Chinese bakery has always been an important category of cooking for architectural designer-turned-food blogger Kristina Cho. But when she started sharing recipes for treats such as hot dog flower buns and red bean swirl buns on her blog, she realised that she wasn’t the only one who was keen to re-create classic Chinese sweet and savoury treats straight from the bakery at home. And so, Mooncakes and Milk Bread was put in motion, a cookbook she believes to be the first focused on Chinese bakery cooking.
We spoke to Cho about her cookbook and excerpted three classic Chinese bakery recipes for you to try at home.
1. Classic Egg Tarts
She’s beauty and she’s grace. She’s the most popular Chinese pastry in the United States. Egg tarts are buttery and flaky, and their resemblance to little sunbursts makes you smile just looking at them. At the end of every dim sum feast, after we’ve eaten our fill of cheung fun and dumplings, my mom would track down the cart full of golden egg tarts. If she couldn’t find the cart, she’d flag down a waiter to put in a special order for at least two dozen freshly baked egg tarts, enough for each of us to inhale a pastry or two at the table and a few extra to take home and enjoy later.
Egg tarts are a perfect example of the European influence in Chinese culture. Pastry chefs in Hong Kong utilised the techniques and ingredients that were accessible to them, including lard instead of butter and evaporated milk as a substitute for fresh cream or milk. Like those chefs, I use what is most commonly found in my local grocery stores. So while this recipe uses butter, by all means use lard, if you can find it.
There are three different types of egg tarts: with a puff pastry base, with a shortcrust base, and Macau style, featuring a laminated base and a caramelised custard filling. A crisp pastry base and a smooth, sweet filling is essential, but I like the variety you get with the Chinese puff pastry base, featured here. The texture of flaky pastry, shattering into a field of crumbs and juxtaposed with the rich eggy filling, is one of the most satisfying bites.
For the Filling
100g (1/2 cup) sugar
150g (2/3 cup) water
2 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
90g (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Chinese Puff Pastry (see below)
All Purpose flour, for rolling
1. Make the filling: In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Swirl the saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat. Boil until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the syrup to cool for 10 minutes.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk to combine the eggs and egg yolk, milk, and vanilla. Pour the syrup into the egg mixture, whisking until smooth. (As an extra step to ensure a really smooth custard, you can strain the egg mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove any bits of egg that didn’t fully incorporate.)
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry into a roughly 12 x 16-inch rectangle. Using a fluted 4-inch cookie cutter, cut out 12 rounds.
Gently press the rounds into twelve 3-inch tart molds, pressing against the bottom and sides to prevent air pockets. The pastry should extend about 1/4 inch above the rims. Arrange the pastry molds on a plate or medium rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, at least 20 minutes or overnight (cover with plastic wrap if chilling overnight).
4. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
5. Place the tart shells on a large rimmed baking sheet, spaced 2 inches apart. Fill each tart shell with the filling, up to 1/4 inch below the edge of the pastry. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350°F and bake until the filling is set but still has a slight jiggle in the centre, 20 to 24 more minutes.
6. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and let the tarts cool on the sheet for 10 minutes. Remove the egg tarts from the tart molds and serve warm or at room temperature.
● Special equipment: This recipe requires 12 individual 3-inch metal tart or cupcake molds.
● The tarts can be refrigerated in an airtight container (a resealable bag works great) for up to 4 days (or frozen for up to 3 months). Reheat in a 350°F oven on a baking sheet until crisp and warmed through, 8 to 10 minutes (or a few minutes longer if they’re frozen).
● Store-bought puff pastry is totally acceptable, but I encourage you to try making the Chinese Puff Pastry for the true dim sum taste.
● You will most likely have a decent amount of puff pastry left over, which is the nature of making neat pastry. Instead of discarding it, cut the scraps into roughly 3-inch pieces and bake in a 400°F oven until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Once cooled, dust with a little confectioners’ sugar or cinnamon. Scraps also can be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Chinese Puff Pastry
Makes about 1 1/2 pounds pastry (enough for 12 to 18 tart rounds)
Chinese puff pastry is similar to French puff pastry, with laminated layers of butter and flour that add up to one delightfully flaky dough. The differences between the French and Chinese varieties are subtle: the Chinese puff is slightly less buttery (don’t worry—there is still plenty of butter) and a tad more crisp.
For the Butter Block
227g (1 cup; 2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled
150g (1 1/4 cups) all purpose flour
For the Flour Dough
210g (1 2/3 cups) all purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
75g (1/3 cup) ice water
1. Make the butter block: Cut the butter into 1-inch cubes and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add the flour and pulse until smooth (it will be crumbly at first). Transfer the butter mixture to a sheet of plastic wrap. Fold the plastic over the butter mixture and then press to form a roughly 5-inch square. Refrigerate until firm but still somewhat pliable, 30 to 35 minutes.
2. Make the flour dough: Place the flour, egg, salt, and ice water in the clean bowl of the food processor. Pulse just until a smooth ball of dough forms. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and slightly flatten into a disk. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, 30 to 35 minutes.
3. Unwrap both the dough and butter block. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour and roll out the flour dough with a large rolling pin into a 7 x 10-inch rectangle. Place the butter block in the centre of the dough and fold the edges of the dough over the butter block so that it is tightly wrapped. Flip over the pastry dough so it is seam-side down. Continue to lightly dust the work surface if the dough starts to stick.
4. With the rolling pin, firmly press down on the dough to thin it out (this should prevent it from tearing). Roll out the dough into a 6 x 12-inch rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds, like a letter, and press it down with the rolling pin again to flatten. Roll the dough into a 6 x 12-inch rectangle and repeat the process of folding the dough into thirds like a letter one more time. Flatten and roll the dough into an 8 x 12-inch rectangle and wrap tightly with plastic wrap.
5. Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before working it again. At this point, the puff pastry can be either frozen or refrigerated for future use.