On a piece of paper that the teacher handed to me were the words “precocity” and “paleontology.” It was the late 1970s, and I was a grade-schooler who’d recently arrived from Vietnam. We’d taken a personality and aptitude test, and after I looked up the P words in the dictionary, I realized that yes, I am precocious, but examining fossils didn’t interest me whatsoever.
My parents knew I was curious and intrepid from the times that I’d stuck my finger into electrical sockets (the buzzy shock was my “friend”); I’d also used my mom’s sewing machine and got the needle stuck in my thumb (surgery was required). Those things all happened before I was 6 years old.
“You were born in the Year of the Monkey,” my mom explained. To channel my energetic, inquiring mind to good use, she gave me cooking assignments. Given our Asian diet, I mastered rice first.
And a career was born.
Enter frozen dough. Noodling around on the Bridgford website, I noted recipes for stuffed appetizers such as pepperoni bites and mini calzone. Since Chinese baked bao (stuffed bun) employ the same idea – a bold savory filling baked inside yeast-leavened dough – I sensed success in the making.
At my local market, alongside the Bridgford frozen bread dough were packages of their Parkerhouse roll dough. The dough pieces turned out to be a super shortcut. I’ve made stuffed Chinese buns from scratch myriad times and have taught others, too, but the frozen pre-cut dough pieces were thrilling to play with: smack one into a round, then fill and shape it into a cutie snack.
They’re great for beginner bao makers, because the dough is portioned (less guesswork), and you don’t need expert pleating skills to shape bodacious buns. Additionally, the 24 dough pieces per package mean that you can defrost a few at a time for small, experimental batches. That’s how I was able to efficiently develop a pulled pork and curry chicken filling, and perfect the baking process.
Compared to the buns at dim sum, these convenience bao are more reserved in their sweetness, with a terrific balance between savory and sweet. With frozen dough in the freezer and filling in the refrigerator, you can practice, experiment and bake up batches of hot buns with little hassle.
Being precocious and monkeying around pays off.
BEGINNER’S BAKED BAO WITH PULLED PORK
FOR THE FILLING
10 ounces (1¼ cups) store-bought pulled pork with sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch
1½ teaspoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon canola oil or another neutral oil
¼ cup finely chopped shallot (about 1 medium or yellow onion)
Freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE BAO
One 24-ounce package Bridgford frozen Parkerhouse Roll Dough
Flour, for dusting, as needed
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
For the filling: Coarsely chop the pulled pork, so the pieces will be small enough to use as bao filling.
Whisk together the sugar, potato starch or cornstarch, soy sauce and water in a medium bowl.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot or onion; cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring, until some of the pieces are golden. Add the pork; cook for 1 to 2 minutes to warm through, breaking up larger pieces.
Re-whisk the starch mixture, then pour into the pan; cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, until thickened. The mixture should form into a solid mass. Remove from the heat. Taste, and season with pepper, as needed, for a whisper of heat.
Spread the filling out on a plate; refrigerate, uncovered, for 30 minutes, to cool completely.
For the bao: Defrost the dough according to package directions.
For easy bun assembly, use two teaspoons to portion the pulled pork filling into 24 compact balls, each about 1 inch wide. If not using within an hour, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
If there are lots of visible flour bits on the dough, knock them off with a pastry brush. Work with half the dough and filling at a time. Flouring the work surface isn’t usually required for this dough.
Take a piece of dough and gently roll it into a ball. Put it on your work surface and smack it with the heel of your hand into a circle about 2¾ inches wide. Holding the dough round in one hand, center a ball of filling on it, lightly pressing down to seat the filling in place. Imagine the dough round as a clock: Pull 6 and 12 o’clock up and over the dough ball and pinch to seal over the center. Repeat with 3 and 9 o’clock and seal. The result is a squarish bundle.
Using your fingertips, gently pinch the corners and sides toward the center to seal and form a ball. Place on your work surface, pleat side down, then use your fingertips to tuck any bulges underneath, ensuring an even round shape. Place on one of the baking sheets, pleat side down, spacing the buns about 1½ inches apart. Repeat to fill and shape the remaining dough pieces.
Lightly grease a piece of plastic wrap with cooking oil spray (or brush with oil), then use it to loosely cover the buns. Let them rise in a warm place for 50 to 60 minutes, until each is roughly 2¼ inches wide.
About 15 minutes before the rising time is over, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the honey and water in a small bowl.
Brush the buns with the honey-water mixture. Bake (middle rack) one sheet at a time, for 14 to 16 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.
While the buns are still hot, brush them with more of the honey water; this will glaze them.
Serve warm, or at room temperature.
COCONUT CURRY CHICKEN BAO FILLING
8 ounces ground dark-meat chicken
1½ teaspoons sugar, plus more as needed
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch
¼ cup full-fat unsweetened coconut milk
¼ cup chopped shallot (about 1 medium) or yellow onion
One 2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, chopped (1 tablespoon)
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder
1½ teaspoons water
1 tablespoon virgin coconut oil or another neutral oil
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and stems
Combine the chicken, sugar and salt in a bowl. Whisk together the potato starch or cornstarch and coconut milk in a liquid measuring cup.
Combine the shallot or onion, ginger, garlic, curry powder and water in a small food processor and process until a smooth paste forms.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the curry paste mixture and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes, until darkened and richly fragrant. Add the chicken and gently cook, mashing and stirring into small pieces, for about 3 minutes, until just cooked through.
Re-whisk the coconut milk mixture, then pour into the pan; cook, stirring for about 30 seconds, until thickened. Let cool for 2 to 5 minutes, then stir in the cilantro. Taste, and season with more salt and/or sugar, as needed.
Spread the filling out on a plate; refrigerate, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, to cool completely before using or storing.