Cover Kristina Cho, author of Mooncakes and Milk Bread

Kristina Cho of Eat Cho Food talks about her decision to write a cookbook focused on Chinese bakery cooking, compares it with Western baking and highlights some of her favourite recipes from the book

When Kristina Cho started sharing Chinese bakery-inspired recipes for treats such as hot dog flower buns and red bean swirl buns on her blog, Eat Cho Food, she was surprised by the enthusiastic response from her followers. “I realised that there wasn’t a single comprehensive cookbook that covered modern Chinese baking and that void inspired me to write this cookbook,” says Cho. “Chinese bakeries were such an important part of my childhood and even still, I always look up a Chinese bakery in whatever city I travel to. I think this style of baking resonates with a lot of people and I wanted to give it the respect it deserved in the form of a cookbook.”

Mooncakes and Milk Bread takes readers through the full range of sweet and savoury items found in Chinese cafes and bakeries, from classics such as egg tarts, pineapple buns and turnip cake to Cho’s own twists on various treats, some of which she is particularly keen to highlight, including her Chinese Sausage and Cilantro Pancakes, Salted Egg Yolk Milk Bread Donuts, Honey Pistachio Mooncakes, and Sausage Egg and Cheese Sheng Jian Bao. “I wouldn’t consider these “traditional” recipes,” she says. “They incorporate flavours and ingredients more inspired by my upbringing in Ohio and life in California, yet still taste right at home in a Chinese bakery.”

A first-generation Chinese-American, Cho was working full-time in architecture when she launched her food blog, Eat Cho Food, featuring Asian-inspired recipes. After it took off, Cho was able to dedicate all her time to cooking and recipe development, while also teaching cooking classes and dumpling workshops, before embarking on the development of her first cookbook, Mooncakes and Milk Bread. Through this, she hopes to spotlight a lesser explored area of Chinese cuisine, yet one that she believes is accessible and appealing to a wide audience. “I think there’s a misconception that Chinese baking is completely different from the standard way of baking in America or Europe. But if you look at the offerings at Chinese bakeries—cakes, cookies, breads—they are really not too different from their western bakery counterparts.”

You started your career in architecture—are there any similarities between this discipline and cooking/baking?

A lot of my friends and peers from my architecture days actually love to cook and bake so I definitely think there is a correlation between design and food. Architecture school helped me develop my creative process, which I think really benefits me as I develop recipes. It starts with a concept and the intention behind your concept. Then there’s the iteration phase where you work on various options, test it out to see what works and how to make it more efficient. Once you find an option you’re happy with, you go through the process of bringing it to fruition, making sure it’s impactful and polished. This process works whether you’re talking about an interior space or a plate of spicy noodles.

What appealed to you about Chinese bakery in particular?

Chinese bakeries feel like a connection to my family and my heritage. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. From the late 1960s, my grandparents lived in Cleveland’s Chinatown, which is super small. I went to Chinatown weekly with my family to visit my grandparents, go shopping at the Asian markets, and eat dim sum. It however lacked a Chinese bakery, so we would go on family vacations to Chicago to stock up on our favourite treats. Some of my best memories are of visiting these bakeries with my family. While we tore apart all the buns and sipped on milk tea, my grandparents and parents would share stories of their life back in Hong Kong. So, even if it’s my first time visiting a Chinese bakery, a part of it always feels like home.

Why was it important for you to write this book?

Chinese baking is a big facet of Chinese-American and Asian-American culture that doesn’t get the representation that it deserves. This is a book that I wish existed when I was younger and teaching myself how to bake. I never really saw myself in the countless chocolate chip cookie and birthday cake recipes out there. I hope that other aspiring bakers and home cooks see a part of themselves and their families in my recipes.

How does Chinese bakery cooking compare to Western bakery?

Chinese baking and Western baking are actually very similar. The modern-day Chinese bakery model comes from the bakeries in Hong Kong, which was heavily influenced by British culture. Milk bread is an enriched bread very similar to brioche or challah. Egg tarts utilise flaky puff pastry and a majority of the recipes use standard baking ingredients like butter, sugar, milk and flour. The differences come from the addition of ingredients like red bean, black sesame, coconut, mango, etc. These are flavours that are beloved in Asian culture and I think it will be fun for readers and bakers who aren’t familiar with these flavours to experiment with them.

What were some of the biggest challenges in putting together the book?

I wrote and developed this cookbook almost entirely during the pandemic. I was specifically working on my sweet and savoury bun chapters during the early lockdown days when there was a flour shortage and I was only able to order groceries once a week. The constraints and struggles of the pandemic definitely had negative impacts on me and the book. But it also challenged me to work more efficiently and I think that ultimately made the recipes better.

Who do you think this book will appeal to and why?

I think the book will appeal to a wide range of people. First, I think anyone who grew up visiting Chinese bakeries will feel a lot of nostalgia while reading the book. I also write a lot about my family throughout the book and those stories might resonate with people who also grew up in an Asian household. I think Mooncakes and Milk Bread will be exciting for anyone who is an adventurous baker or home cook as it will widen their baking horizons.

Click here to find Kristina Cho’s recipes for classic egg tarts, pineapple buns and turnip cake taken from Mooncakes and Milk Bread by Kristina Cho, available from 12 October 2021. Copyright 2021 by Kristina Cho. Photographs copyright Kristina Cho. Used by permission of Harper Horizon, an imprint of HarperCollins Focus LLC.