I'm very excited to share my first ever Daring Cooks challenge. For those of you who don't know/haven't heard of the Daring Kitchen, it's home to two groups - the Daring Cooks and Daring Bakers. Basically the idea is that one member sets a challenge each month for everyone else to follow - usually an interesting and possibly complex recipe that bloggers then work to recreate, posting about their progress on a given date. I've been lurking in the forums for months now, but for one reason or another have never been able to complete the given challenges (I was all set to do one of them, then got food poisoning, was unable to eat for a week and thus missed the deadline!) However, I finally got there and relished the opportunity to make Cha Sui Bao, or Chinese pork buns.
I first tried these on my Mum's birthday this year - we went for dim sum in Cambridge and I insisted we order these, as I'd always been intrigued and had never tried them. What arrived, nestled snugly in their bamboo steamer, wisps of steam gently curling around them, were glorious concoctions of meaty, flavoursome pork filling encased in a feather-light duvet of dough. The dough was pure white, with the incredible cloud-like texture of a marshmallow. It was slightly sweet, which went really well with the richness of the pork filling. I enjoyed these immensely, and announced to my family my intention to recreate them at some point.
Fortunate, then, that December's Daring Cooks challenge required just that.
To start with, I made the pork filling for the recipe. Sara suggested two different marinades for the pork; I opted for the first one, which used red food colouring to give an 'authentic' look. I put the pork (pork fillet or tenderloin) in a nice bath of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, honey, hoi sin, rice wine, sesame oil and five spice (among other ingredients) and left it to marinate for a day or so.
Next, I cooked the pork for the filling. Sara suggested three methods: baking in the oven, searing in a pan then baking in the oven, or barbecuing. Given that barbecues in my house take about four hours and are strictly reserved for the height of summer, I opted for method number two. I pan-seared the pork, put it in the oven for 15 minutes, and was rewarded with beautifully moist meat with a gorgeous charred exterior. It was so delicious, I ended up eating half of it while dicing it for the next step (leftovers, incidentally, were excellent the next day stir-fried with some vegetables).
Next, I stir-fried the cubed pork with more soy sauce, hoi sin, spring onions, and some stock and cornflour to thicken the mixture. It was then ready to fill the buns. I did find the pork filling a little on the sweet side - if when I make these again, I think I'll use a little less hoi sin, which is extremely sweet.
I chose to make steamed buns, though Sara also provided a recipe for baked buns. I wanted that gorgeous squishy doughiness that steaming gives, that I remembered so well from my dim sum lunch. The recipe required me to make a basic dough, using milk instead of water, along with flour, a little oil, a little sugar and some salt. This was left to rise for a couple of hours.
Filling the buns was rather like making ravioli. I divided the risen dough into 20 portions, rolled each out into a little flat circle, then put a teaspoon of filling in the centre before pulling the dough up around the pork. They looked like miniature sacks of money or potatoes when I was finished. They then were left to rest for 20 minutes before I put them in a steamer to cook them. I don't have a bamboo steamer so I used an ordinary metal steamer, and it worked fine.
The result? Wonderful. The dough was soft and light, the filling meaty and rich with a hint of sweetness as well as the punch of garlic and ginger. I served these with a big bowl of stir-fried vegetables, and it was one of the most simple yet satisfying meals I've had lately. I just adore that combination of squidgy dough with a rich, dense filling - it's why I love ravioli so much.
I think I'll have to make these again, and I'd really recommend trying them. They're not particularly difficult to make - if you marinate the pork and prepare the filling one evening, all you have to do the next day is make and fill the dough, which requires very little hands-on time (no faffing around rolling out dough through a machine, like with ravioli).
I love how sweet and self-contained they are, gorgeous little parcels of meaty goodness. The filling especially is fabulous - if you don't get round to making buns, I'd really recommend the delicious marinade for the pork - you could just serve it sliced in a stir fry or with some rice and greens. It's quite sweet, but with plenty of tang from the garlic, ginger, soy and five-spice. My Mum remarked that it tasted "very authentic". As someone with more experience of eating Chinese food than myself, I take that as a compliment.
One thing, though - my dough did not achieve that white marshmallow-like texture that I remember from the restaurant. Any idea how they get that? Mine was more the colour of uncooked bread dough, and not quite as fluffy as the restaurant's pork buns (though it was still really light and lovely).
If anyone has any insider knowledge I'd love to hear it!
For the challenge recipe, click here.