Char siu bao: 20 cents each

Despite my being a card-carrying misanthropic crank who would rather claw her eyeballs out with a spork than deal with The Public, we do occasionally deviate from the $35-a-week plan and eat out, at a real restaurant, on our own dime. By “occasionally” I mean literally once or twice a year, but still. It is done. And it was done recently, in fact, for dim sum. I did what I do every time we go out and complained from the time we got there until the time we left about how much everything cost and how much better I could’ve made it at home, but this time I was actually right. Twenty-five dollars for a few steamer trays of bao and shu mai and a plate of char siu with hoisin sauce? Have people completely lost their minds?

Believe it or not, I do understand people go out for social reasons, not having to cook and whatnot, but if you have the space, making your own dim sum with friends or family is much more fun than meeting out at a restaurant. This recipe happens to be for my favorite dim sum of all time, char siu bao: fluffy, sweet buns filled with savory minced roast pork.

It’s based on several recipes in Ellen Leong Blonder’s “Dim Sum,” and is easier than it looks. In fact, it will be even easier if you’re not budget-conscious and want to buy your own char siu rather than make it from scratch. You will need a steamer basket, though; either metal or bamboo is fine. The bamboo ones are inexpensive (we have a two-tier one that was $12) and fit over a wok you may already have.

This makes 24 handball-sized bao.

Special equipment:
-Bamboo steamer with at least 2 trays, each lined with a double layer of cheesecloth
-Wok big enough to hold the steamer
-Parchment paper
-Curing salt

1/2 lb. char siu:
• 1/4 tsp pink salt (also known as Prague salt, curing salt, or sodium nitrate; if you live in the Portland area, you can buy it at The Meadow on Mississippi Avenue. If you live elsewhere in the U.S. where hunting is common, this shouldn’t be hard to find): 75 cents
• 2 T hoisin sauce: 20 cents
• 2 T ketchup: 10 cents
• 2 T honey, plus 1 T for glazing: 20 cents
• 8 oz. boneless country-style pork ribs, cut in long strips about 1 inch wide: 85 cents
TOTAL: $2.10 

Char siu sauce:
• 1 T sugar: 6 cents
• 2 tsp soy sauce: 6 cents
• 1 T dry sherry: 10 cents
• 1 T oyster sauce: 10 cents
• 1 T hoisin sauce: 10 cents
• 1 tsp sesame oil: 6 cents
• 1 T cornstarch dissolved in 1 T hot water: 4 cents
TOTAL: 52 cents

Bao dough:
•  2 tsp active dry yeast: 3 cents
• 1/2 cup sugar: 20 cents
• 1 1/2 cups cake flour (DO NOT substitute all-purpose; cake flour is low-gluten, so you can knead it and have it still stay soft and fluffy, otherwise the bao will be tough): 70 cents
• 1/2 tsp salt: 1 cent
• 1 T rice vinegar: 3 cents
• 2 cups cake flour, plus a little extra for dusting the board: 90 cents
• 1 T baking powder: 10 cents
• 1/4 tsp baking soda: 1 cent
• 1 T vegetable shortening: 12 cents 
TOTAL: $2.10

GRAND TOTAL: $2.10 + .52 + 2.10 = $4.72/24 = 20 cents each

Mix the ingredients for the char siu marinade in a small bowl or baking dish. Add the pork and turn to coat. Refrigerate for 3 hours. (The pork strips are curled up, which is why they look more like chunks here.)

Meanwhile, mix the yeast for the bao starter with 1 cup warm water and the sugar and let bloom for 10 minutes. Stir in the 1 1/2 cups cake flour and let rise in a warm place for an hour. It should be bubbly and, ideally, puffed up a bit.

To make the final dough, stir the salt and vinegar into the starter. In another bowl, sift together the remaining cake flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir into the starter. When combined, work the shortening in with your fingers. It will seem somewhat dry, but do the best you can. Turn it out onto a well-floured counter or cutting board and knead for 5 minutes, until smooth. Sometimes I have to add a little flour to keep the dough from getting too sticky; this is fine.

Grease a large bowl with a little shortening, add the dough ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit for another hour.

When the char siu is done marinating, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the pork on an oiled broiler pan and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked through.

Meanwhile, put all the char siu sauce ingredients except the dissolved cornstarch mixture in a small saucepan and heat until bubbly; add the cornstarch mixture, remove from heat, and stir until thickened.

While the pork is still hot, brush it with the additional honey and broil for 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove, brush again with honey. Let it rest for a few minutes before cutting. It should be nice and pink.

Cut into chunks and remove to a food processor. Process until minced. (Or chop by hand if you don’t have a processor.) Stir the sauce into the minced pork, either in the food processor or in a separate bowl.

Once the dough is done resting, cut 24 pieces of parchment paper squares, about 1.5 x 1.5, and divide the dough into 24 equal-sized balls. To make the bao, form a ball into a 3-inch flat circle with your hands, place 2 teaspoons filling in the middle, gather the edges together and pinch tightly. Place the bao on a parchment square, then place in one of the steamer tiers. Repeat with all the dough balls, placing them about 1 inch apart in the steamer. (You’ll have to steam them in 2 or 3 batches.)

Stack the tiers, cover the top loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Pour water in the wok and put one steamer tier, with the lid, on top. (The water should not be touching the steamer.) Only cook one steamer tier at a time. Bring to a rolling boil. Once boiling, cook for 12 minutes. Remove the lid—the bao should be large and fluffy. Don’t worry if they didn’t split open; sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Serve hot, or cool and freeze, individually wrapped. To reheat, wrap in a damp towel and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute.

(You may have to replenish water in between batches.)

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