Steamed Bread (Mantou 饅頭)

In food on 01/05/2009 at 10:47 am

Why do people in their 20s+ not know how to cook? Most of our friends and acquaintances don’t. I think if you like to eat, you should like to cook. Sure it’s convenient to buy the stuff ready to eat instead, but it never tastes as good as the homemade version. Case in point: steamed bread. Yes it’s labor intensive, and more steps than I usually prefer when cooking, but it’s worth the trouble. Plus you can skip the trip to the gym that day.

I prefer steamed bread to baked European bread because it’s like eating a little fluffy cloud, moist with a good mouth feel. The recipes for the dough are basically the same except for the actual cooking method. Steamed bread is also easier to stuff with savory or sweet ingredients; it keeps better too because you can freeze it in smaller portions and easily ‘reconstitute’ it by re-steaming only the amount you want to eat.

The major drawback is needing a kitchen large enough in Manhattan to make them. Luckily, our current apartment has a huge marble peninsula attached to the stove, which is also full-sized, though electric, contains our new favorite accessory: the surface warmer. This eliminates my main nemesis in baking, tempermental yeast.

Steamed bread originated in northern China, but it’s more popular in Taiwan now. In the U.S., there’s no local steamed bread shop where they make ’em and you buy a bag to snack on immediately. There used to be a shop in Flushing, on Prince St, but they relocated to somewhere in Long Island several years ago. Alas, the bakeries that have other Chinese pastries don’t make them as good. It takes a singular focus to perfect.

I’m making some right now. I like plain steamed bread, with condensed milk, but I never seem to have a container around when I need it. I also tear a pouch in them and stuff with pork dust. The filling I’m making today is fatty pork with baby corn and scallions.

The key to making a good filling: use a cheap fatty ground meat so when you steam it, the juices get sucked into the surrounding dough. You can also use chicken or beef, shrimp, fish paste or whatever floats your boat.

Then for the accessory ingredients you can use any assortment of canned veggies, chopped. For fresh veggies like spinach or cabbage, I would wilt them down by saute-ing with garlic first. I don’t think any sort of lettuce or salad green would work here; they aren’t sturdy enough to stand up to reheating. It would end up being a mushy mess.

To bind the filling and add flavor, I use soy sauce, roasted sesame oil, a variety of spices such as cumin, siracha, tumeric, galangal, salt and pepper; whatever I have left in my cabinet.

1 5lb bag of flour
1 stick butter
1 pkg active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar (can be granulated or brown)
5+ cups warm water (hot enough to take a  shower under)
Steamer (stainless steel, mine holds 7 fist-sized pieces, 3 stacks)

Do: Melt the butter in a bowl. Add sugar to the water. Sprinkle the yeast into the water mix and stand for 10minutes until frothy foamy. Smell test for that bready aroma.

Add 1/2 bag flour into standard stand mixer. Add butter and yeast mix into the bowl. Attach the dough hook. Pour in yeast sugar water mix. Mix on low until stirred thoroughly. It’ll have the consistancy of thick oatmeal or Hong Kong congee.

Pour most of other 1/2 bag of flour onto countertop. Scrap out dough from bowl, put on top of flour and start incorporating together. Here is the part where you just have to do it enough times to know what the finished product will look like. If you want a more dense dough, you add enough flour until it’s like a soft lump of clay. If you want a more light and fluffy pillow of bread, you add enough flour until it’s a little harder than your earlobe. But you don’t want the dough to be too sticky that it leaves gloopey bits on the countertop.

Wait: Divide the dough so it can rise double its size in the containers. I usually use the stand mixer bowl and another stainless steel mixing bowl. Let the dough rise covered by a damp cloth in a warm place or on the surface warmer. I put a cookie sheet on the surface warmer to increase the surface area for proofing. ~2hrs

Knead: Combine the doughs by punching down and kneading until smooth and shiny. ~5-10 minutes. A shortcut and also bicep/tricep builder: lift dough and throw down on counter. It not only activates more gluten, but it also annoys your landlord if he/she lives downstairs. Repeat 10X, then continue kneading. The more you knead, the more QQ the final product, chewy and resilient. Yum. Let the dough rise double its size again. ~1 hr

Form: Cut out palm-sized pieces of foil ~30-50, depending on how big you make your pieces of bread. Punch down the dough and roll out tubes and cut into 3″X3″ cubes. I find a pastry cutter works best. For steamed bread, put the pieces on the foil. For steamed bread with fillings, stretch out the dough pieces with both thumbs, making sure to keep the middle of the circle thicker than the edges. Hold the circle flat with one hand, put the filling in the middle. Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch up the dough and turn the piece until it gathers up in the center. Then pinch together to seal.

Cook: Let the dough rest ~20 min while you boil water for the steamer, filled 1/2 full. Steam the bread for ~20 min. Take out immediately with tongs and let cool before packing up in freezer. Re-steam 10 minutes when eating later by defrosting in fridge first.

Eat: Fresh from steamer. Yum!


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