Childish Red Bean Buns

red bean buns featured header

red bean buns featured header

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I didn’t grow up eating cinnamon rolls either, or croissants like the French, or dorayaki like the Japanese, or… well… I don’t know another analogy.  Anyways my point is, back where I come from, that simplistic, childish, almost idiotic pleasure of a pastry is this.  A red bean bun.  As how I imagine no American would remember their first muffin, or the French their first croissant, I certainly don’t remember my first red bean bun.  Its presence was humble and mundane, but always somehow quietly found its way into my lunchbox, alongside with my breakfast milk, or just a couple scattering in the kitchen to be snacked in a lazy school-day afternoon.  It was traditional, almost old school, a standardized commodity for every bakeries and convenient stores.  Though may not have been the source of over-the-top joy for most, it was certainly a part (big or small) of everyone’s childhood memories.

So when I saw an impulsive-purchase-at-the-airport magazine, and Smitten Kitchen featuring a similar brioche-like dough, they naturally merged and translated into this in my brain.  The good-old, down-home red bean buns.

It goes without saying that this is dangerously marching even deeper into my un-mastered, still shaky mental territory at making doughs, testing my premature skills at such even further.  Yeast?!… oh boy… I haven’t even tamed most of the “dead” doughs yet, let alone “LIVE” ones!  And it was a strange feeling… having a dough rising under its silent facade in my mixer bowl.  As I realized that there were now little micro-organisms actively feasting on sugars and farting out carbon dioxides in my kitchen counter!  It’s like there was a mini action-thriller movie happening in a mini isolated universe,  totally oblivious of the bigger picture/world out there.  Kind of like A Bug’s Life meets Men in Black…  Weird…

… then of course this “fun” quickly subsided as I ventured out into my 4TH ATTEMPT at the dough.  The initial mesmerizing fascination at the chemistry quickly got replaced with groaning frustrations, as the buns came out either under-cooked, over-cooked or too bland, too wet, too dry, or too… BORING.  It slowly got better though… but the “good ones” were at best described as airy, soft or pillowy.  NO, I mean they ARE tasty, but the disappointment came from the lack of a textural element that I hold dear in my heart, and that is a slight chewiness.  I’m not talking about sturdy, baguette-kind-of-chew, nor bagel-kind for that matter.  I’m talking about the buttery-soft-stringy-moist-kind-of chew that comes in the most memorable cinnamon rolls or sticky buns.  Not that airy and pillowy shouldn’t be desired by anyone.  I get it.  I do.  I mean since brownies can thrive between all different sorts of textural preferences, why not buns right?  Tolerance… tolerance… I will embrace everyone’s right to practice their bun-textural freedom.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the search for the chew.  In fact, I may have just the recipe under construciton as I speak.  But that’s gonna be another day.  For now, let’s stick to soft and airy.

Now, quick notes on red beans.  This may be a quite unfamiliar type of beans for the west, but here in Asia, it couldn’t be more common.  Ordinary even.  It is almost exclusively used for desserts only, and in desserts it DOMINATES.  It is likely to be there if there’s something sweet to fill up, or something sweet to top off, or simply just something sweet to drink like a dessert soup.  It is regarded as the safe, go-to ingredients for traditional Chinese sweets.  Kind of like chocolates for the west.  There’s a lot of ready-made red bean pastes in cans available in major Asian markets, so why on earth am I making my own?  In the most strange and reversed sense, I’mmmm too laaazy to spend 1hr to go ouside to buy them, sooooo I’m speeending 3~4 hrs maaaking my own at home insteeeaad….  Feel me?

Servings: 6 buns

Dough: Adapted from Smitten Kitchen and Delicious Magazine

  • 2 cups of all-purpose or bread flour
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • 1/4 cup ( 50 g ) of sugar
  • 1/2 cup of whole milk
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 tsp of dry yeast
  • 45 g of room temperature butter, cut in cubes

Red Bean Paste:

  • 1 cup of red beans
  • 2 cups of really hot water
  • 4 cups of water
  • 75 g of cane sugar
  • 2 tbsp of vegetable oil

The 2 original sources of recipes call for all-purpose flour for the dough, but I found it a bit lacking in gluten power so I switched to bread flour in my 2nd attempt.  And in a humid summer, it’s always helpful to have a couple extra tbsp of flour on the side if the dough turned out to be too wet.  If it’s a little difficult to differentiate the dough from a “batter”, add more flour.

For the filling:

Soak the beans in the hot water for at least 2 hours.  Transfer to a pot and add another 4 cups of water plus the sugar.  Bring to a simmer on the stove (stir occasionally) and cook until the beans are cooked through and soft, approx 1:30 ~ 2 hours.  Pour everything into a blender and blend to a smooth puree.  Add a few tbsp of water if the mixture is too thick for the blender to work.  Transfer everything back into the pot and cook on low heat.  Mix and stir frequently to avoid sticking, and let the extra water evaporate until the mixture turns to a pasty consistency.  Turn off the heat and stir in the vegetable oil.  This can be made the day before.

To make the dough:

Pour 1/2 cup of whole milk in a bowl and add a pinch of sugar.  Microwave the milk for 50 sec if it’s taken straight out of the fridge.  If it’s room temperature… which I wouldn’t understand why unless it comes straight from the source in the backyard… then microwave it for 20 sec…  The temperature of the milk should be around 110ºF/43ºC, warm but not hot to the touch.  Add the dry yeast into the milk and whisk slightly to combine.  Let the yeast do its thing in the milk for 10 min.  If the yeast didn’t foam up in 10 min, either the milk was too hot and killed the yeast, or the yeast was DEAD to begin with.  CHECK THE EXPIRATION DATE on the yeast!  NOTHING lives forever!

While the yeast is foaming, combine the flour, sugar and salt in a mixer bowl.  When the yeasty milk is ready, whisk in the egg then pour everything into the flour mixture.  Mix with a mixer paddle on low for 3 min.  Change to a dough hook, then mix the butter into the dough, 1 cube at a time.  When the butter’s fully incorporated (might need to stop the mixer and scrape down the sides from time to time), turn the speed up to medium high and knead the dough for 10 min.  The dough should be slightly sticky.  Scrape down the sides with a spatula and cover the bowl with a towel.  Let the dough rise in a warm corner in the kitchen until doubled in size, roughly 1 hour.

Preheat the oven on 375ºF/190ºC.  On a floured surface, divide the dough evenly into 5 pieces.  Flour the dough slightly, and roll a small piece out into a 0.25″/0.5 cm circle.  Evenly distribute a thin spread of red bean paste and roll the dough up like a log, then curl up the log from one end to the other like a snail.  Turn it on one side and let it “stand up” and shape it roughly into a ball, and place in a well-oiled baking dish.  Repeat that with the other 5 buns.  The baking dish needs to be large enough to allow a little space in between for each buns to expand.  Cover with a clean towel and let it double in size again (omg it’s like magic!), approx 30 min.

Brush a little milk or egg wash on the top and bake in the oven until golden brown, approx 20 ~ 25 min.  Dust with powdered sugar.

It goes without saying that one of the few (very few…) reasons to go through all these troubles to bake at home, is that I can enjoy things at the perfect timing when it JUST comes out of the oven, hot and steamy.  For I’m-not-fond-of-numb-tongue sake I would let it cool for a bit, but not for long…  Oooooh I feel like a kid again…

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