The Chinese have, over thousands of years, developed a bottomless repertoire of culinary knacks to make seemingly lavish meals of limited resources. The bao, a steamed dumpling suitable for a street vendor's cart or a banquet table, is just such a knack.
And Americans, who have developed a knack for adapting the vast resources of foreign recipes, can put baos to good use. They can be made on weekends, cooked frozen in plastic bags and dispensed daily into lunch bags.The dough is fundamentally easy to make and fill, so their preparation can be a family activity. They are easily reheated, or can be eaten at room temperature. Their bland and filling dough is low in fat, and they can be stuffed with mixtures subtle or spicy. A bao is a dough package so versatile it can be a main dish or desert, a sandwich so tidy that -- skin in that revolutionary chocolate candy -- it drips in your mouth, not on your hands. BASIC BAO DOUGH (10 2 1/2-inch baos) 1 teaspoon dry yeast (1/2 envelope) 3/4 cup lukewarm water 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 2 cups cake flour 1/2 teaspoon salt
Let the yeast proof in a warm spot with a 1/4 cup of the lukewarm water and 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar. Meanwhile, measure the other ingredients, including remaining water and sugar, into a mixing bowl. Mix the yeast in and knead 3 minutes. Do not knead longer, because cake flour, which resembles Chinese wheat flour, still contains gluten, which can make the bao rubbery. Cover the dough and let rise in a warm spot for 15 minutes.
Find a deep stew pot, wide enough to fit a plate or cake pan inside. Place an old soup bowl in the bottom and pour enough hot water around the bowl to cover the bottom of the pot by 1 inch.
Pinch off balls of dough the size of walnuts. Flatten each on a lightly floured work surface. Place a rounded teaspoon of cool filling (recipes below) in the middle of the dough circle, which should be 3 inches in diameter. b
Enclose by folding half of the circle over, then gathering up the edges and pinching together to form a ball. The seam should face down. Place each ball thus formed on a 2-by-2-inch piece of waxed paper and arrange in the cake pan.
The unrisen baos should be spaced 1 1/2 inches from each other. You may only be able to steam 5 of the 10 baos at a time. Keep the rest covered while they sit on the table.
Set the cake pan on top of the soup bowl in the pot. Cover the pot and let baos rise for 20 minutes. You can let them rise longer, but they will become flat and covered with bubbles, though lighter.
Once they have risen, simply turn on the burner and steam the baos for 8 minutes from the moment you see steam escaping. Do not peek! After turning off the burner, uncover the pot to let some of the steam escape before reaching inside. Remove the hot cake pan and transfer the baos to a plate. Arrange the remaining baos in the cake pan and return to the pot. If any water has been lost, replace it to its original level. Cover the pot and let the baos rise, this time for only 10 minutes.
Baos can be eaten hot, warm or room-temperature. Simply peel the paper off the bottoms before eating. The paper keeps them from sticking to the pan while cooking or reheating.
To freeze, let the baos cool, then set them singly in the freezer. When frozen, put them in bags, seal and mark according to the fillings. BAO FILLINGS
The tastiest bao fillings are made with spicy meats or with sweetened fruits. Who says baos have to be filled with lotus seed paste? TRADITIONAL PORK BAO FILLING (Fills 10 baos) 3/4 cup coarsely chopped pork shoulder 1 scallion, finely chopped 3 sprigs parsley, finely chopped 1 small carrot, grated 1/2 cup beansprouts 1/2 clove garlic, finely chopped 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger 1 tablespoon soy sauce 5 good shakes of hot pepper sauce 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
Mix ingredients well and, with a teaspoon, fill each bao. This is the bao as traditionally made. The following are my adaptations. BAO ITALIANO (Fills 10 baos) 1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 small bay leaf 1/4 teaspoon thyme 1/4 teaspoon oregano 14 1/2-ounce can whole tomatoes 1 teaspoon tomato paste 3 dashes hot pepper sauce Salt to taste Halved black olives, capers, anchovies, hard-cooked eggs, cooked sausage or other filler of your choice.
Fry the onions in olive oil very slowly until soft. Add the herbs and juice from the can of whole tomatoes. Reduce until thick. Chop tomatoes and add them to the pan along with the tomato paste, hot pepper sauce and salt. Simmer until almost a paste. Cool and put a rounded teaspoon of sauce with either a half black olive, a caper, piece of anchovy, hard-cooked egg, cooked sausage or . . . in the middle of each piece of bao dough. VIRGINIA HAM BAO FILLING (Fills 10 baos) 1/3 cup finely minced onions 2/3 cup finely minced mushrooms 1 tablespoon butter 1 small bay leaf 3/4 cup chopped ham 2 grindings of black pepper
Fry the onions and mushrooms very slowly in the butter along with the bay leaf. When all the water has boiled off, add the ham and pepper, toss together and let cool. Remove bay leaf. Use a rounded teaspoon of this filling for each bao. NORTH CAROLINA BARBECUE BAO
Most supermarkets in the Washington area carry 1-pound tubs of this highly spiced inheritance of North Carolinians. The vinegary sharpness contrasts with the bao dough's blandness. PETIT BAO AU CHOCOLAT
Place a teaspoonful of chocolate chips and a dot of butter in the middle of each bao. It's the Chinese version of the quintessential French after-school snack. TRICK OR TREAT BAO (Fills 10 baos) 1 cup cooked, pureed pumpkin, yam or squash 1 tablespoon honey 1 tablespoon butter 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Mix together thoroughly and place one rounded teaspoon of the puree in each bao. ROOT AND NUT BAO
Fill each with 2 strips of candied ginger and 2 toasted almonds. PHILADELPHIA STICKY BAO (Fills 10 baos) 1/3 cup chopped raisins 1/3 cup chopped pecans or other nuts 1/3 cup brown sugar 4 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Mix together into a paste and use 1 rounded teaspoon per bao. BERRY BAO
Mix 1 cup of any berry, chopped if necessary, with 1/4 cup of its jam. Add a rounded teaspoon per bao. BORA BORA BAO
Fill each with a rounded teaspoon of guava paste. Guava paste is available quite readily in the gourmet section of almost any supermarket.
Now let your imagination go. Here are some names that need recipes Baos Bordelaise filled with beef bordelaise. Quien Sabe? Baos filled with refried beans and cheese, and Egg McBaos filled with boiled egg and chopped bacon. Like crepes, pizza, croissants and quiches, baos are just too tasty and convenient to stay in one corner of the world.