Steamed Corn Buns: First Attempt
I’ve already revealed my strange obsession with cai tuan zi, steamed cornbread rounds filled with shredded vegetables, so I won’t bore you again. Basically, I needed to figure out a way to recreate these at home. They were deceptively simple– an unleavened dough that was literally just cornmeal and water? It seemed too good to be true.
Searching for recipes, even in Chinese, didn’t yield too many results. This recipe seemed on the whole what I was going for, except that their dough was leavened, half white flour and half cornmeal. I had to fend for myself. Following the market vendor’s instructions, I poured hot water over cornmeal (about 400 g and I used coarsely ground Bob’s Red Mill cornmeal… This was probably my downfall), covered it with a cloth, and let it sit out at room temperature a day before I made the filling. I can’t be sure because the vendor explained in Chinese and we didn’t get too technical, but i think the goal was to let the dough solidify without fermenting.The creativity lay in the filling. I’m not going to lie– when I was still getting over jetlag, I woke up at 3 AM with visions of “fusion cai tuan zi”: what about a sort of round tamale filled with black bean mole? Or an Italian polenta version with sauteed mushrooms and thyme? Shrimp and grits? What about using blue cornmeal? It was all I could do not to design a menu entirely around these corn buns. However, I managed to exercise some self control and decided I had better start off with a more traditional filling, minus the artificial chicken bouillon and MSG. But with such a bland dough, how was I going to do that without sacrificing flavor?
The recipe I cited earlier called for crushed dried shrimp, but I didn’t want little bits distracting from the vegetables. Once again, I used what I imagined the vendor’s method to be: I heated a handful of dried shrimp in half a cup of peanut oil over low heat until it started bubbling, then immediately took it off the heat and let it sit for an hour or so– not too long because I wanted the filling to be fragrant, not fishy.
Next step: replacing the MSG. We actually do have a jar of MSG in our spice cabinet from my dad’s earlier cooking days, but of course, I wanted to make things as complicated as possible (not really). The solution was Umami Salt. Now, by no means do I take credit for this idea– the concept of flavored salts and relying on umami to boost the taste of vegetarian dishes is all Eric Gower, also known as the Breakaway Cook. I didn’t have a spice grinder, so I first ground the “umami ingredients” in my Vitamix before pounding with sea salt using a mortar and pestle. I used kombu and shiitake mushrooms (Parmesan was also an option, but I felt it was unnecessary). Finally, on to the actual filling. I started with a base of shredded carrots, grated lovingly by hand, to which I added chopped scallions, grated ginger, a few tablespoons of my shrimp-infused oil, black pepper, and a LOT of umami salt. In fact, I added so much that eating the filling straight up would have been borderline too salty. The logic behind this was: 1) some of the salt was going to steam off anyway and 2) it needed to hold up to the blandness of the dough.
It was time to check on the dough. With a sinking heart, I realized there was no way it was going to hold together without the addition of white flour and more water. I didn’t measure how much flour I added, just enough so I could roll the dough into a ball and flatten it. I brushed a little more of the oil on before adding a few spoonfuls of filling. The problem was that I could NOT get the dough to thin out without falling apart. The cai tuan zi I ate in China had a much higher ratio of vegetables to bread, because they were somehow able to roll the dough out more thinly. Oh, well. I did what I could. Baking/ methodical cooking is not my forte.I steamed the cai tuan zi for maybe forty minutes, then seared the bottoms in a skillet so they would be slightly crunchy.
Conveniently, my dad had brought me back a few (read: 5 or 6) cai tuan zi from Beijing, so we could do a side-by-side comparison. Not to toot my own horn, but my filling tasted pretty amazing– sweet and flavorful. I don’t know if it was because I used Farmer’s Market carrots, the shrimp oil, or the Umami Salt, but it was great. The problem, like I said, was that the buns had hardly any filling in them at all! The dough itself had a nice consistency, but I really need to figure out how to roll it thinner.
I’m not giving up. Do I use half white flour next time? Substitute corn flour for cornmeal, or at least use a more finely ground cornmeal? When I figure out how to make these successfully, a more official recipe will be posted. Someone has to be the one to share these babies with the world.