Milk Buns

Breakfast sandwiches are a regular feature of our morning meal, usually made with our homemade focaccia style buns. While the basic recipe is great, I like to mix things up to keep it interesting. The standard buns I make these days are a mix of four ingredients:

  • 250 g 00 flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 180 mL water

The ingredients are mixed, the dough rises overnight at room temperature, then gets shaped into buns, rests again for an hour or two. I’ll usually give the buns a  brushing of olive oil and bake for 15 minutes at 375 F for 15 minutes (with convection on) on my Baking Steel.

Sometimes I’ll omit the olive oil on the surface and dust with flour instead, or add teaspoon or two of olive oil and/or sugar into the dough itself.

For my latest adventure, I decided to replace the water with the 2% milk we use. I increased the amount of liquid from 180 to 190 grams (since milk is only partly water), but I probably didn’t compensate enough. The dough ended up easy to work with, but a bit denser and not as wet as I’m used to. I had scalded the milk to 190 F and let it cool before using, as this is supposed to omit the troublesome glutathine that can interfere with gluten formation. I let it rise overnight, the stored it in the fridge for a few days.


The cold dough was even denser but quite easy to work with. I shaped it into buns (divide dough into quarters, then fold four corners into a ball, place seam side down, and cup your hand over the surface while rolling the ball in a circle for about 30 seconds) and then compressed the rounds so they weren’t too tall and narrow.

Before baking I brushed the surface with what I call my omelette glaze: one egg beaten with a tablespoon of milk (you can use the leftover mix to make an omelette). Given the sugar content of the milk and the egg glaze, I figured it might be ready a bit sooner than the water-based dough, and I was right. After 12 minutes, the buns and reached over 200 F and had a dark brown crust.


The buns worked out well – they were smoother in taste and had a nice creamy texture. They were chewier and denser, almost bagel like, likely because I had less liquid than I might otherwise have wanted. There was a bit of an off-taste though and, given it’s cheese-like character, I wonder if milk dough’s are really suited to long rests.   A higher yeast dough with a shorter rest period may be better for milk doughs.


Banh Bao

A recent weekend ritual our family picked up was traveling to a regional Vietnamese bakery for a variety of goods. One of our favorites has been the banh bao. This slightly sweet steamed bun is packed with pork sausage, ground pork, quail eggs, and the odd vegetable. They have become a tasty and satisfying breakfast treat or snack. Of course, I immediately wondered if I could replicate this creation at home. Not being a huge fan of the pork overdose of these buns, one advantage was the fine tuning of the fillings.

After some online searches as well as trial and error, this is what I’ve come up with so far:

Banh Bao

makes 6 small buns


  • 140 g AP flour
  • 1.5 teaspoon baking powder
  • 0.25 teaspoon salt
  • 40 g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 70 g milk
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar


  • Mix all ingredients together until all flour is absorbed into dough.
  • Kneed for about 10 minutes. Dough will start to develop a smooth surface though may not be perfectly smooth. If the dough is dry, add kneed in some water. The dough will be tacky, but if it sticks excessively to your hand, dust with some flour and kneed it in to incorporate.
  • Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.


  • Rest for 30 minutes
  • Divide into 6 balls and flatten each into a disk with the palm of your hand
  • Using a rolling pin, roll each disk into a 4 inch circle


  • Place a small amount of filling (I used pork sausage, water chestnut, egg, and shiitake mushroom, all cut into small pieces) in the center of each disk


  • Fold up the edges from four sides and pinch together. It may help to moisten the outer rim of the dough circle with water using your finger to help it to stick.
  • Place each bun on a small piece of parchment paper, then prepare a steamer (e.g. a steamer insert in a pot with a small amount of boiling water).


  • Steam the buns for about 15 minutes.

The Air is Dead. Long live the Air.

In 2008, Apple released a new laptop that was simultaneously groundbreaking and ridiculous. Extraordinary lightweight and svelte for the time, it exchewed the typical array of ports that most laptops of the time had, eliminted the standard DVD drive, and was dramatically underpowered. Storage options included an excruciatingly slow 80 GB hard drive and a supremely expensive 64 GB SSD. Many predicted it would fail, but with progressive advancement the MacBook Air has become THE standard Apple laptop (and arguably the standard laptop overall).

At this month’s event, which was ostensibly about the pending release of the Apple Watch, Apple spent a surprisingly long time focusing not on the Watch, but on a new laptop. There are many parallels to the Air’s launch. Performace wise, it is as slow as Air’s from a few years ago. It has only a headphone jack and a single USB port, which is used for power and all output duties. There are a limited range of storage options. In exchange for these compromises, it is thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, with a superior “retina”calibur screen.

Apple is keeping the 11“ and 13” Air on the market for now, because this radical new laptop is going to be too radical for some people at this time (much like they transiently sold the standard MacBook and non-retina MacBook Pros after their DVD-less successors were launched). This is a temporary transition. I expect that Apple’s line will soon simplify to MacBook and MacBook Pro. The MacBook may gain another USB-C port, and performance will improve over time. Much like the loss of the DVD drive seems of little consequence now, the reduction in ports as we move to an increasingly wireless world will also become irrelevent for all but a subset of users (for whom the MacBook Pros will continue to be avialable).

Lye vs. Baking Soda Bagels

Many home bagel recipes rely on a boiling baking soda bath prior to baking, but some argue that “authentic” bagels must instead take a dip in a much stronger alkali, lye.

I tried the lye and baking soda versions using the same dough, and while I initially noticed a clear difference in flavor and texture with lye, I wasn’t sure it was actually better. The bagels were considerably darker, but seemed too chewy and the crust was a bit difficult to bite through.

With some tweaks, I have become a lye convert. The key is to not overboil the bagels. One minute in the lye (with a flip halfway through) is plenty. The flavor with lye has a bit more depth, toppings stick better, and there seems to be a better contrast between crispy crust and soft, chewy interior.

Soft Pretzels

I have never been a fan of hard pretzels, particularly those dry, flavorless, twig-like snacks handed out on airplanes and the like. Soft preztels, conversely, are a completely different beast. Warm and roll like, these breads have a distinctive crust and flavor. Since you’ve now purchased a large amount of food-grade lye for making bagels (right?), why not find another use for this non-traditional pantry ingredient. I’ve adapted this recipe from one on Fine Cooking.

Add to a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook:

  • 550g bread flour
  • 1.5 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Mix the dry ingredients and then add:

  • 360 ml lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Mix the dough until smooth (3-5 minutes) and transfer to oiled bowl to rise until slightly less than doubled, 60-90 minutes.

Divide the dough into 8 pieces and form a ball. Cover with plastic wrap for 30 minutes, then shape the pretzel by rolling it into a rope curved into a U, wrapping the ends , and flipping the end over the curve. It’s easiest to watch a video to see how to do this.

Transfer pretzels to a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 2 hours (the uncooked pretzels can last for weeks in the freezer).

In a small bowl (big enough to fit a prezel but not much larger), mix:

  • 500 mL water
  • 40g lye microbeads

Wearing latex or nitrile gloves and ideally some sort of eye protection, use stainless steel tongs to dip each pretzel in the lye bath. It only needs to sit in the bath for about 5 seconds (or 5 seconds per side if the pretzel doesn’t submerge completely). Allow the lye to drip back into the bowl when you remove the pretzel, since this liquid is fairly concentrated and caustic. The pretzels should be transferred back to the baking sheet and given 1.5 to 2 hours to thaw and rise. They should appear puffy.

Sprinkle some coarse salt on the pretzels (e.g. kosher) and stack the baking sheet on a second sheet to limit scorching. Cook at 400 degrees for 20-22 minutes, rotating half way through, then cool on a rack for 15 or more minutes.

Some like their pretzels with mustard or dipped in cinnamon sugar. I liked them with a cheese dip. I sometimes enjoy them bagel style, sliced and adorned with cream cheese and salmon.

Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup (Canh Chua)

Ask most American’s to name a Vietnamese soup, and most will gravitate immediately to pho. Pho is great and certainly popular for a reason, but there are other options to consider. One of my recent favorites is a sweet and sour fish soup that’s great this time of year.

Some of the ingredients are a bit hard to find, at least in typical American supermarkets. You may have to venture out into an Asian (ideally Vietnamese) grocery, or find some substitutions. My recipe is derived from one published at The Seasoned Wok, though I have added a few modifications to match my tastes.

By hand, remove seeds from 2 tablespoons of tamarind paste and set aside.

Prepare the vegetables (feel free to modify the list to match your tastes and availability):

  • 200 grams of okra, cut to 1/2 inch length
  • 2 tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each
  • 1-2 cups of pineapple chunks
  • 2 taro stems (bac ha), peeled and sliced into 1 inch pieces on the diagonal
  • 1 cup bean sprouts, washed
  • 1/2 cup of rice haddy herb (ngo om), roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, presseed or minced
  • 1/2 onion, minced

In a large pot, heat up 1 tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until translucent (about 3-5 minutes), then add tamarind paste and garlic, stirring and cooking for another minute. Add 1 pound of a resilient fish cut into filets, steaks, or large chunks and brown slightly. Catfish is traditional, but I’ve used salmon and flounder as well.

Remove the fish and add 2 liters of water, tomatoes, and pineapple. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add in okra. After about 3 minutes add in fish. The cooking time for the fish will depend on the type and size, but you should aim to get the internal temperature above 130. Season with sugar and fish sauce to taste (I start with two tablespoons sugar and 1/4 cup fish sauce). Skim off foam if it develops.

Once the fish is cooked, add in taro stem, bean sprouts, and rice paddy herb. If the fish is in large steaks or filets, you’ll want to break or cut it into bite size chunks prior to serving.

Add some rice to each bowl and pour the soup on top. If you like things spicy, add a bit of thai chili (I had this to individual bowls so as not to torture the rest of the family with my fondness for heat).


The “Tall White”

The “flat white” is apparently the latest espresso milk combo sweeping the nation after erupting out of its Australian borders. It basically sounds like a certain style of latte and not particularly a new drink.

I make cappuccinos and lattes relatively frequently. Despite the decent amount of milk it contains, my wife notes that her latte can sometimes seem a bit too “concentrated” for her tastes (which can include Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, for context). So I recently decided to combine an Americano and a latte for a watered down version of the latte.

The basic approach is to add two shots of espresso to about 4-6 ounces of hot water, then steam some milk and add it on top. This preserved the ability to execute some killer latte art while offering your more sensitive coffee drinkers a milder alternative.

Adventures in food and technology