Thursday, April 30, 2009

Beans by the Seat of My Pants - Steamed Red Bean Buns

Homemade Steamed Red Bean Bun

Go ahead and snicker at the vague vulgarity of this post's title, but you'll see that given the circumstances, I am talking anything but unappetizing hot air.
As an experienced baker, I'd lost my fear of working with live yeast some years ago. Even so, breaking in my Chinese bamboo steamer, still sitting in its shipping box after several months, was probably not the wisest decision to make at this time. But after weeks of lazing off the lazies and topping out with bacchanalian holiday fare, the appeal of snapping open the shrink-wrapped, glossy skin of a puffy steamed bun hiding a creamy-soft nugget of cloying red bean paste was just the kind of plain and simple comfort I was craving. Besides, I was tired of picking them up from the restaurant in town which prepares the best buns, but doesn't offer the quickest home delivery.
How hard could it really be to make them myself? Not hard at all, actually, but so time consuming and multi-stepped? Well, I wasn't anticipating that, particularly since I've made red bean paste from scratch before and found it rather a painless and straightforward process. What I didn't factor in was the irksome possibility that my new purchase of Asian red beans (known as azuki in Japan) would be as old as rock and just as impossible to soften.
Granted, I wasn't expecting the expedited cooking schedule of lentils, which can mush up into sludge right before your eyes; I thought the beans would cook up as they previously had. Though I'd carefully timed the dough against the paste prep, it was the beans that were the beasties and not the yeast at all. While the starter was happily and fragrantly bubbling and expanding like clockwork, the beans would not, after hours of their own bubbling, yield to a quick squish between the fingertips. I was beginning to worry. The dough would soon be ready to be kneaded before its final rising, and I still was nowhere near having anything to fill them with. Yet failure was not on my radar screen, even though the beans were far too lumpy and tough even to be used in another authentic paste recipe, where the skins are left intact.
So I winged it. Rather than fighting to push the bean pulp through a strainer, I extracted as much as I possibly could via the prescribed method, regretfully discarding the bulk of it. That left me with a bowl of sloppy, dull purée, which I transferred to a clean, heavy skillet. And there I stood for close to an hour, constantly stirring the mixture to prevent scorching as it slowly belched into a reduction of the very thick, smooth, ancient red paste it was supposed to be. Things were syncing up nicely, after all; every brainstorm was worth the trouble. There is no aroma quite so heady as that of the freshest yeast wafting in nearly visible layers through the air of your kitchen. Nor is there anything like the sensual pleasure of tearing your teeth into a hot, fleshy pillow of a bun to the buried bean treasure deep within it, no matter how circuitous the route to get there.
Red Bean Paste - My own recipe, elements of which were gleaned from several basics found online, but foolproof no matter what age the beans are


1 cup azuki beans (found in Asian and health food grocers)
4 cups water for soaking
Additional water for cooking
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or shortening for smoother mouth feel (optional)
1 cup brown sugar, packed

Asian Red Beans

Method (The night before)

Pick over beans for possible debris and breakage. Rinse under cold water, then cover generously in a large bowl. Soak beans overnight, at least for eight hours.

Next day, drain the beans and transfer them to a large, heavy saucepan. Cover them with about 4 inches of fresh water. Bring to boil, skim off any foam, and reduce heat to a moderate simmer. Cover saucepan and let cook for up to 3 hours, checking periodically to stir, check for softening and replace water lost through evaporation. Do not let beans dry out or they will burn. Press beans coarsely with a potato masher. If they are very soft, empty them into a large metal strainer to drain the water, then transfer strainer to rest on a large mixing bowl. With a wooden spoon, press and scrap beans through the strainer to separate the thick pulp from the fibrous skins, making sure to include any pulp caught on underside of strainer. Discard the skins and transfer the pulp to a large, heavy skillet. *Cook on low heat, stirring in the optional oil and shortening, then incrementally adding the sugar. Continue to stir and rub the pulp into a dense paste. The paste is ready when you can easily see the bottom of the skillet when you swipe the spoon through the paste. (If the beans, as in my story, remain tough, collect the drained water from the bean-cooking sauce pan and return it to the saucepan with whatever pulp you can extract through the strainer. Stir this very loose mixture constantly over moderate heat until it begins to evaporate and thicken. Proceed as above*.) Allow the paste to cool before filling the bun dough. Paste can be stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a week. Return to room temperature before using.

Steamed Asian Buns - With the exception of substituting bleached cake flour for the all-purpose unbleached flour called for, I followed the recipe from The Fresh Loaf and have not rewritten it here. N.B. - The warm water cited must be luke warm to the touch, 105 - 110 degrees F, neither too cold nor too hot for the yeast to be activated without being destroyed.

Makes one dozen buns. Very best when eaten warm straight from the steamer.
Bamboo Steamer

Split Steamed Red Bean Bun

This recipe is for Courtney of Coco Cooks, guest host for April's My Legume Love Affair - Tenth Helping - Starters and Desserts. Though the event officially closes today, Courtney will be accepting latecomers until she posts the round-up this weekend. Recipes prepared after the round-up are to be sent to the attention of Lori Lynn of Taste with the Eyes, hosting MLLA11 for May. Thanks always for your great recipes for My Legume Love Affair.

Been There, Done That ~
Sourdough Waffles and Pumpkin Dessert Roll
Fast French Bread
Peach Rum Savarin

Other People's Eats ~
Oly Koeks
Golden Brioche
Multigrain Yeast Pancakes

 Steamed Bun (Baozi, 包子)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Break

CherryTree Picnic

Now that spring cleaning and Easter are over, I have been leisurely recovering by savoring these special days of "sweater weather," when one needn't be burdened with thinking too hard about what to wear, be it bundling up or doffing down. I would be remiss in not confessing that I have been remiss in my blogging duties these past few weeks, but all that will change shortly. There is much blog-hopping, reading and commenting to catch-up on, as well as designing a new home page; refining, yet again, my blogroll; and planning for a slew of new recipes to share with you in months to come. In meantime, please allow me to slowly sip what remains of an indulgent purchase of estate Darjeeling tea, my photo of which appears in the current issue of the Italian WU Magazine.

Darjeeling Tea
The tea.

The tin is almost empty, now, with just enough tiny, twisted leaves to keep a pot brewing for a few more days. Please bear with me while I finish off the very last drops of golden liquor.

The pot.

My very best wishes to everyone for recent holidays and equinoxes celebrated, whoever you are and wherever you live, and repeated thanks for making My Legume Love Affair the monthly success that it is. Laurie of Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska has just posted a blockbuster round-up for MLLA9, and Courtney of Coco Cooks is busy hosting MLLA10, featuring your lovely recipes for starters and desserts.


Spring-Inspired Recipes

Been There, Done That ~

Avocado Soup
Chive and Poppy Seed Crêpes
Roasted Radicchio di Treviso

Other People's Eats ~
Asparagus Soup with Cream
Dandelion Greens
Cucumber Dill Soup

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sweet Revenge - Trüffeltorte (Chocolate Truffle Cake)

Trüffeltorte (Austrian Chocolate Truffle Cake)

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Congreve knew it. Euripedes knew it. Dickens knew it, too. And while Congreve and Euripedes set their themes to blood, Dickens worked his words around a cake. A wedding cake, specifically, "a bride-cake," as Miss Havisham called it. Her cake. While the Great Expectations of Dickens' novel belong to Phillip Pirip (Pip), Miss Havisham, one of the greatest and most grotesque eccentric characters in all English literature, once had her own high hopes, too.

Betrothed later in life, and jilted by a man only hours before they were to be married, Miss Havisham is frozen in time to the exact minute she receives word that her heart has been betrayed and her fortune swindled. She becomes a haunted and embittered figure, an intractable, long-suffering and self-pitying martyr ensconced in a dark and dank estate, shrouded in the faded, yellowed lace of her wedding gown, a permanent fixture hanging from her withered form. Her soul is as rotted as the ruins of her wedding cake, a fortress of foul decrepitude, inhabited by creatures more familiar feeding on carrion than sweetmeats.

It is within the claustrophobic confines of this vile and bankrupt world that young Pip falls in love with Estella, Miss Havisham's beautiful and imperious young ward. The girl has been tutored well in the art of cruelty, learned at her benefactress' knee, ensnaring poor Pip to inevitable heartbreak. Miss Havisham, exploiting Estella as an instrument for her revenge, exacts a savage toll. Though she can vicariously gloat over the poisons she injects in others, she has emotionally sterilized Estella beyond any hope for her to live happily in love with anyone. There is eventual horror and guilt for the havoc she wrecks in others' lives, but it is too late for tears.

Miss Havisham would never have countenanced the cake I've baked; a chocolate wedding cake would have been a reckless violation of Victorian custom. But chocolate might have been a small comfort to her, and certainly a lot sweeter than the dark vengeance she sought.

Trüffeltorte (Austrian Chocolate Truffle Cake)
Trüffeltorte (Austrian Chocolate Truffle Cake) - From the Demel recipe via Saveur. With the exception of replacing the rum with brandy for the syrup, I have made no other changes to the recipe and did not rewrite it. You can find the recipe through the Saveur link.

Wedding Cake Server and Knife

Simona of Briciole, and Lisa of Champaigne Taste, co-hosts of Novel Food - Spring 2009, the quarterly celebration of what is eaten and drunk in the pages that we read.

Thanks to all who voted on which cake I would bake for this event. It was great fun. The choices were nut, fruit or chocolate. The results: Nut 6; Fruit 12; and Chocolate 16. Of course, chocolate won. Silly me.