A few weeks ago, I posted some teeny pies with a dollop of vague, cryptic dazed-happy-whirlwind news on the side. The news was … as some of you dear friends guessed … that we’re engaged! The Two Red Bowls are getting married!
(Also, yes, I got him a ring too. The party line is that it’s egalitarian and modern, but really, I was just impatient and love buying shiny presents.)
I really wanted to think of a food for this post that meant something to B2 and me. And ideally something that would go in the two red bowls that started this whole blog off. Then, after Mandy posted these incredible pineapple buns, it came to me — BBQ pork pineapple buns, as inspired by Tim Ho Wan. And now I will tell you a long and hopefully not boring story about us, our bowls, and where these buns fit in. You can go to sleep and wake up at the end for the recipe, I won’t mind.
Bowl #2 says his first impression of me was in one of our first classes in law school. Some of our professors have a lovely tradition of “cold-calling,” or calling on students at random to answer questions instead of asking for volunteers. Some people handle this process with grace and dignity. Others, like me, black out in terror and lose their handle on the English language. So Bowl #2’s recollection was something like this: “Oh, yeah, I noticed you really early. You were that girl who got cold-called first that day. And I remember thinking, boy, she looks scared sh*tless.” The first time he told me this, I fluffed up like a vain little bird in anticipation of what he’d say and then deflated somewhat suddenly.
That actually has nothing to do with Tim Ho Wan, I just think it’s funny. We were friends for most of law school, and didn’t begin dating until just before the beginning of our third year — or, right before a semester where I’d be studying abroad in Hong Kong. (Impeccable timing.) Long-distance relationships are always crazy fun (sarcasm) but never more fun than when they start that way, so it was a little bit of an uncertain time for us, with a few ups and downs.
Bowl #2 came to visit me about halfway through the semester. We did a whole lot of eating, but for only being in Hong Kong two weeks, I took him to Tim Ho Wan an embarrassing number of times, always for these baked buns. They’re the love child of two of Hong Kong’s best treasures — their famous pineapple buns, sweet and pillow-soft rolls with a crisp, sugary crust baked on top, and their char siu baked buns, rolls with juicy, sweet and savory caramelized roasted pork chopped up and tucked inside. We had an inappropriate number of these — and at a time where things were falling into place, and where what we were was becoming clearer and steadier and more and more wonderful. So I think they’ve come to represent a time that was truly special to us.
It has been, more or less, crystal clear where we were headed after that. A few friends have asked us when we started talking about “it,” and I honestly can’t remember. We have a shocking inability to conceal things from each other (to the point where our two rings had been sitting on the bookshelf in our living room for two months prior to this … and sometimes we put them on when we were bored and feeling cutesy). Maybe it was when I realized I couldn’t go the length of time it takes to brush my teeth without stopping to tell him something. Or on one of the many nights we went to sleep way too late because we couldn’t stop chittering about nonsense to each other in bed, or the many mornings following when he tolerated my tired crankiness with good-natured amusement.
It feels kind of weird to write seriously on my blog, but I think it’s only fitting — even if a bit gag-inducing — to say just this last piece. I am so thankful and so indescribably happy and lucky to be marrying the man who helped me rediscover who I truly am as a person, at a time where I was on the way to forgetting. The man who inspired this little blog and the wonderful journey it’s become, the one who told me he was proud of it at a time when opening the website on his computer meant doubling the number of page views for the day — and who has never stopped telling me the same thing ever since. Someone who has taught me what it really means to love boundlessly, in spite of any and all faults a person might have. Someone who just feels like home.
OKAY, and now pork buns! The dough and crust recipes are barely adapted from the genius that is Mandy, and the char siu is an amalgamation of, oh, the first twelve pages of hits on a Google search for char siu pork, and several taste tests. These pineapple tops aren’t crackly like most because I omitted the egg wash, in homage to Tim Ho Wan, whose buns are uniform on top — though that’s the only association I feel comfortable making when we’re talking Michelin star restaurants. Suffice it to say, these are simply inspired by the wonderful folks at that establishment, and a satisfying replacement when there otherwise would not be any. They’re an endeavor, but, like love, worth it.
My favorite dim sum on this Earth. Everything but the filling is based on Mandy's recipe, but adapted to be made by hand, without a stand mixer, and with two or three very minor tweaks. Also, pineapple buns have no pineapple in them.
- for the “pineapple” crust:
- 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 tbsp coconut cream (*see Notes)
- 3/4 cup cake flour
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 tbsp custard powder
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- for the dough:
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 1/2 tbsp bread flour
- 1/8 tsp of salt
- 2 1/2 cups (310 grams) bread flour
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 2 tbsp coconut cream
- 1 large egg white
- 2 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- for the char siu filling:
- 1/2 lb char siu pork (recipe follows)
- 2 tsp oil
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 pinch white pepper
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 tsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (sake also works)
- 1 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbsp water
- First, make the pineapple crust. In a large bowl, cream the unsalted butter until pale and creamy, approximately 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and coconut cream, and beat the mixture until thick and velvety, another couple of min. Add the cake flour, powdered sugar, custard powder, baking soda and baking powder, and mix until everything comes together into a dough. It will seem dry at first but will come together into a dough that resembles shortbread, but a bit stickier. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.
- Next, make the dough. First, you'll need to make tangzhong, a roux-like paste that's key in giving Asian baked goods their soft, pillowy consistency. Combine the 1/3 cup water, 1 1/2 tbsp flour, and 1/8 tsp salt in a small pan and whisk until no lumps remain. Turn the heat to medium-low and stir continuously until the mixture thickens to the point where lines remain when stirred. Set aside and let cool.
- In a medium bowl, combine the whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, and coconut cream. Bring the mixture to room temperature or slightly lukewarm, either by heating in a pot or microwaving for just 15 seconds or so. Sprinkle the yeast over top and let sit for a few minutes.
- In a separate, large bowl, mix together bread flour and sugar, then add the roux, yeast mixture, and the large egg white. Knead the dough for about five minutes, or until it comes together and becomes silky and elastic. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour, one tablespoon at a time, until dough is moist but smooth and silky, and does not stick to your hands.
- Next, add the softened unsalted butter in 3 additions, kneading after each addition. Only add the next addition when the previous one has been evenly kneaded into the dough. Once all the butter’s incorporated, continue to knead vigorously for about 7-8 minutes more. I found this dough to be just a joy to knead -- it's quite messy just after the butter's been added, but should come together into a silky smooth dough that is soft and easy to work with.
- Cover the bowl with plastic-wrap or damp towels, and let it proof at a warm place until well doubled, at least one hour.
- While it's proofing, prepare the filling. Finely dice the pork, then heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the pork, along with the rest of the ingredients except the cornstarch and water (sugar, salt, white pepper, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, and rice wine) and cook briefly, until ingredients combine. Turn the heat to medium-low, then add the cornstarch mixture and continue to stir until the pork mixture thickens and can be mounded. Let cool until dough finishes proofing.
- When the dough has doubled, scrape the proofed dough onto a working surface (no need to flour), punch the air out, and divide into about 16 pieces. (I cut it into squares for ease of use.) Roll one piece out (keeping the others covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap) and place about a tablespoon of filling in the center. Pleat however you like, just make sure it's sealed, then place it seam down on a parchment- or Silpat-lined baking sheet, at least 3 inches away from the next bun. At this point, the buns should technically proof again, but I find that preparing the other buns and the crusts give plenty of time for the second rise.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Next, you'll need to prepare the crust dough. You can either roll out the dough and cut out circles, or pinch off small balls of dough and roll them into circles. Either way, it helps to do this while the dough is cold, and between two pieces of parchment paper -- it keeps the crust dough intact. Place a circle of dough over each bun, pressing down gently to contour the crust around the dough. The circle does not need to cover the entire bun.
- When they're all capped with their crust hats, bake for 16-18 min, or until golden-brown and puffed. Enjoy warm.
If you can't find coconut cream, you can use regular coconut milk -- because coconut milk separates, just take care not to stir or shake up the milk when you open the car, and skim the thickened part at the top off for use.
- 1/2 lb boneless pork ribs or pork shoulder; alternatively, you can use 1 lb spare or baby back ribs
- for the marinade:
- 1/2 tsp 5-spice powder
- 3 tbsp maltose syrup (if you can’t find it, use honey instead)
- 2 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp grated ginger
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- Whisk all the ingredients for the marinade together. Marinate the pork in the marinade, reserving about 3-4 tbsp for basting, for at least 7-8 hours and up to two days.
- When ready to roast, preheat the oven to 275 degrees F and move the rack to the upper middle position. Place the pork on a rimmed baking sheet and let it roast for 1 hour or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, basting with the reserved marinade every 10-15 minutes or so. At this point, you can char the pork on broil for a few more minutes to develop some caramelized bits, but for filling, I thought one hour was enough.