Banh Bao (Steamed Sweet Buns)
Alright, bear with me. This meal is kind of fancy. Well, I guess it’s not actually so much fancy as it is a little laborious. I know, I know, working hard is kind of not my thing–but sometimes you need to have a recipe or two in the arsenal for nicer occasions. Large groups of people visiting, lesser holidays that don’t come with a traditional menu but still require something special, things like that.
It’s a pretty standard culinary concept in Asia to stuff a ball of dough with various fillings and steam the whole thing into a delicious bun. There are over a dozen variations of this, and even though mine aren’t really all that similar to the traditional Vietnamese version that banh bao officially refers to, that’s what I call them because that’s the first name I learned for them.
First the dough, and then the filling. So we start with 3/4 cup sugar in a bowl, and add 2 tsp of salt.
Add 2 Tablespoons of baking powder, and one cup of your milk substitute of choice. Make sure your baking powder is gluten-free. I use a generic brand, but Clabber Girl is one safe national brand. [As always, the brands I use were GFCF at the time of posting, but manufacturers can change formulas without notice. Always check your labels!]
Also add in 2 teaspoons of xanthan gum, and mix well to dissolve the sugar.
Now, we’re going to add in a total of 4 cups of brown rice flour, but it has to be added slowly.
Start with two cups, and mix well until it looks like the above. Then add in cup number three and get ready to get messy.
Fold and squoosh everything through your fingers again and again until it’s nice and mixed.
You’ll probably want to have the fourth cup of flour already measured out and waiting, so you don’t have to wash your hands an extra time. After you add the fourth cup it should start to be thick enough that you can’t really squoosh it anymore, you’ll have to start doing more proper kneading. Just fold the far edge towards you…
And mash it down again. Repeat until there’s no more loose flour in the bowl.
It’s still not mixed well enough yet, but at this point I lift the cohesive dough unit out and move it to a cutting board on the kitchen table. I do this because it’s lower than my kitchen counter, and I can get much better leverage for pushing down as I knead.
Just keep folding and mashing, folding and mashing, for a good five minutes at least.
And eventually you will end up with a smooth, even ball of dough. Now, set it aside in a bowl covered with a dishtowel while you mix the filling. I don’t actually know why it needs to be covered with a dishtowel, but my original recipe said to do it, so I do it.
Alright, we’re ready for the filling. That’s a head of baby bok choy up there, which is kind of like an Asian spinach with a very distinct flavor. Chop the leaves off, and throw the stalk away.
The leaves are very firm, so you can chop it up pretty easily without all the bits flying everywhere.
Once you have the baby bok choy in little confetti pieces, add in 2 chopped green onions, and 1 Tablespoon of grated ginger.
Then add 1 teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of white pepper. It’s probably not something you’ll use very often, but I’ve tried making it with black pepper and with no pepper, and the taste just isn’t as good. Use the white pepper.
We’re almost there. Add 2 Tablespoons of water…
1 Tablespoon of cooking sherry (which should naturally be GFCF since it’s made of grapes, but make sure you don’t accidentally pick up something weird like sherry-flavored grain alcohol…)
And 2 teaspoons of sesame oil.
Okay! Now you can mix in one pound of ground pork, and your filling is ready to go.
This being a fancy recipe and all, it does require a bit of special equipment. You can get a bamboo steamer at any Asian market, and it comes as a set of large stackable trays that you can combine to be as tall as you want. The other thing you’ll need to prep is these little squares of parchment paper. Traditionally you would use lettuce leaves to keep the dough from sticking to the tray, but then you just end up with a bunch of wilted lettuce. I mean, if you like super-wilted greens, go for it, but I would just be throwing them away, so I use somehing that’s cheaper and easier to clean up.
Pull off a piece of the dough and roll it into a ball about 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.
Then roll it out flat on a cutting board sprinkled liberally with more brown rice flour to keep it from sticking. Remember to get yourself a new rolling pin that you’ve never rolled in gluten flours before, or you’ll risk significant cross-contamination issues. If you look at the scale of my hand, you’ll realize this is a teeny tiny rolling pin that’s only maybe 6-8 inches long. Fits right in my utensil drawer with all the other junk.
Now spoon about a tablespoon of meat into the middle of your circle of dough…
And fold all the edges up around it.
Pinch everything together so it holds, and place it on top of a parchment square in your bamboo tray.
Repeat about 20 times. It’s important that the parchment be in small pieces like this and not just one large cover, because the steam has to be able to come up in between the spaces and cook the buns.
Somehow I always end up with more meat than dough, so I roll up any leftovers into little meatballs and toss them in the oven for about half an hour. They make for a great lunch the next day.
Fill a large pan with water, and balance your bamboo steamer on top. Once the steam really gets going, put the lid on and let it cook for about 20-25 minutes.
And they’re done! These typically should be dipped in some kind of sauce, but what kind is entirely up to you. We like a sweet chili sauce that they sell in the Asian section of our grocery store, but you could also do a sweet-n-sour sauce, straight soy sauce (gluten-free, of course,) or even a barbecue sauce.
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp salt
2 TBS baking powder
1 cup milk substitute
4 cups brown rice flour
1 lb. ground pork
1 head baby bok choy
2 green onions
1 TBS grated ginger
1 tsp salt
pinch white pepper
2 TBS water
1 TBS sherry
2 tsp sesame oil