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My Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Asian Cooking cookbook is one of my all-time favorites, and I’ve made many wonderful dishes from it over the years including Filipino empanadas and Indonesian Murtabak. Now having been to three new Asian countries, I can’t wait to try out recipes from Singapore, Vietnam, and Cambodia (it will be so hard choosing which ones to try first!). But one recipe I have always had my eye on was the one for Chinese Barbecued Pork Buns.
There are some recipes I just automatically rule out attempting, due with the fact that I just don’t want to devote THAT much time cooking just one thing (so like 50% of the recipes found in Julia Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking). And then there are the recipes I would love to make but am too scared, too intimidated by the fact the recipe spans a couple of pages. The recipe for Chinese Barbecued Pork Buns was one of them (although in its defense, it was only one page long…).
I don’t eat a ton of Chinese food but bao, a type of yeast-leavened filled buns in numerous Chinese cuisines, are one of my guilty consumable pleasures, right up there with curry puffs that Thai restaurants typically offer. They were one of my favorite things that I tried on the dim sum food tour I did in Toronto’s Chinatown, especially when they’re made with barbecue pork which is a staple found in many Chinese foods. And of course the Pixar short film Bao that was released in 2018 only made me love them that much more. (If you’ve never seen the film, watch it. It’s absolutely darling beyond words and if you’re a foodie, that alone will make you love it.)
I originally thought about “cheating” with the filling, aka doing a short-cut in regards to the barbecue pork by just buying a container of it already prepared. But then I thought better of it since for starters, it wouldn’t have the Chinese ingredients used to make it and also, if I was finally attempting to make this, I should adhere as closely as possible to the actual recipe.
So I made the marinade and the filling a day in advance. You can do it all in the same day but as I had the time, I wanted the meat to soak in the marinade for as long as possible. The recipe for the filling can be found BELOW the recipe for the pork buns. I will say this- I had never made homemade Chinese-style barbecue before but oh my heavens, was it GOOD. I could have just eaten the filling alone as a snack. It really reminded me of the first tasting I had on my Singapore food tour in the city’s Chinatown, bak kwa, a salty-sweet dried pork.
Making the buns DOES take time, but as bread dough recipes go, it really wasn’t that bad. And I’ll also mention that if you don’t have a stand mixer (as I don’t) it’s still not even that laborious to knead and prepare the dough by hand. I’d say my buns came out pretty decent, no? And a little tip to help the dough rise better AND faster- turn your oven to about 200 degrees F and just rest the dough on top of the stove. I’ve long since given up letting it rise in a warm place in my house as I never seem to have one of those.
Chinese Barbecued Pork Buns ( 叉烧包)
Recipe modified from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Asian Cooking
For the dough
1 1/4 cups warm milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 package (2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 large egg, lightly beaten
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, in small pieces
6 tablespoons vegetable shortening, at room temperature, in small pieces
Canola oil for greasing
For the filling
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon each tomato ketchup and Asian sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
Pinch of pepper
1/2 lb barbecued pork, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large egg white, beaten with 1 teaspoon sugar
Making the dough:
In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, sugar, yeast, and egg and let stand until frothy, about 10 minutes. Sift 4 cups of the flour and the salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. With the mixer on low speed, add the yeast mixture in a steady stream and beat just until the flour is moistened, 1-2 minutes. Slowly add the butter and shortening, beating just until each piece is incorporated before adding the next.
On medium speed, beat the dough until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 2 minutes. Replace the paddle with the dough hook and knead the dough on medium speed until smooth but still sticky, about 5 minutes. Add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed, for the dough to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand until no longer sticky, about 1 minute. Transfer to a large, well-oiled bowl and turn to coat with the oil. Cover and place in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Making the filling:
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the soy sauce, hoisin sauce, ketchup, sesame oil, sugar, cornstarch, pepper and 2 tablespoons water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce begins to bubble and thicken, about 3 minutes. Add the pork to the sauce and stir to mix well. Remove from the heat and let the filling cool to room temperature.
Making the buns:
Again turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic , about 5 minutes. Using your hands, roll the dough into a cylinder about 16 inches long, and cut into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Flatten each ball into a 5-inch disk with the center slightly thicker than the edges. Brush the edges with water and place 1 heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center. Pull the dough up and around the filling, pinching and twisting the edges together to enclose the filling. Turn and use your palms to form into a smooth bun about 3 inches in diameter and 2 inches thick. Place the buns 3 inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment (baking) paper. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until slightly puffy, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Brush each bun with the egg wash and bake until puffy and golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Let rest for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe for roast pork (for the filling)
For the marinade
2 slices peeled fresh ginger, each about 1/4 inch thick
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (I omitted this as I couldn’t find it)
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
2 lb pork shoulder, cut with the grain into strips 6 inches long by 3 inches wide by 1 1/2 inches thick (I used boneless pork spare ribs instead as I didn’t need such a large piece of meat)
1 tablespoon honey
To make the marinade:
In a blender or food processor, combine the ginger, garlic, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine (if using), honey, brown sugar, tomato paste, and sesame oil and process until a smooth sauce forms. Pour into a large zippered plastic bag, add the pork, and seal the bag. Turn the bag and massage gently until the pork is well coated with the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Remove the pork from the marinade, letting the excess fall back into the bag. Arrange the pork strips in a single layer on the prepared sheet. Roast until crisp and browned, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, pour the marinade into a small saucepan, add the honey, and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the honey. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F and continue to roast until the pork is crisp and the glaze is shiny, 25-30 minutes longer, brushing the pork with the marinade several times. The pork is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 160 degrees F.
Transfer the roasted pork to a cutting board, tent loosely with aluminum foil , and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut the pork across the grain into slices about 1/8 inch thick and serve at once.