Monday, December 20, 2010

Momofuku Pork Buns

I really love cooking for friends and family.  I love cooking for others and I don't get the chance to do it as often as I would like.  Today was one of those opportunities.  We had our friends James and Rachel over to watch the Saints / Ravens game.  They are true Saints fans (obviously we would never let Ravens fans in our house), and I wanted to make something small that would be good to eat mid-afternoon and would give me a chance to try something new and outside of my comfort zone.  I've been looking for a reason to make Momofuku's famous pork buns since getting the cookbook, so I jumped on this opportunity.

Before I get into the recipe, I want to mention how I love this cookbook.  We received our copy as part of a prix fixe meal at Lantern, in Chapel Hill.  As part of a promotional tour for the cookbook, David Chang had arranged for Lantern to cook Momofuku dishes that are in the cookbook.  There were 2 seatings - one was hosted by David Chang himself, and diners at the other seating (our seating) received a free copy of the cookbook that was signed and personalized by David Chang because he couldn't be present.  I only mention this because we made David Chang write "Go Steelers!" on the inside cover, and we were both really psyched about it.  The cookbook is informative and presents a new style of cooking that was/is very foreign to me.  It was refreshing to get away from the American and Euro-centric recipes and cookbooks that I still default to most of the time.  Chang's style of writing is also very casual, and as a result, really accessible by everyone.  There are good stories about the various Momofuku restaurants and the recipes illustrate techniques in an understandable way that I have found to be very applicable to every day situations in the kitchen.  To be honest, I have mixed feelings about Chang's restaurants.  Noodle is solid but not mind blowing.  I have been to Ssam once and was actually pretty let down by the experience.  To be fair, I have not been to Chang's flagship, Ko, or recently opened Ma Peche, but my opinion is that there are other places that I would much prefer going to while in NYC.  I absolutely recommend the cookbook though.

I picked up a nice pork belly from a local farm called Rainbow Meadows Farms.  I will be writing more about Rainbow Meadows in a near-future post, so I'll leave it at this:  they have some of the most amazing Berkshire pork bellies that I have seen, and I love supporting their business.

Momofuku's Pork Buns:
(for the belly)
3-4 lb pork belly
1/4 c kosher salt
1/4 c sugar

(for the buns)
1 tbsp + 1 tsp active dry yeast
1½ c water, at room temperature
4¼ c bread flour
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp nonfat dry milk powder
1 tbsp kosher salt
Rounded ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1/3 c rendered pork fat or vegetable shortening (I opted for shortening because of the timing of how I made everything)

(for toppings)
Thinly sliced scallions
2 or 3 pickling cucumbers
Hoisin sauce
Sriracha hot sauce

Roasted Pork Belly:

Start by doing a short cure on the pork belly - mix the salt and sugar together and then distribute evenly on the pork belly.  Shake off the excess, cover, and leave it to rest in an ovenproof dish for 6-24 hours.  I cured mine overnight, about 12 hours total.  It came out tasting well salted but not overly so.  

When it is cured, preheat the oven to 450º.  Drain the liquid from the dish and place the belly fat-side up in the oven.  Roast for 1 hour, basting the belly half way through with rendered fat in the dish.  Roast until it is a nice brown color.  Turn the heat down to 250º and continue cooking for about another hour.  The belly will be done when it feels, in the words of the cookbook, like a down pillow responding to a firm poke.  Take the dish out of the oven and let the belly rest on the cutting board.  This can be done ahead of time and refrigerated, and if you want nice, clean slices, you will probably have to refrigerate it to cool it so that it is firm enough to not fall apart to slicing.  Slice it into slices about 1/2" thick.

That Hansel, so hot right now.
The Buns:
Chang suggests that there is no shame in buying premade buns, but what's the fun in that?  I don't have a lot of experience with yeasted breads, so this was a good chance for me to get all uncomfortable and partially freak out about whether these were actually going to turn out or not.  In the end, I was pretty happy with them.  The texture was good, size was good, but they didn't stay nice and folded like Momofuku's do.  I had to slice most of them down the middle to create a pocket to hold everything.

Start by combining yeast and water in the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment.  Add flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and fat.  Mix on the setting just above stir for about 10 minutes.  The cookbook says that it should form a neat, not too tacky ball on the hook.  Mine did no such thing, so I had to incrementally add some more flour to get it to bind tighter.  Eventually it came together.  Lightly oil a mixing bowl and place the dough in the mixing bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and place in a warmish place for at least 1 hour 15 minutes, until doubled in size.  Pound the dough down.  Because I made the dough the night before, I let it sit for about 5 hours, pounded it down, and then put it in the fridge overnight before proceeding.

Divide the dough in half, and then divide each half into 5 pieces.  Roll the pieces into logs, then cut logs into 5 pieces.  They should be about the size of a ping pong ball.  Cover all 50 balls with plastic and let rest for 30 minutes.  

This is where things went a little astray for me.  You are supposed to end up with 50 buns, but some of the pieces that I tried to form into buns were just way too small.  For most of the smaller ones, I combined two or so dough balls to make one bigger one that was more indicative of the size that I wanted.  Flatten the ball in the palm of your hand and stretch it out to be a 4" long oval.  You can use a rolling pin for this if you'd like, but I did it all by hand.  Take a chopstick and coat it in some fat (shortening or pork fat or whatever) and place it in the middle of the bun.  Fold the bun in half and pull the chopstick out.  I skipped this step and folded them by hand without any fat between the folds.  It resulted in me having to cut the buns to put the fillings in, so i'd advocate going through the trouble.  Leave these folded pieces covered for 30-45 minutes so that they rise a little bit.

Set up a steamer.  If you are cool enough to have a big bamboo steamer, then you are set.  I am not that cool, so I had to rig this ghetto steamer up.  I bought a little foil roasting pan, cut the corners and folded them down to flatten it, then punched holes all through it to allow steam to come in.  Then I filled the saucier pan with water, put the makeshift rack on top, and covered it with an inverted mixing bowl.  It worked great, aside from the fact that I had to replace the water multiple times, so keep an eye on that.  Steam the buns for about 10 minutes and then remove them.  They can be used immediately or frozen and saved for later.  The cookbook swears that they will stay fresh for months in the freezer.  One can only hope, because this recipe kicks out anywhere from 40-50 of these guys.

I pity da foo who doesn't like my steamer!
Quick Pickles:
Ok these are the easiest part of the whole thing.  Slice a pickling cucumber thin, like 1/8", and toss with about 1 tsp salt and some sugar.  Let them sit for about 10 minutes.  Done!

 To compile your little buns, start with an opened bun, spread about 1 tbsp of hoisin sauce on the inside of the bun.  Place a few pickle slices on the hoisin, and a nice chunk of pork belly on that.  Top with some thinly sliced scallions and maybe a few drops of Sriracha, if you're into the spicy thing, and then enjoy!

These were fun, if a little time consuming, and I'm really glad that I found an opportunity to make them.  They were a hit, but it's easy to knock out a couple popular dishes when you have pork belly as your secret weapon.  I can't wait to make them again sometime soon!

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