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)


  1. How ambitious! They turned out really well.

  2. I've never been too keen on sweet red bean paste but I imagine I would enjoy home made much more than that in the shops - they look stunning - in fact all your photos are gorgeous

  3. I don't find the seat of your pants reference vulgar in any way, but then, I've been cooking by the seat of mine since the day I started blogging.

    The buns look amazing! Once we get to California I plan on getting a bamboo steamer. I'll have to give this recipe a try!

  4. I recognise these marathon efforts to set things right - have been there many times!

    We had several kinds of these steamed Chinese buns in Singapore - for breakfast, as a snack - we liked the pepper chicken version the best. Found the bean versions too bland - neither sweet nor savoury. And I loved the casing itself - even got to see some being baked.

  5. I came to know this red bean only recently. What you have done is so pretty, the outside looks really good too.

    I love that yellow plate:-D

  6. I salute your efforts, Susan. I remember I used to get these in China Town in NYC when I lived there. LOVED them! This recipe looks entirely do-able. Thanks for de-mystifying it.

  7. Oh my, such a gorgeous, delicate, intricate recipe! Beautiful!!

  8. And smooth(unlike mine, when attemped once) Your buns looks perfect.Those Adzuki beans can be tough little suckers.Gorgeous photos as always.Thank you for letting me host this past month.

  9. Please tell me I can make this bean paste with some other bean also!

    And I've been looking for a bean paste recipe. SO this is great. I HAVE to try this during a weekend. Thanks a ton for this!


  11. like some of the commenters above, I know how HARD it sometimes is to cook the red beans properly. I've done it quite a lot, but always forget how much water the beans need to soften so I end up burning them and the pot altogether. Oh, well.
    So salute to you who have patience to soak the beans and watch the pot boiling for hours after hours.

  12. woah u can make asian buns too! impressed impressed, they look good and love your oriental looking plate as well =)

  13. I had the same problem with adzuki beans, they remained hard little pellets after hours of cooking. I gave up and fed them to the birds.

    I am so impressed with your home-made buns. I never even considered making them at home.

  14. That photo of the beans is a real stunner, Susan.

  15. I have a bamboo steamer and is really useful I love it
    Your beans paste is amazing. Well done Susan

  16. Good story.
    Oh, how I am craving the soft pillow with a hidden treasure!

  17. Please send me a few! Great job Sue!

    I bought of the beans last month and it is on my to-do list to make the paste.

  18. Dragon – Thanks! Yes, it was ambitious, but I'd not seriously cooked nor blogged about it in a while.

    Thanks, Johanna.

    Jerry – LOL! Thanks! A bamboo steamer is a relatively inexpensive investment that you'll get more uses from than you think; it's not just for Asian foods. Good to see you!

    Sra – I was too far along in the cooking process to give up, although I was chagrined that the beans weren't softening no matter what.

    Bean paste can be bland. I prefer it very sweet, sometimes with flavoring extracts like pandan.

    Soma – Thank you. That yellow plate is a traditional Chinese design, purchased in Chinatown, NYC.

    Toni – Thanks. It is easier to have them when dining out. Used to go weekends to The Golden Unicorn for the best dim sim. Of course, these, as well as hundreds of other varieties of buns and dumplings, were rolled by our table for the grabbing.

    Astra – Thank you. It would have been far less intricate if the beans behaved. ; )

    Courtney – Thanks. Glad to have you on board as a host. : ) There is a rough version of bean paste, but I had my heart set on the smooth stuff.

    A & N – Yes, you can make this paste with any bean. Hope it comes out well for you.

    Snooky Doodle – Thank you! Beans can sometimes be uncooperative ingredients. ; )

    Welcome, Gnuffle! Thanks! The soaking was the easy part!

    Thanks, Wiffy! The plate comes in a gorgeous pale turquoise and rose, too. The dinnerware is the classic Chinese Longevity design.

    Christine – I'm sure the birds made short work of them. : ) Thanks for the kudos.

    Susan – Thank you. Good to see you.

    Sylvia – Thanks. The steamer has many uses. I love it, too.

    LL – Thank you. : D

    Thanks, Cynthia. Had so many, I wish I could have shared more broadly.

  19. gorgeous susan , as usual i must add.

  20. What a beauty of a delicious recipe! waw!!
    I bet it tasted fab!

  21. the beans look really awesome susan...:)..and made a great read!