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What do you get when you combine German and Chinese foods? The meals at most of my family get-togethers, actually, thanks to my grandmothers—two women who are constantly cooking dishes from their respective cultures. Inspired by their cooking, I came up with this dish by combining pretzels with bao (steamed buns), then filling them with a blend of char siu and mustard-slathered roast pork. My whole family scarfed the buns down in approval.
To start, I focused on the roast pork filling, weaving together the flavors of German senfbraten (mustard-coated roast pork loin) and Chinese char siu. To make sure the flavors worked well together, I created a marinade for the pork that used a strong Chinese hot mustard instead of a more traditional German mustard. I also worked ginger and soy sauce into the marinade to play up the the Asian flavors, while sesame paste and honey tone down some of that mustard heat. Meanwhile, to simulate the lacquered exterior that makes char siu so famous, I brushed the roasted loin with a honey-water mixture and then broiled it, creating a crisp glaze. Once roasted and glazed, I chopped up the loin and tossed it with that a flavorful sauce that also uses the Chinese hot mustard.
For the buns, I worked on combining the hallmarks of great German pretzels—namely, the dark brown exterior that is the result of being soaked in an alkaline solution before baking—with light and fluffy steamed bao. These pretzel buns are the moistest, lightest, and most tender pretzels I've ever made, thanks to an Asian bread-making method called tangzhong. The process involves cooking a mixture of water and flour until it reaches a thick, pudding-like consistency.
It's then added to the remaining dough ingredients, helping lock in moisture throughout the baking process. It's an absolute must here if you want your buns to be springy, and especially if you want them to reheat well later on.
After I've mixed my dough and kneaded it until it's elastic and stretchy, I let it rise until it's doubled in size.
From there, I divide it into 16 portions and flatten them into rounds.
I pinch the edges upward around the pork filling and let them rise again, seam-side down, to make sure the dough seals well while tightening around the pork.
Traditionally, Bavarian pretzels use lye to create the chewy browned crust, but I prefer to reach for a less caustic and much more accessible ingredient for my alkaline solution: baking soda. To make the baking soda slightly more alkaline, I bake it first.
Then I dissolve it in hot water and dip the buns into that. The alkaline solution speeds up the Maillard reactions during baking, leading to a deeper browned crust along with lots more flavor development.
After dipping the bao, I brush them with a light egg wash...
...score the tops lightly, and sprinkle them with salt and sesame seeds.
I set them in the oven for about 20 minutes until done. They're amazing hot from the oven, but, thanks to the tangzhong, they can also be frozen and reheated without sacrificing much in the way of texture.
It's like a whole lifetime of grandma love, all wrapped up in delicious little packages.