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

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

Lye Bagels

After becoming comfortable making bagels using a baking soda bath, I noticed several comments online that “real” bagels are made with lye. Of course I had to try this. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a reasonable alkali that serves to help give bagels their characteristic crust and chewy texture. Lye is sodium hydroxide, a much stronger alkali, and a bit harder to find in food grade quality (though not that hard: Amazon has it).

The key is that you have to be a bit more careful. Lye can be quite caustic when concentrated, and most online resources recommend using protective equipment (at least gloves and some sort of eye protection). While the concentrations used for bagels are not as high as those used for pretzels, it’s best to play it safe.

So decked out in latex gloves and my largest pair of glasses, there I stood with an 0.8% lye solution boiling in a stainless steel pot on my stove (that’s 8g, or about one teaspoon, per liter of water). Following my usual recipe, I added the bagels for a minute, flipping them after 30 seconds. It probably ended up being a bit longer because of my efforts to be extra safe. The bagels developed a yellowish hue that they didn’t have after being boiled in baking soda.

I baked my usual 5 minutes at 500° F followed by 6 minutes at 450° F. As expected, the crust was considerably browner, due to the facilitation of the Maillard reaction by the lye. However, the bagels were also softer and end ended up quite chewy. I’m not sure how much was the lye vs a slightly higher dough hydration this time around. At this point, I’d say I prefer the baking soda version, but I plan to try the lye again in the future with a shorter boil and a longer cooking time.

Adventures in food and technology