Bao down, there’s a new bun in town.
Steamed instead of baked, Chinese bao buns are pillowy puffs of simple yeast dough that can be filled with a variety of sweet or savoring ingredients. Centuries old, bao buns are becoming wildly popular outside of their traditional dim sum trappings. Although typically stuffed with saucy Chinese barbecued pork (char siu bao) or roasted Peking duck, they can be filled with just about anything. Rules are made to broken. Everything old is new again, so choose your fillings, gather some garnishes, and get your steam on.
Steamed Bao Buns With Sticky Duck.
I sprinkled 1 package active dry yeast into the bowl of a stand mixer and added 1/2 cup warm water. When the yeast started to bubble and foam, I added 1 1/2 cups bread flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 cup warm milk, and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Using a dough hook, I mixed the dough until it turned a bit shaggy before adding 1/2 cup bread flour to bring it together. When the dough pulled away from the bowl, I turned it out onto a floured board, kneaded it for 5-10 minutes, shaped it into a ball, slid it into a clean bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and set it aside to rise.
After doubling in size (about an hour), I punched down the dough and turned it onto a floured work board. From what I understand, most folks pinch off small bits of dough and roll them into individual discs. I cut to the chase and rolled the dough into 1/2″ thick slab and used a 3″ ring mold to cut out even discs. Rule breaker. After brushing the tops with vegetable oil, I folded them in half and set them aside.
I lined a double tiered 10″ bamboo steam basket with trimmed parchment paper, punched holes through the paper to allow the steam to penetrate both layers, and nestled the buns into the steamer. After filling a 10″ wide pot with 3″ water, I cranked the heat to high. When the water came to a rapid boil, I carefully placed the steamer basket on the pot, let it rip for 10 minutes, killed the heat, removed the buns, and set them aside.
Duck. Duck. Bao.
A while back, I picked up a gorgeous farm raised whole duck from Joe Weber (Farmer Joe, Salvisa Ky), at the Chevy Chase Farmer’s Market. After breaking down the duck, I tossed the breasts into the freezer and used the legs, thighs, and fatty carcass for duck confit. That journey to duck fat heaven left me with two gorgeous plump duck breasts on reserve. Fast Forward. Few things crack my knees more than pan seared medium rare duck breast.
Being mindful not to cut into the flesh, I scored the fat on top of two breasts and set them aside. I knew I needed a finishing glaze for the quick pan seared duck, so I tipped my hat to the flavor profile of slow braised Chinese barbecued pork.
After dissolving 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon light brown sugar in 2 tablespoons warm water, I added 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce, 2 tablespoons light soy sauce, 2 tablespoons oyster sauce, 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce, 2 tablespoons shaoxing wine, 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1/4 cup local honey, and 1 teaspoon 5 spice powder.
Hot skillet? Nope. To allow the fat to render slowly for shatteringly crisp skin, I seasoned both sides of the duck with salt and cracked black pepper before placing them skin side down in a cold cast iron skillet. After turning the flame to medium, I let the breasts coast until the fat slowly melted away and the skin caramelized, about 6 minutes. When the breasts easily released from the skillet, I flipped them over, cooked them skin side down for 3-4 minutes until they registered 135 degrees, and pulled them from the heat to rest.
While the skillet was still hot, I added 2 minced garlic cloves and 1 minced shallot into the sizzling duck fat. Just before the garlic teetered on the edge of overly browned, I deglaze the skillet with 1/4 cup shaoxing wine, scraped the flavorful fond from the bottom of the skillet, let the wine reduce by half, and added the reserved sauce. When the sauce settled into a syrupy glaze, I pulled it from the heat, let it cool, and slathered it over the warm duck.
After slicing the breasts on a thin bias, I tucked the duck into the bao buns and drizzled them with additional sauce before finishing with quick pickled julienned carrots, fresh cilantro, shaved fresh radishes, slivered Thai chilies, and sesame seeds.
Boom to the bao.
The simple inherent nature of the steamed buns parlayed into perfect neutral canvasses for the big flavors spilling from their gentle airiness. Tender, juicy, and cradled in crisped fatty skin, the candied duck melted into the puffy soft bread. While the pickled carrots added punchy bright acidity to cut through the sweetness of the jacked up caramelized duck, wisps of cilantro, biting chilies, and sesame seeds balanced out the party with fresh stinging crunch.
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