Hellloooooo, everyone. I can barely contain myself, I am so happy to be back. After a year of having my nose in a book, I can finally pull it out and put it to a better purpose: smelling the delicious aromas of caramelized meats, yeasty doughs, and rosy wines. For my comeback tour, I am resuming the cookbook challenge, and am starting with a fabulous one: The Momofuku Cookbook.
As many of you may have heard, David Chang is the lauded proprietor and chef behind the Momofuku empire of the East Village. A trip to visit my brother in New York last year included a dinner at Momofuku Ssam, followed by a return to the attached “Milk Bar” for this cake. The dinner, though, was the highlight. Ssam is known for several specialities, but none more famous than the pork buns. From the first bite, we were soulmates. Wrapped in an airy, tender bun is a slab of slow-roasted pork belly, slathered in salty-sweet hoisin sauce and punctuated with lightly-pickled cucumber slices. I truly could have eaten 15. RJ, too, was enamored. I think his comment was, “you better take notes.” Unfortunately, I had no clue where to start with making the white, spongy, slightly sticky buns. I had never attempted anything like them. But when the Momofuku cookbook came out, I no longer had any excuse. I rolled up my sleeves and started kneading.
The results? Incredible. The buns tasted just as good as those from the restaurant. Yes, the recipe is labor-intensive. And, if you’re going for the full experience, you’re going to want to make up some of Ssam’s awesome condiments too. I pickled some fennel and shiitake mushrooms. Damn, they make for a good bun.
Momofuku’s Famous Pork Buns
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup sugar
3 lb skinless boneless pork belly
1 1/2 c. warm water at room temp
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. active dry yeast
4 1/2 c. bread flour
6 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons nonfat dried milk
1 Tbs. kosher salt
Rounded 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/3 c. rendered pork fat or vegetable shortening at room temp.
For the Pork:
Stir together kosher salt and sugar, and rub all over the pork. Discard excess. Nestle in a shallow dish that fits the meat snugly and cover with plastic wrap. Let brine, chilled, at least 6 hours but no longer than 24.
Heat oven to 450 F. Discard any liquid that accumulated. Put the belly in the oven, fat side up, and cook for 1 hour, basting it with the rendered fat at the halfway point, until it’s an appetizing golden brown. Then turn oven temp down to 250F and cook for another hour until belly is tender (not falling apart but it should feel like a down pillow when firmly poked).
OR: Pour in 1/2 cup broth and 1/2 cup water. Cover tightly with foil and roast until pork is very tender, about 2 1/2 hours at 300 F. Remove foil and increase oven temperature to 450°F, then roast until fat is golden, about 20 minutes more.
Remove pan from oven and transfer belly to a plate. Decant fat and meat juices from the pan and reserve (fat can be used for cooking later, and juices can be used to flavor a sauce). Cool 30 minutes, then chill, wrapped in plastic or aluminum foil, until cold and firm, at least 1 hour.
For the Buns:
Stir together warm water with yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with the dough hook. Add the flour, sugar, milk powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and fat and mix on the lowest speed possible for 8-10 min. The dough should gather together into a neat, not-too-tacky ball on the hook. When it does, lightly oil a medium mixing bowl, put the dough in it, and cover the bowl with a dry kitchen towel. Put it in a warmish place and let rise until the dough doubles in bulk, about 1 hour and 15 min.
Punch down dough, then transfer to a very lightly floured surface and flatten slightly into a disk. Divide the dough in half, then divide each half into 5 equal pieces. Gently roll the pieces into logs, then cut each log into 5 pieces, making 50 pieces total. They should each be the size of a Ping-Pong ball and weigh about 25 grams or just under an ounce. Roll each piece into a ball. Cover the 50 dough balls with a draping of plastic wrap and allow them to rest and rise for 30 min.
Meanwhile, cut out fifty 4x4inch squares of parchment paper. Coat a chopstick with whatever fat you’re using.
Flatten out 1 piece of dough into a 6- by 3-inch oval, lightly dusting surface, your hands, and rolling pin with flour. Pat oval between your palms to remove excess flour, then fold in half crosswise over the greased chopstick (do not pinch). Withdraw the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and put the bun on a square of parchment paper. Stick it back under the plastic wrap (or a dry kitchen towel) and form the rest of the buns. Make more buns with remaining dough, then let stand, loosely covered, until slightly risen, about 30-45 minutes.
Set a large steamer rack inside skillet (or wok) and add enough water to reach within 1/2 inch of bottom of rack, then bring to a boil. Carefully place 5 to 7 buns (still on parchment paper) in steamer rack (do not let buns touch). Cover tightly and steam over high heat until buns are puffed and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer buns to a plate with tongs, then discard wax paper and wrap buns in kitchen towels (not terry cloth) to keep warm. Steam remaining buns in batches, adding boiling-hot water to skillet as needed. Use buns immediately (reheat in steamer for a minute or so if necessary) or allow to cool completely, then seal in plastic freezer bags and freeze for up to a few months. Reheat frozen buns in a stovetop steamer for 2-3 minutes, until puffy, soft, and warmed all the way through.
Return buns (still wrapped in towels) to steamer rack in skillet and keep warm (off heat), covered.
Slice pork thickly against the grain. Reheat in 350 degree oven or in skillet until warmed all the way through and tender/jiggly (about 20 min in oven or 5 min in skillet). If you have any pork juices, warm them in the same container.
Brush bottom half of each warmed bun with hoisin sauce, then sandwich with 1 or 2 pork slices and some accoutrements: fresh scallions, sriracha, or the below:
Cut a fennel bulb or two in half from root to stalk. Cut out the core, and cut the halves in half (along the same axis as before). Slice the fennel into thin strips, less than 1/8 in thick. Combine 1 cup of piping hot tap water, 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar, 6 Tbs. sugar, and 2 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, stir to dissolve sugar. Place the fennel in a quart size container, and pour the liquid mixture over the fennel. Cover and refrigerate. Tastes best after a couple of days, but can be used immediately.
Soy Sauce Pickled Shiitakes
Steep 4 loosely packed cups of dried shiitake mushrooms (about 1/3 oz) in boiling water until softened, about 15 min. Lift the shiitakes from the steeping water, trip off and discard any stems, and cut caps int 1/8 in. thick slices. Reserve 2 cups of the steeping liquid and pass it through a fine-mesh strainer to remove grit and debris.
Combine the reserved steeping liquid, 1 c. sugar, 1 c. light soy sauce, 1 c. sherry vinegar, two 3-inch knobs of peeled fresh ginger and sliced shiitakes in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium, bring to a very gentle simmer and stir occasionally for 30 min. Let cool.
Discard the ginger and pack the shiitakes (and as much of the liquid as necessary to cover them) into a quart container. These pickles are ready to eat immediately and will keep, refrigerated, for at least 1 month.