You will probably know that the Chinese Year of the Tiger is upon us, as of Sunday. As it happened, it was also one of my colleague’s birthdays on Friday, so I thought it would be nice to make something to celebrate both events. The colleague in question didn’t want a big fuss made, so while I did find it hard not to mention it to people, I thought I could at least not make a birthday cake and draw a lot of attention to him. I don’t understand about people who don’t get excited about their birthdays – I love mine. I get over excited, like a child, and the past few years have taken the surrounding week off work to spend indulging myself in whatever ways seem right at the time. I usually try to have three nights in or out, too – work, family, girls night and then maybe a fourth, ‘miscellaneous’ night for anyone I havent celebrated with yet. I suppose I find it one of the very few times that people can be paying me a lot of attention and I don’t find it a bit uncomfortable. You may find this hard to believe, but I’m quite shy on the inside. The internet’s different – it’s not real life. Also, on the internet you get to look at what you’re about to say before you say it, and change it around so that it sounds its best, and if you change your mind about something you can delete it afterwards. Real life is not like that and a lot of situations would be infinitely better if it were, or at least if you could hit control-Z now and again. You know you’ve been spending too much time in front of your computer when you try to copy and paste with your eyes… If only.
So, on Thursday night, I set about making some steamed buns to take to work and share round. I had made the dough before and filled it with char siu, or on one occasion with custard, which was pretty good. My favourite Chinese bakery item, though, is the red bean bun, and I wanted to give it a go. Usually for the dough I would use the recipe for steamed flower rolls from Fuchsia Dunlop’s book Sichuan Cookery. What I have always found is that it produces a very moist, sticky and chewy dough, with a sweet but not overpowering flavour. It is good, but it’s not the same as the Chinese supermarket’s products, which are extremely pale in colour and much drier and breadier. I tried a different recipe for the dough this time but got the same result, so I’ll go back to Fuchsia next time and maybe start to make some minor adjustments to see if I can replicate the supermarket product more closely. Maybe they’re baked and not steamed, that would probably give a drier result, and I have suspected that using less yeast might give a less chewy result. If I come up with anything good you can be assured that I’ll probably post it for anyone who’s interested. In the meantime, I’ll tell you about the ones I made last week. If you’d like to try them but don’t want to uy the Fuchsia Dunlop book, which I can’t recommend enough that you buy for all of its great and challenging recipes, the recipe that I tried is here: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/recipes/steamedbuns. Something that I think is a good tip is that you can create your own excellent warm, yeast proving environment in the kitchen sink. Put your dough in a large bowl – the one you’ve just made the dough in is fine – which has been lightly oiled to prevent the dough from sticking. It’s not the end of the world if it does, but it’s cleaner and easier if you just oil the bottom and sides of the bowl, then put the dough back in. Then seal the top of the bowl with plastic wrap, making sure there are no gaps. Put the bowl in your basin and fill round it with hot water – from the tap, not boiling hot. If the yeast gets too hot it will stop working. Fill the basin until the level of the water is above the level of the dough but make sure that no water can get inside. If the bowl is light and bobs around in there, weigh it down with a chopping board and as many cans, bottles, plant pots, stationary household pets or other items as are necessary, available and agreeable. This provides a really warm place for the dough to rise without you having to put on any heaters or find a sunbeam – here in Scotland, you wouldn’t want to have to find a sunbeam every time you wanted to make bread, you’d never have a sandwich again.
Let’s break it up – here is a photo with a pretty plant in the background:
While I was waiting for the dough to rise, I set about continuing to make the red bean paste. No matter how I try to describe this process, I am sure that I won’t be able to convey the mess and frustration that this caused me. Next time will be easier as the first birth of a recipe is often the most painful. It was the technique to get the texture right that I had to experiment with. The experiment went through many stages, each one adding to the coating of sticky paste that clung to my forearms, clothes, glasses, kitchen utensils, floor and parts of my face. I do it so you don’t have to, or if the truth be known I do it because I like to prove to myself that I can, even if it does take me all night. The first part of making the paste, which I set in motion before mixing the dough for the buns, was fine – I boiled up twelve dessert spoons of adzuki beans, then reduced to a good simmer for about two hours. I did not soak the beans overnight, although the bag did say to. I’m not sure why this step is recommended – possibly to draw out impurities from the beans, or possibly just to soften them up. To be safe, I discarded the water that the beans had been cooking in, just in case it was deadliest poison and I caused a department-wide case of death and ruined everyone’s weekend. Once the beans had simmered and been drained, I let them sit in the colander for half an hour or so, to dry out further. I then added fourteen dessert spoons of granulated sugar, and one of honey, and mixed thoroughly. I made sure to count the spoonfuls of sugar because I knew I’d be writing about them – really I just added sugar till I liked the taste.
Once this was done, I wanted to puree the beans. They were very, very soft after being boiled for so long, but they still weren’t a paste as such. I thought that using my blender might do the trick – I think I can be forgiven for thinking so, too. It did not. The blender is new, I got it for Christmas, and it is absolutely brilliant. It’s very compact but comes with so many attachments and accessories that it’s good for dozens of different uses. However, it didn’t do the job here. The beans were initially too dry, and so just clumped together at the base of the blender. To combat this, I added a little water to loosen the mix. This worked, but then the paste was too wet to be thoroughly pureed, or maybe it’s just the texture of the beans. You don’t have to skin these ones, but there is still a certain fibrous quality to them that was off putting and just not paste-y enough. I tried the attachment on the blender that you use when making smoothies or soups, to strain out seeds and skin. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just say that I didn’t read the instructions and just ended up further caked in red bean mush and ready to lock and load on anyone who might inadvertently have got in my way. I am so glad, always so glad, that I live on my own. At any rate, the ultimate decision that I made (not to be confused with the final solution, which is what I nearly wrote and is something very different) was to pass the beans through a fine sieve. This takes a LONG time, and bearing in mind that I’d already gone through quite a lot of time, effort and patience, I think I deserve some kind of medal. I made it in the end though, and had a very passable red bean paste which was sweet with earthy undertones and a pleasing, all natural, purple-red colour. Next time, and if you’re intending to make these yourself I suggest you do the same, I’ll skip to the end.
Now that I’d spent what felt like a lifetime on the paste, the dough was well risen so that I could shape and fill it. This was pretty time-consuming, too, but at least I have my technique down for this part, having done it before. First, I split the dough into 24 equal pieces, as the first picture shows. Then I made each one of those into a wee bowl shape, a the second picture shows. Then I stopped taking ruddy pictures cos I just wanted to get them finished and get cleaned up and to bed…
So, I put a teaspoon of the paste into the wee dough bowl, folded it over and pinched it shut, tucked in the sides of the fold and turned the bun over, so that they looked like the picture at the very top. I put them four to a steamer and steamed for ten minutes – I have three bamboo steamers so I could do it in two batches, although I do find that I have to swap the top and bottom baskets halfway through to make sure everything is even. The buns don’t change much in appearance when they’re cooked, which is quite different to what I’m used to from basically any other method of cooking, where you get colour changes from the heat you’re using to cook, and they look as though they’re going to be wet to the touch when you open up the steamer, but thankfully they are not.
By the time I’d steamed them all I was thoroughly sick of the sight of them – but when I took a bite I felt remarkably more positive about the whole affair. They are something quite different from the baked goods I’ve always made and eaten, and a welcome change at that. I now realise that I don’t have any pictures of the bean paste, or of a torn open bun to show how the paste sits in the middle – it’s kind of like a jam doughnut, but firmer and far less likely to go all down your front, or to blind the person next to you. They were well received at work, even by one of my workmates who is originally from China, so I was very pleased with that. In fact, there were some left over and he took them all home because he liked them so much – I was very flattered (and smug). If you have any inclination to do so, try them – you can buy red bean paste in the Chinese supermarket to make the process a lot easier!