Bearface said when I started grad school last fall, “So, we’re not going to see you any more, huh?” And I scoffed and said, “No, of course not. I won’t let school do that to me. I’ll still have a life.” And then a month and a half into the semester, I fell off the face of the planet (and the internet) and landed in a pile of textbooks and cups of coffee.
I gratefully and satisfactorily survived my first semester as a grad student, adjusted my schedule and work load to be significantly (or am I being a little optimistic?) more manageable this semester, and have been back in the kitchen. My first project: pineapple buns or 菠蘿包.
Over winter break, Pretty Boy and I went to Hong Kong for two weeks. It was a spectacular trip, and Pretty Boy fell just as in love with Hong Kong as I am. And the focus of our trip, as every good trip to Hong Kong: food! We ate and ate and ate and did a pretty good job of making it through the 40 Hong Kong foods we can’t live without. Pretty Boy’s favorite: pineapple buns with Hong Kong style milk tea or 奶茶.
So once we returned home, I set out to try and recreate this Hong Kong specialty. Pineapple buns do not, as the name would suggest, contain any pineapple. They are light, sweet buns topped with a crunchy, crumbly topping that cracks when baked and resembles a pineapple. Hence the name. And they are similar to some styles of buns sold in Mexican bakeries.
After a rigorous Google search, I started out with this recipe for pineapple buns which was adapted from a video in Cantonese of a bakery owner in Hong Kong making pineapple buns. My first hurdle was the ingredients: Grams of flour? Castor sugar? Tangzhong? Edible ammonia powder!? More Google searching and some weight-to-volume conversions for common baking ingredients and I had everything figured out, except for the edible ammonia powder.
From what I read, the ammonia powder seemed to be the key to getting a good crack on the bun topping. I went to two local Asian grocery stores (United Noodles and Shuang Hur) and a drug store looking for it. No one had heard of the stuff and the lady at the drug store actually asked me if I meant baking soda. No, I did not want sodium bicarbonate, I wanted ammonium carbonate and I was getting desperate. I didn’t want to wait the time it would take to order some off the internet but I was getting close to that point until I stumbled across this webpage on leavening agents with uses and substitutes for ammonia powder. It recommended German or Scandinavian markets and to look under the name hirschhornsalz. Well, right down the street is Kramarczuk’s, an Eastern European deli and restaurant that also sells imported kitchen products including… Hirschhornsalz!
I was ready to bake. Over three weeks, it took four iterations to finally get the recipe right (and Pretty Boy has some pretty high standards). So here it is:
Ingredients for the buns:
(makes 12 buns)
3 ½ cups plus 3 tbsp bread flour
4 heaping tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tbsp milk powder
1 packet dry active yeast
½ cup water
½ cup milk
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
2 tbsp softened butter
- Make the tangzhong by placing 3 tbsp of bread flour and ½ cup water in a sauce pan. Whisk together to break up any lumps and cook over medium heat until mixture starts to thicken. Cook until it is thick enough for lines to appear and remain when stirred. Remove from heat and cool completely.
- Place dry active yeast in a bowl with a few pinches of sugar and room-temperature water to activate. Let stand for at least 10 minutes or until foamy.
- Place granulated sugar in a spice grinder or food processor and process until very fine but not all the way to powder.
- Place sugar, the rest of the beard flour, salt and milk powder in a bread maker or stand mixer fitted with the dough attachment.
- Whisk together the cooled tangzhong, milk, and eggs. Add the wet ingredients and activated yeast to the dry ingredients and knead well. (I let my stand mixer go for at least 10 minutes.) The dough will start out firm but should get softer with kneading and on the sticky side. Once the ingredients are well combined, add the butter and continue kneading. (Another 10 minutes.)
- Transfer dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in size. (In a cold, Minnesota-winter kitchen, this takes 3-4 hours. The original recipe suggested 40 minutes.)
- Once dough has doubled, deflate and cut into 12 pieces. Knead each piece into a ball, cover, and let rise again until doubled in size. (Again, in my kitchen this took about 2 hours. The original recipe suggested 35 minutes. This is a good time to make the topping.)
- Make the topping and roll out thin disks of topping between plastic wrap or wax paper. Preheat oven to 410 °C.
- Once the buns have double in size, top each bun with a sheet of topping and brush liberally with egg yolk. Bake for 5 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 °C and bake for another 15 minutes.
Ingredients for the topping:
(makes enough topping for 16 buns if you like the topping thinner or 12 buns if you want thick topping. The topping will have a more pronounce cracked pattern if it is thinner and that’s the way we like it.)
3 tbsp softened butter
4 heaping tbsp granulated sugar
1 tbsp milk powder
1 tbsp evaporated milk
1 tsp sweetened condensed milk
1 egg yolk
¼ tsp baking powder
1 cup cake flour
¼ tsp ammonia powder
- Cream butter in a stand mixer. Process granulated sugar into very fine sugar and add to the butter.
- Add milk powder, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolk, and baking powder to butter and sugar and mix well.
- Add cake flour and ammonia powder to mixture and mix well. Topping will be sticky and can be chilled to allow for easier handling.
Now to work on making a good cup of milk tea!