I'm incapable of walking into a Chinese bakery and not walking out with a bun in my hand. Even if my original intention was to purchase bubble tea or an iced milk tea, my eyes can't help but wander, scanning the rows of fluffy buns. Roast pork, hot dog, and even century egg, it seems like there's nothing that' can't be wrapped up in a bun. One of my favorites, though, is the lotus seed bun.
As the name implies, lotus seeds are the seeds of the lotus flower pod. For me, they have a very light chestnut-like taste. You can find whole ones at most Asian supermarkets and also at several online vendors, where they are usually sold dried or canned. I strongly recommend getting the dried lotus seeds and staying away from the canned ones—most of them are mushy and flavorless.
You can also buy canned lotus-seed paste, which is different from canned lotus seeds. The paste is made from pureed lotus seeds and is usually already sweeten. If you don't have the time to make your own paste from dried whole ones, use the canned stuff, but nothing really compares to the from-scratch version, which has a better fragrance (not to mention that your'e able to control the amount of sweetness added when you make your own).
One of the things I love about lotus seed buns is the soft light texture of the bread. Compared to French and Italian baked goods, Chinese (and most other Asian pastries) are lighter in texture and less sweet. The key to achieving this texture is using low-gluten flour.
You can find a variety of flours at your local supermarket. The ones you commonly see are all-purpose (AP) flour, cake flour, pastry flour, and bread flour. While all of these flours are made from wheat, one of their main differences is their protein content. The lower the percentage of protein in the flour, the less gluten they are able to form; the less gluten, the lighter and more tender the baked good. Bread flour has the highest percentage of protein, usually around 14-16%. Pastry and cake flours have the lowest protein percentage, around 8-10% for pastry flour and 6-8% for cake flour. AP flour falls in the middle of bread and pastry flours with 10-12%.
AP flour is the flour that most people have in their kitchens. Even though Chinese buns are usually made with low-protein flours, like cake and pastry flour, I wanted to see if it was possible to achieve the same texture with AP flour with this recipe. To test it out, I made separate batches with three different kinds of flour: AP flour with a few tablespoons of cornstarch; whole-wheat pastry flour; and a low-protein flour. The reason I mixed cornstarch with the AP flour is because it inhibits gluten formation.
Side-by-side, there was hardly any difference between the buns made with low-protein flour versus the ones made with AP flour. The low-protein flour produced a slightly softer texture, but it wasn't a big difference. Although the texture of the whole-wheat pastry flour was similar to the low-protein flour, the whole-wheat taste wasn't the best way to showcase the flavor of the lotus-seed paste.
In the recipe here, I've given the option of either using a low-protein flour like cake flour, or the AP mixed with cornstarch. Use whichever one you have on hand—either way, you're sure to love the taste of this classic Chinese bakery bun.
Here's a look at how I make them:
I start by soaking the lotus seeds until softened, which takes about 4 hours.
Then I split each seed and remove the bitter part in the center.
I boil the seeds in ample water until tender.
Then drain them, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
In a food processor or blender, I puree the seeds with a splash of the reserved cooking liquid to form a paste, adding more water if necessary.
Then I cook the paste in a nonstick skillet with some oil, until the oil is fully incorporated.
Next, I add sugar, and cook until it is fully incorporated. You can add more or less sugar here: My recipe suggests between 1/2 and 3/4 cup sugar. I recommend adding the 1/2 cup, then tasting, and adding more bit by bit only if you think it needs it.
The finished lotus-seed paste looks like this.
After that, I focus on the dough, mixing together my dry ingredients, then working in water and cream to form a shaggy dough.
I knead that dough until smooth, then roll it into a snake. I divide that into 10 even pieces.
I roll each piece out to a 3-inch round.
And then add a scant tablespoon of the paste to the center of each one.
I fold the dough over the filling, sealing them closed...
...and then turn them over, seam side down.
I like to make a small indentation on the top side of each bun. You don't have to do this, but I like how it looks (kind of like a lotus seed).
Another optional step is to brush each bun with either pink or yellow food coloring. It almost makes them look baked, even though they are going to be steamed.
Speaking of steaming, I set up my steamer by lining it with parchment. Mine is an insert that sits in a wok over the boiling water. You can use whatever steamer setup you have.
Happy little buns in the steamer!
Oh look, they're still happily in the steamer!
Oh boy, these buns love the steamer so much, they've gone and found another one to sit in.
Eventually (after about 15 minutes), they're done steaming. Then, it's time to enjoy them, hot or at room temperature.