On a piece of paper that the teacher handed to me were the words “precocity” and “paleontology.” It was the late 1970s, and I was a grade-schooler who’d recently arrived from Vietnam. We’d taken a personality and aptitude test, and after I looked up the P words in the dictionary, I realized that yes, I am precocious, but examining fossils didn’t interest me whatsoever.
My parents knew I was curious and intrepid from the times that I’d stuck my finger into electrical sockets (the buzzy shock was my “friend”); I’d also used my mom’s sewing machine and got the needle stuck in my thumb (surgery was required). Those things all happened before I was 6 years old.
“You were born in the Year of the Monkey,” my mom explained. To channel my energetic, inquiring mind to good use, she gave me cooking assignments. Given our Asian diet, I mastered rice first. But soon, my mind wandered to foods that were exotic or uncommon to me but practically mundane to most Americans.
My dad indulged me with a kids’ electric pizza oven that made tiny soulless pies like ones served at my school’s cafeteria. In junior high, I wanted to try my hand at baking bread like the white sandwich loaves we bought at the grocery store.
Homemade bread wasn’t the norm for our family — so my mother was no help — plus we bought lovely baguettes from a local Viet baker. I snooped around the grocery store and found Bridgford frozen bread dough. With its homey red, yellow and white packaging, it looked like the real deal. I followed the label directions and it was a cinch to bake up three loaves of fluffy bread. More important, I quickly learned about the texture of yeast dough (soft but resilient), to patiently let dough rise, and how to gauge doneness. I built cooking confidence with minimal risk. I graduated to baking bread from scratch and later on, tackled tricky doughs for an Asian dumplings cookbook.
As my cooking got “serious” and fanciful, I forgot about the dough that helped establish my culinary chops. No longer needing practice play dough, I thought the company had gone out of business. It also wasn’t fashionable in my fooderati world where pricey artisanal products reigned supreme.
But in September 2018, when after Food & Wine magazine spotlighted a Breton butter cake recipe by veteran cookbook authors Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford that used frozen white bread dough as its base, I renewed my interest in Bridgford dough. Breton butter cake is the big brother of kouign-amman, the crispy, fatty, sweet French pastry that’s trendy nowadays, a decadent treat that I adore but have never made.
I bought two packages of bread dough (six pounds total!) plus two pounds of European-style salted butter. Then I spent a weekend practicing dough lamination, the process of creating thin layers of dough separated by butter (think of puff pastry, croissants and Danishes).
Bridgford bread dough is formulated to be bulletproof and springy (wheat gluten is an ingredient), so it resisted being thinly rolled out without lots of muscling on my part; it inevitably busted and oozed small pockets of butter and sugar. I’d patch them up with flour, using a dough scraper to manipulate the sticky mass. Bits of flour and sugar rained down all over the kitchen floor, but I was determined. It was messy, but I did produce delicious kouign-amman that were delicious, albeit a little bready.
I gifted leftovers to our neighbors, who shared some with their friends, all of them swooning over “the best sticky buns ever.” The pastries were fantastic, especially given their lowbrow beginnings in the frozen food aisle, but the process wasn’t easy. My husband rolled his eyes at my repeated messes. To make amends, I fashioned one of his favorites: bear claws, from the laminated dough. They were handsome but strangely indistinct. A yucky fail.
I wasn’t done with the frozen dough. Noodling around on the Bridgford website, I noted recipes for stuffed appetizers such as pepperoni bites and mini calzone. Since Chinese baked bao (stuffed bun) employ the same idea — a bold savory filling baked inside yeast-leavened dough — I sensed success in the making.
At my local market, alongside the Bridgford frozen bread dough were packages of their Parkerhouse roll dough. The dough pieces turned out to be a super shortcut. I’ve made stuffed Chinese buns from scratch myriad times and have taught others, too, but the frozen pre-cut dough pieces were thrilling to play with: smack one into a round, then fill and shape it into a cutie snack.
They’re great for beginner bao makers, because the dough is portioned (less guesswork), and you don’t need expert pleating skills to shape bodacious buns. Additionally, the 24 dough pieces per package mean that you can defrost a few at a time for small, experimental batches. That’s how I was able to efficiently develop a pulled pork and curry chicken filling, and perfect the baking process.
Compared to the buns at dim sum, these convenience bao are more reserved in their sweetness, with a terrific balance between savory and sweet. With frozen dough in the freezer and filling in the refrigerator, you can practice, experiment and bake up batches of hot buns with little hassle.
Being precocious and monkeying around pays off.
FOR THE FILLING
10 ounces (1 1/4 cups) store-bought pulled pork with sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon canola oil or another neutral oil
1 tablespoon canola oil or another neutral oil
Freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE BAO
One 24-ounce package frozen Bridgford Parkerhouse Style Rolls Dough (see headnote)
Flour, for dusting, as needed
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons water
For the filling: As needed, coarsely chop the pulled pork, so the pieces will be small enough to use as bao filling.
Whisk together the sugar, potato starch or cornstarch, soy sauce and water in a medium bowl.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot or onion; cook for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring, until some of the pieces are golden. Add the pork; cook for 1 to 2 minutes to warm through, pressing on any larger pieces to break them apart.
Re-whisk the starch mixture, then pour into the pan; cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, until thickened. The mixture should form into a solid mass. Remove from the heat. Taste, and season with pepper, as needed, for a whisper of heat.
Spread the filling out on a plate; refrigerate, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring midway, to cool completely.
For the bao: Defrost the dough according to package directions.
Meanwhile, for easy bun assembly, use two teaspoons to portion the pulled pork filling into 24 compact balls, each about 1 inch wide. Place them on a plate as you work. If not using within an hour, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
If there are lots of visible flour bits on the dough, knock them off with a pastry brush. To make things manageable, work with half the dough and filling at a time. Flouring the work surface isn’t usually required for this dough.
Take a piece of dough and gently roll it into a ball. Put it on your work surface and smack it with the heel of your hand into a circle about 2 3/4 inches wide. Holding the dough round in one hand, center a ball of filling on it, lightly pressing down to seat the filling in place. Imagine the dough round as a clock: Pull 6 and 12 o’clock up and over the dough ball and pinch to seal over the center. Repeat with 3 and 9 o’clock and seal. The result is a squarish bundle.
Use your fingertips to gently pinch the corners and sides toward the center to seal and form a ball. Place on your work surface, pleat side down, then use your fingertips to rotate the ball and tuck any awkward bulges underneath, ensuring an even round shape. Place on one of the baking sheets, pleat side down, spacing the buns about 1 1/2 inches apart. Repeat to fill and shape the remaining dough pieces. (As you feel comfortable, smack and fill the dough pieces in batches; the dough shrinks a bit as it sits, but you can re-smack it before placing the filling. You may have a little of the filling left over; you can eat it as a cook’s treat.)
Lightly grease a piece of plastic wrap with cooking oil spray (or brush with oil), then use it to loosely cover the buns. Let them rise in a warm place for 50 to 60 minutes, until each is about 2 1/4 inches wide.
About 15 minutes before the rising time is over, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the honey and water in a small bowl.
Uncover the buns, then brush them with some of the honey-water mixture. Bake (middle rack) one sheet at a time, for 14 to 16 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.
While the buns are still hot, brush them with more of the honey water (expect a little sizzling on the pan); this will glaze them.
Serve warm, or at room temperature.
From cookbook author Andrea Nguyen.
Tested by Toni L. Sandys; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 120; Total Fat: 2 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 4 mg; Sodium: 250 mg; Carbohydrates: 19 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 4 g.