Far Yeast

Hong Kong Sausage Buns

Hong Kong Sausage Buns

“Hmmm. No. Let’s keep walking.”

We continued walking along Mott Street. It may as well have been Mars for all I knew. I’d always found Chinatown a bit dizzying for a solo venture. I’m afraid of eels—or am I just grossed out by them? Either way, I pictured myself tripping and falling into one of the eel-filled vats in the sidewalk displays the fish mongers maintained. Love that fishy smell.

So, it was good to have an ally, a guide, who knew the lay of the land. My Asian friend would poke his head into various restaurants, look left, then right, and the search would continue.

I asked what he was looking for—the criteria he was using to judge where we’d stop—and he replied, “I’m looking for a place with no white people.” The stricken look on my pale face wordlessly begged the explanation that he was trying to avoid the touristy places in favor of the more genuine “neighborhood” spots where the locals eat. The irony was not lost on me: if I ate there his rule would be broken. But I was hungry and kept my mouth shut.

Finally we found just the right place. It was a little noisy, the more so because so many of the folks were seated around large round tables, creating a party atmosphere.

We had come downtown in search of Dim-Sum. Every Dim-Sum restaurant has a little bit of the Ziegfeld Follies in its spirit. I always picture leggy showgirls dressed as egg rolls and scallion pancakes descending a glowing staircase.  The truth is admittedly a bit balder: waiters and waitresses parade by with trays of small items like red bean buns, egg rolls, and chicken feet. As you select from the passing flotilla, your little plates pile up. Later the waiters use your pile of plates to calculate the bill.

By the way, I don’t consider myself a devotee of chicken feet…who does? But eating them is considered good luck, and I’m as superstitious as they come, so I ate chicken feet. No, I didn’t mind them (tastes like chicken!), and no, this blog is not about preparing chicken feet.

I immediately realized my affinity for this kind of eating. Small bits and variety: that’s for me. If you’ve never had Dim-Sum, it is a very amenable way of eating, and usually very social. It is sort of a low stakes game for trying something new, like chicken feet. If you don’t like them, you haven’t committed to an entire meal of them, and they will soon be replaced by something else. (The reverse also holds true: if you fall in love with something you can make a whole meal of it, provided they don’t run out.)

Dim-sum is often a breakfast meal, and as odd as that sounds on this side of the globe, it can actually be deeply satisfying at that hour. But later in the day you have the advantage of seeking dessert after—for if you are an old fogie like me you still cling to the “no dessert before lunch” rules. Sensible and old fashioned? I guess so.

When I mention Dim-Sum to people I often get a vague flash of recognition. When I mention Hong Kong-style bakeries to people I get blank looks. To my mind though, the two things go hand in hand. Admittedly that is due to habit: when I finish a meal of Dim-Sum there is generally a Hong Kong-style bakery a few steps away. But there’s a synergy of style too.

I would also make the argument that Hong Kong-style bakeries are an extension of the Dim-Sum brand. The concept is similar: good things in a small package. I cannot however make the claim that everything at a Hong Kong-style bakery is dessert, for much of it falls into the savory category.

There is a certain vanilla simplicity to the items you’ll find. This is to be embraced because it speaks to a certain predicable consistency. The bread has an almost super-charged fluffiness, and if the flavors don’t exactly jump out at you, they don’t overwhelm you with sweetness either. Balance? Yin and yang?

I’m a big fan of Cream Rolls which are simply buns filled with coconut buttercream and sprinkled with a touch of coconut. But I also find the Sausage Rolls appealing, and if that doesn’t fall under the usual provenance of dessert-time, they can still make the claim of being a prime late afternoon snack with a tumbler of bubble tea, the creamy tea drink that first found its way into the world via Hong Kong bakeries. (The bubbles are actually oversized tapioca pearls.)

The question in my baker’s mind has always been: how do they get the bread so reliably soft? A little internet research revealed the secret: tangzhong.

Sounds mysterious, like some kind of herbal or tuberous ingredient that you could only find in Asia, right? Wrong. It is very basic bread-making science.

Here’s the concept: when baking bread you want to develop the gluten which is the protein in flour. Sometimes having tough gluten is desirable (chewy bread), but sometimes it’s not (Hong Kong buns).The easiest way to soften the proteins is to cook the flour with a bit of liquid. A slightly slower way, popular amongst artisanal bakers is called “autolyse”, a fancy name for letting the dough sit for a while to let the flour absorb the liquid.

So what is tangzhong? Just a bit of flour cooked with water or milk until the mixture thickens (the work of just a few minutes), and then allowed to cool (the work of…okay, an hour maybe two.) Just as with sourdough starter you add a bit of this to your dough.

While Hong Kong sausage rolls are usually filled with hot dogs, I decided to up the ante slightly by filling mine with something a bit fahncy: a good quality chicken and turkey sweet Italian sausage. You can try a breakfast / brunch version filled with maple sausage or chicken and apple sausage, but I think the basic sweetness of the bun really seems to call out for something savory.

In spite of what I just said, you can use the same recipe to make the Cream Rolls mentioned above, either in the “horn of plenty” style picture above (you’ll need to bake the dough on cannolli or cream horn forms), or by just baking ovals, slicing them down the top New England Lobster roll style, and filling them with a pastry bag. If coconut isn’t your thing, you can also fill the buns with a Nutella-Whipped Cream mixture.

But those sausage rolls…if my barbecue is rained out this fourth of July holiday you know what I’ll be eating.

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I followed the Hong Kong Sausage Roll recipe on “Christine’s Recipes”

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