Chinese Bakery Buns

Backstory time: as we’ve mentioned in a few other posts lately, Megan and I have been making care packages for both sets of parents during the current pandemic. It has been a nice way for us to keep connected with family over the past few months. With Hong Kong-style cafes being closed right now my parents are unable to go out and enjoy their regular afternoon tea, so making Chinese bakery buns for our care packages was a no-brainer! We started to test recipes as early as March, and after a few iterations we can finally share this recipe with everyone.

We first tried making the buns using a generic milk bread recipe that we found online. The resulting buns weren’t fluffy enough, and they dried out pretty quickly. On our second attempt, we tried using a shokupan recipe from Modernist Bread. Megan really liked this one, but it wasn’t quite right for a Chinese bun. Our reviewers confirmed this — the overall feedback was that it was too eggy and still not fluffy enough. For our third attempt, we tried to be clever and used a brioche recipe with a modest percent of butter. Our thinking was that it would result in an improved version of the buns: light and fluffy, and slightly richer. Again, no good: the flavour of the result was too far off from what you would get in a Chinese bakery. On the fourth attempt, we made the buns with the addition of tangzhong, a method of cooking the starch with water to a thick paste/slurry and letting it cool to room temperature and adding it to the dough. It provided the tender fluffiness that you would normally get in Chinese Bakeries. After doing some reading, we realized this is a key characteristic of Chinese milk bread (it’s used in the shokupan, too), so it makes sense that we had trouble achieving the characteristic texture without it. We were on the right track, and after a few tweaks — mainly increasing the hydration and playing around with the mixing and proofing time, we settled on the recipe below.

Yield [roughly 15 buns/rolls @ 85 grams]
Ingredients
135g water
35g glutinous rice flour
150g milk
12g yeast
500g bread flour
125g cake flour
1 egg, extra large
100g heavy cream
90g sugar
10g salt
60g butter, room temperature

Instructions
1. In a small pot, combine rice flour and water. Whisk continuously over medium heat until the mixture thickens. Let it cool to room temperature.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with a hook attachment, add yeast to milk and let it dissolve for 1-2 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients (EXCEPT BUTTER!), and mix on low speed/stir for 2 minutes.
4. Stop the machine, scrape down the sides, and mix on medium/speed 4 for 4-5 minutes.
5. Add butter, and mix for another 6-8 minutes.
6. Once full gluten development is achieved, let dough rest at room temperature for 45 minutes.
7. After the bulk fermentation, punch down and do a single book fold, then divide dough into roughly 85 gram pieces.
8. Shape dough into rounds. For pineapple bun (Bo Lo Bao), this is the final shape. For cocktail buns (Gai Mei Bao), flatten rounds into ovals, fill and shape into small batards.
9. Cover buns and let proof for another 1 hour or so (use the fingertip test to make sure they’re fully proofed before baking).
10. Add egg wash and any other final touches (cookie, etc) as required, then bake at 350°F for 18-20 minutes (in traditional home oven).

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