Brûlée Coconut, Palm Sugar, Pork floss sticky buns
” It’s savoury-sweet kinda thing, you know, obviously, but also smokey around where a mixed aroma of coconut, butterscotch and bacon meet and greet. “
What in the world is pork floss?!
And where the hell do you get palm sugar?! Or both, for that matter?!
Ok fine, so I knew this is gonna be a hard pitch. And I’m probably not helping my case when I tell you that pork floss, invented by an anonymous Chinese likely on a night of massive insomnia, is a brownish cotton ball made of predominantly pork, which is cooked, shredded, then painstakingly dehydrated while being tumble-fried inside a wok until what used to be muscle tissues have then transformed into super fine, fiber-like fluffs. Whaaat?! And as if that’s not mind-bending enough, its flavor profile wonders in between savoury and sweet with a maple bacon or jerky-like porkiness oozing into your sensory space as your mouth grapple to understand this textural anomaly.
It’s really just like any other culinary ingenuities that took form initially as a means to tackle food preservation before refrigeration, but ended up being cherished by its culture even till this day. Stretching from southern China down to Southeast Asia, hey, pork floss matters. For every skeptics, there also stands a loyalists who would cradle and defend this “porky cotton” if you will, against the world’s cynical suspicion. I too, love this shit.
Having said that, pork floss is not a stand-alone item. It needs companies. And as it has been increasingly branching out from its traditionally more savoury roles towards making collaborative debuts in, of all things, sweet pastries all across Asia, I feel it’s time for this surprisingly multi-faceted talent to be introduced to a more internationally recognized platform.
Enters, sticky buns.
Which brings us, to goo. As if all Asian ingredients have a secret trade deal to work harmoniously with each other, pork floss finds excellent partners not in cream but coconut milk, not in brown sugar but a best-kept secret of Southeast Asian dessert, palm sugar. Think toffee, and molasses, and caramel, and butterscotch, and browned butter… except all together in a single crystal made from boiled down palm sap. It’s nature’s shortcut to all those thick, aromatic and buttery sweetness that speak deeply to our lonely comfort-craving souls. Perhaps because of its intensity and richness, say like caramel, destined is the way it works wondrously with salty elements, or… did anybody just mentioned pork floss?
Here, a soft-yet-not-without-chew of a dough originated from my go-to sticky rice bread, first rolled out and moisturized with a layer of butter and toasted shredded coconut, then completely carpeted over with an overgrown lawn of pork floss. Scrolled lovingly, cut eagerly, then baked impatiently in a thick bath of coconut palm sugar goo until bloomed, matured, and shines a bronzed sheen on its toasted surface. When inverted, the hot sugary sap droops downwards… but wait, as I paused when there seemed to be an itch unattended for… something darker, deeper, more. I took out a blow-torch and gave its goo-covered surface a baptism by fire until every inches are shimmering in caramelized bliss.
It’s savoury-sweet kinda thing, you know, obviously, but also smokey and faintly burnt around where a mixed aroma of coconut, butterscotch and bacon meet and greet. If you’re anything like me, I’m gonna guess this doesn’t sound like a hard pitch anymore does it?
- 1 cup (100 grams) sticky rice/glutinous rice flour
- 3/4 cup (180 grams) boiling water
- 1 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp (200 grams) bread flour
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 tbsp light brown sugar
- 1 1/4 tsp instant dry yeast
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp (14 grams) unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup (33 grams) dried shredded coconut
- 1/4 cup (43 grams) light brown sugar
- 4 tbsp (56 grams) unsalted butter
- 1/2 beaten egg (save the rest for egg wash)
- 4.5 oz (127 grams) dark shade palm sugar/gula malacca, see note*
- 2 1/4 cups (540 ml) coconut milk
- 3/4 tsp fine sea salt
- 3 tbsp (42 grams) unsalted butter
- 2 loosely packed (95 grams) pork floss, see note**
- MAKE DOUGH: In a stand-mixer bowl with a dough-hook attachment, add sticky rice flour and directly pour the boiling water on top. Mix on low speed until the mixture comes into a sticky, runny goo. Let it cool down slightly for 5 minutes. Add bread flour, egg, light brown sugar, instant dry yeast and salt. Mix on low speed until the a cohesive dough comes together, then increase to medium speed and knead for a couple minutes until the dough becomes even and elastic. Add unsalted butter, then continue to knead on medium-high speed for about 10 minutes. The dough should be very sticky, sticking to the sides and bottom of the bowl even when the machine is running, but looks very smooth and shiny on the surface and feels elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room-temperature until doubled, about 1 to 1:30 hour. Meanwhile...
- MAKE SHREDDED COCONUT MIXTURE: In a skillet over medium-low heat, toast the shredded coconut while stirring frequently until it's lightly browned and smells aromatic. Transfer it into a food-processor (or large bowl), along with light brown sugar, unsalted butter and beaten egg, and mix until even. Add 2 tsp of water to the remaining egg as egg wash. Set aside until needed.
- MAKE PALM SUGAR COCONUT MILK GOO: Place the palm sugar blocks in a zip-lock bag and wrap in a kitchen towel, then mash them into small pieces with a hammer. In a small pot, combine the palm sugar, coconut milk and sea salt, and bring to a simmer. Continue to cook for about 20 minutes until the mixture is reduced down by 1/3. Stir in the butter until even. Set aside until needed.
- MAKE THE STICKY BUNS: Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured surface, and roll it out into a 12"x12" (30x30 cm) square sheet. Spread the shredded coconut mixture across the entire surface, then evenly distribute the pork floss on top. Roll the sheet into a log, then cut off about 1/2" (1cm) margin on each ends (I just like everything straight and even), then cut into 8 equal segments (depending on the size of your moulds, you could cut it smaller or larger).
- I like to bake these in individual 3 1/2" wide x 2 1/2 " tall (9 x 6.5 cm) moulds (or you can use enamel mugs approx the same size) instead of a large baking pan. Because it allows me to apply the brulee effect all around (each bun is coated in goo on all sides). But you can also bake everything together in a 9" (23 cm) cake pan. Now, butter the insides of the moulds especially the rims because if the doughs stick to the sides, you will not get a good oven spring, then evenly divide the palm sugar goo into each mould (or mugs), or all at once into a cake pan if using. Place each rolled bun into it, pressing it down gently so the bun sits closer to the bottom of the moulds. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise again at room-temperature for 1 to 1:30 hour until doubled again. Or you can let them slow-rise in the fridge overnight (if your environment is warm, chill the buns in the freezer for 20 minutes before moving to the fridge).
- Preheat the oven on 400 F/200 C (or 375 F/190 C if baking in a pan). Brush the top surface of the buns with remaining egg wash. Place the moulds or pan inside the oven over a rack with a parchment paper underneath, NOT a baking sheet. I want the bottom of the moulds/pan to be thoroughly heated. Place another sheet of parchment over the top (to prevent over-browning the top) and bake for 20 minutes (or 25~30 min for pan) until golden browned.
- While still hot, score the sides of the mould with a butter knife then invert the moulds/pan to release the buns. If there are goo remaining inside the moulds, scoop it out onto the buns. If you are making individual buns, use a brush to spread the goo all around the sides of the buns. With a blow-torch, slowly caramelize the goo that is coating the surfaces of the buns (or just on the top if using a pan) until shiny and gorgeous. Best served warm.
* Palm sugar (gula malacca) is NOT the same as coconut palm sugar. They are extracted from different plants and hence have a different taste. Palm sugar generally comes in cylindrical blocks or half-domed disks. It has a great toffee-like aroma and depth of flavor, making it hard to replace with other types of sugar. You should be able to find it in any Southeast Asian or Indian grocery stores, and of course online. But if you absolutely cannot get your hands on it, I would suggest using 50% dark brown sugar and 50% maple sugar (not maple syrup).
** Pork floss is a very common snack in Asia, essentially made with seasoned and dehydrated pork (usually slow-toasted/fried in wok). Its savory and sweet balance plus a bacon-like porky flavor makes it a great addition to even dessert items. If you can't find it, you can try using maple bacon bits.