrimp. Here’s a simple and easy recipe.
I served both the pork and shrimp fillings with a simple, quick cucumber pickle. This one comes from Momofuko’s David Chang via Food 52.
2 small kirby or seedless cucumbers
2 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. cane sugar
Combine ingredients in a bowl. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
Additional garnishes and condiments:
To serve: Pull apart the fold of the bun and brush on hoisin and/or sriracha or chili oil. Fill with pieces of the pork, shrimp, or tofu and add herbs, avocado, etc. to your taste. Make sure to have lots of sparkling wine or beer and a big pile of napkins. Salad is optional.
This lilac bloom was cut from the tree next to our deck. It grew from a cutting taken from the tree we gave my mother for mother’s day when my siblings and I were teenagers. Mom died in March of this year, missing the lilacs she always loved to see bloom for Mother’s Day. I post this here to honor her legacy.