A good cook can as easily make a crummy cake as a good lover can screw up a relationship. Cooking skills don't necessarily carry over into the realm of baking. And sometimes a sexy cuddle should stay exactly that, no strings attached.
In cooking, there’s more room for error. Anyone with enough enthusiasm, a decent palate, maybe a glass of wine or a shot of mezcal, can dive into cooking with wild abandon and end up with something delicious. An olive oil-finish, some squirts of lemon, a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt can go a long way to save a dish.
Baking on the other hand is a science. There’s just no rushing through the chemistry and math that transform wet brown batter into an irresistible chocolate soufflé. At restaurants, I’ll often hear friends scoff at their food and say, “I can make this at home! Psssh.” But I’ve never heard anyone tell me that she or he is going to recreate the chocolate babka from Breads Bakery. That’s because baking requires a tremendous amount of studying and practicing. And humility. And an acceptance that the first try if far from being the last. But back to that earlier analogy: Baking, like a relationship, takes work.
I suck at baking. Once, I attempted to make croissants from scratch. For three days, I’d jump out of bed at 5:30 A.M., salivating as I rolled and folded the laminated dough, dreaming of the warm, buttery crescents. By day four, it was time to bake the croissants. This was my first attempt, but I was already expecting Parisian patisserie-level perfection. But the croissants came out cakey and dense. Zero flakiness. They were good enough to be biscuits but not croissants. Hadn’t I followed directions? Or measured the flour correctly? Wasn’t I careful with the dough, like a first-time mom is with her newborn? I couldn’t pinpoint the problem, not with only one notch on my belt. Anything could have contributed to my dough’s undoing, like inferior ingredients to the uncalibrated oven to Mercury stuck in retrograde.
Defeatedly, I declared that I was done with croissants. In fact I planned to take a permanent vacation from playing with leavened breads altogether. Because why bother? I’m not meant for leavened breads, I thought. Why aim high when I’ll just end up with accidental biscuits disguised as croissants? Succumbing to the “I-Suck” and “I’m-Unworthy” toxic inner voice, I retreated to amateurish kale salad-evenings and fried egg-mornings.
My love life was ironically like an accidental biscuit too. I wanted love but I ended up with a guy who was nice enough, who sometimes wore decent shoes. He wasn’t my person. But I had given up on finding my person like I had given up on homemade croissants. Let’s just say, he and I ate our boring kale salad dinners and fried egg breakfasts together during this sad, croissant-less period of my life.
Po-Po, like me, was a great cook and equally awkward around yeast doughs aka famian aka 發麵. Her mantous and baozis were never consistently good or bad. Unlike me though, she just kept making them anyway, trying something different each time. Sometimes her baozis would look dimpled and tired right out of the steamer, as if the yeast just threw in the towel and gave up. She would be perturbed, but come the following week, Po-Po was at it again. Humbled. Confident. Secure. Determined. Hands crusted with dried dough.
A few months before she got sick, she and I made red bean baos together. It would be my first time making them. I had watched her mix, knead, and roll from the sidelines at least a thousand times before. But never together. This was my uncomfortable return to the unforgiving world of dough, after a three-year hiatus. I was intimidated. But I had Po-Po, my mom, and my uncle there to guide me. To fuck up with me, too. We sat around the table together, dusty from flour, rolling out the dough pieces and filling the white disks with red bean paste–assembly-line style. When the baos were done steaming, they emerged pillow-soft and fluffy. And yummy. Super yummy. We did it. We made perfect baos.
I haven’t ventured into that scary place until recently when I decided to make red bean baos on my own, without Po-Po’s guidance and her infectious can-do attitude. Ugh–they came out of the steamer wimpy-looking, far from perfect. My self-loathing started to bubble up. I wanted to hurl these little hockey pucks across the room. But instead, I tried one (it was delicious actually) and began assessing what went wrong and what part of the recipe I might tweak the next time. It took Po-Po a thousand tries. So I have to continue, no matter how many times I screw up. The promise of a phenomenal batch is in my future. It’ll just take a while. Like Mr. Miyagi says to Daniel in Karate Kid , “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule, Daniel-san, not mine.” In my case? First learn yeast, then learn knead.
Red Bean Baos 豆沙包
Makes 10-12 buns.
There have been extensive research into perfecting the bao dough. Check out this LA Times story by Andrea Nguyen for some tips.
1 teaspoons instant dry yeast
2/3 cup lukewarm water
1.5 tablespoons sugar
1.5 tablespoons canola oil
Scant 2-2.5 cups all purpose flour
2 cups Red Bean Paste (homemade or canned adzuki)
Mix yeast, water, and sugar together until yeast dissolves. Add oil. Slowly add the yeast mixture to flour. Mix until combined. If the dough is still sticky, add more flour or if it’s too dry, add water by the ½ teaspoon.
On a floured work surface, knead dough until smooth. Cover with a damp towel and set aside to rise. In about 1 to 1.5 hours, the dough should have doubled in size.
Separate the dough into four quadrants and cut, and start with one portion at a time, leaving the damp towel over the other unused portions. Roll the dough out until it’s snake-like, then cut 2-3 inch pieces. Roll into a ball and flatten into a 3-4 inch disk. Then, fill with each disk with about 1.5 tablespoons of red bean paste. Seal off the bao opening.
In a steamer lined with parchment paper, steam baos for about 8-10 minutes until done.