I am Chinese. I was not born in China. I have never lived in Asia. I was born in Honolulu and moved to Vancouver when I was 11. My first language was English. My family speaks an uncommon Chinese dialect called Hokkien, and unlike Cantonese and Mandarin, it is spoken in very few places of the world.
As the result of my pretty westernized life, sometimes I find it hard to feel Chinese. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t still raised with some very Asian ideals and values–yes I save all my plastic bags and take off my shoes at the front door–but to other Chinese people, I wasn’t very Chinese at all.
One of the biggest parts of any culture is food, and in Chinese culture food is massively important. I love Chinese food! I love those big family gatherings where me and 15 of my extended family members met up and ordered a million dishes–noodles, duck, rice, fish, prawns–and eat until one piece was left on every plate. (And no one would eat it to be polite.)
My mom cooked Chinese food a lot when I was a kid, but since cooking was never really something I enjoyed I never really learned. And when I started baking, I didn’t bake Chinese pastries, and I rarely ever incorporate Asian flavours into my stuff (something I absolutely want to start doing.)
But I loved Chinese bakeries. In Chinatown, they’re everywhere. My family used to go and I would always want to be the person in charge of holding the little white tray covered in wax paper, picking up the little breads with tongs. It would always smell like freshly baked bread, and the display cases were full of little pork buns, ham and cheese buns, tuna salad buns, and custard buns (that usually looked like a bear or something cute).
My mom would always say, “Pick out one or two things you want for breakfast tomorrow,” and I would always get the same thing: hot dog buns. If you are a little Asian kid, I can almost guarantee that you’ve had a Chinese hot dog bun before. They’re an Asian bakery staple. If a bakery doesn’t have hot dog buns, leave because they can’t be good. Even here in NYC, I will occasionally pick up a hot dog bun from the Japanese bakery down the street. They have been and still are a huge part of my life.
As I grew up eating these buns, I was always amazed at the dough encasing the hot dogs. Asian bakery bread is nothing like western bread. It is so soft and smooth–even moist. The texture of Asian bakery bread is something I have never experienced in western baked goods ever, and therefore, I didn’t learn how they were made in school. Most culinary schools have a European curriculum and this would never be something they taught.
So I went through culinary school learning all about how to make various European breads, but my question of how to make that soft, silky Asian bread was never answered. So I continued to buy hot dog buns until one day… I realized… what the hell was stopping me from learning how to make it myself?
For some reason, I had never thought to just Google it. I don’t know–I think a part of me thought that it’d require rare Asian ingredients that I couldn’t acquire, or that it’d need some sort of antique Asian tools and equipment.
Spoiler alert, it’s really freaking easy.
So yesterday, I looked up a recipe. I stumbled across one from the food blog, The Woks of Life, and it looked promising. The Woks of Life is a blog run by an Asian family that finds authentic Asian recipes, tests them, and then posts them online. Definitely go check them out, they’re awesome. The exact recipe I used is here.
I gathered my ingredients and got to work. The dough is so simple: put everything in a bowl and then knead for 15-20 minutes. It is a very unique dough in its ingredients, and I think it has everything to do with why the texture is so smooth and soft. Like a basic bread dough, it has yeast, flour, a liquid, and salt. What makes it different is that instead of just bread flour, it also has a small amount of cake flour. And for the liquid it calls for milk, but also heavy cream.
When it was done kneading, I left the dough for an hour to proof. Meanwhile, I quickly pan fried the sausages and let them cool.
The dough was incredibly soft and fluffy. I portioned it into 10 balls and rolled each ball into a long log. These logs were then wrapped around each individual hot dog and the buns were covered and proofed again.
Finally, they were egg washed and baked. I was so excited to see how they would turn out. They looked amazing wrapped up in the puffy dough already, but I really hoped they were going to bake just as beautifully.
When they came out of the oven, I brushed them with a light coat of simple syrup, which–(I didn’t know this!)–gives the breads in Chinese bakeries their signature shine.
So what’s the verdict?
Well, they were delicious! But were they the best they could be? Not quite. So in The Woks of Life, they recommend pan frying the sausages lightly before baking to give them a better texture and flavour. In most Chinese bakeries, the sausages are just baked raw, and it results in a rubbery texture. These buns with the pan fried hot dogs were infinitely better than the buns where the hot dog is just baked in. That is something I highly recommend doing as well.
The dough was very soft, however, not as soft as I know Asian bakeries can get them! I think the reason for this is because this dough did not use the tangzhong method–aka “water roux.” It is a Japanese bread making method, where a small portion of the water and flour of a bread recipe are separated and cooked. Specifically, 1 parts bread flour to 5 parts water cooked to 65C. This method of bread making results in a soft and bouncy bread that is unique to Asia. The science makes sense: cooking the flour pre-gelatinizes the starches in the flour and heating the flour and water strengthens the gluten structure. This means that it can hold much more water throughout the bread making process, resulting in a moister, softer dough! (source: here)
Magic? Nah. Asians.
So I think the next time I attempt these hot dog buns I will use the tangzhong method. Regardless, I am very happy with the result of these hot dog buns. Maybe it’s stupid, but I feel more connected to my culture after having made them. It’s one of the only Asian things I can make from scratch, and after I perfect them, I hope that one day my great grandchildren will buy a hot dog bun from a bakery and angrily say to themselves, “My grandma makes better hot dog buns. Can't believe I wasted $1.50 on this." That's Asian grandma goals right there.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out The Woks of Life if you wanna try this recipe too!
French macarons. I have always considered the ability to make these little French cookies the mark of a good pastry chef. The French macaron is a notoriously difficult cookie. Entire books have been dedicated to perfecting the art of the macaron. It has a reputation of being incredibly fickle and temperamental despite the fact that the base cookie really only consists of four freaking ingredients.
It is safe to say that its reputation has made me utterly terrified of the little things. The first time I ever attempted them myself was a disaster. They were all cracked and misshapen, and looked nothing like the smooth and perfectly round macarons I had seen in pastry cases my whole life. I tried twice that day before admitting defeat, and I spent the rest of the night feeling bad about the money I had spent on almond flour…shit’s expensive…
I never entertained the idea of a macaron for years after that. I read books and watched videos, but every single tutorial and recipe made it sound like you just had to know in your heart and soul how to do them right. It was cowardly, but I admit that I just shied away from the damned cookies, forever waiting for the day that I would build up the courage to attempt them again.
When I was at ICE, my chef for Module 3 was Chef Kathryn Gordon. She is a brilliant pastry chef, and if you know her, you probably know her as the author of the book Les Petits Macarons. Obviously, I desperately wanted her to teach me her secrets. Finally came the day that we’d be making macarons. I asked her tons of questions and listened intently, waiting for her to tell me that special tip that would make me the best macaron maker ever! That was my problem… I really thought that there was a solution to my issues. I thought it was a simple fix: “do this and they’ll be perfect every time!” There isn't. I watched her fold the batter in the macaronage stage and was disappointed to see that yet again–based on the texture, the fluidity, the “way the batter moved,”–she just knew when it was ready.
I went through culinary school, graduated culinary school, and entered my externship, still never having made a successful macaron on my own. I felt kind of like a fraud. How could I ever call myself a professional if I couldn’t even make this STUPID COOKIE?
So here I am, trying again years after my first ever macaron attempt. I spent the whole day before reading Les Petits Macarons, watching YouTube videos, and asking people questions online. I swear that I have read or heard every single “tip and trick” that there is to know about macaron making now.
It took two attempts for me to make a batch of successful macarons. There are three main methods to making French macarons: French, Swiss, and Italian. Each method is ultimately the same except for the type of meringue that’s used. For my first attempt, I used a Swiss meringue because it’s the meringue I use for my buttercream, and I’m confident making it.
My first attempt started out looking alright until I got to the macaronage stage. In Les Petits Macarons, Chef Kathryn states that the Swiss method results in a slightly firmer batter due to the cooking of the egg whites making their protein structure stronger. While folding my batter, however, I noticed that it was too stiff. It literally felt like a dough and not a batter. I knew something was wrong, but figured I’d bake it off anyway to see what would happen.
In all honesty, they came out better than I expected them to. They had feet! That was a big deal to me because my macarons had never had feet before. And the tops weren’t cracked, but they were discoloured and misshapen. They also didn’t have a smooth, hard crust–they were squishy. And when I bit into one, it was super chewy.
So… ultimately a fail. But it was honestly the closest I had ever gotten to success, so I was motivated. For my second attempt, I decided to try French meringue. People seemed to have success with it and it didn’t involve cooking, so that was nice.
The tip that helped me the most was actually the “Figure 8 Test”. It is impossible to articulate how to identify the stage in which the batter is ready for piping. People say things like “slack,” “fluid,” “glossy,” but when you’re in the moment it looks like lumpy batter…and the lumpy batter 20 folds earlier looked the same as this lumpy batter.
Thus, the Figure 8 Test. If you can hold your spatula 2-3 inches above the bowl and draw a figure 8 without the batter ribbon breaking, the batter is ready. I piped and baked off this new batch, terrified. I forced myself to leave the kitchen while they baked to avoid the agony of waiting, and when I came back, THEY WERE GODDAMN PERFECT.
They weren’t the smoothest, but they had beautiful feet, a hard shell, and peeled right off the parchment. When I bit into one, it was crisp at first, and then chewy underneath. As they should be. I was so happy.
I am still leaps and bounds away from being a macaron master, but I am proud to say that I am no longer terrified of the French macaron. I feel ashamed that I avoided them for so long, but I truly feel like now, I can conquer any dessert I set my mind on. That feels good. And I’ve actually become somewhat obsessed with them… They are so beautiful, and such a great vehicle for flavour. I am excited to experiment and try new flavours in this brand new medium.
No longer will I fear the beast that is a French macaron!
Also, huge, HUGE shoutout to Chef Kathryn Gordon and her incredible book. Without Les Petits Macarons, I probably wouldn't have been inspired to make them in the first place, and they definitely wouldn't have come out as beautifully as they did. Find the link to purchase her book here: Les Petits Macarons