I have discovered that my favourite things is the sensation of biting into a freshly-made fluffy mantou (饅頭, steamed bun), just as it comes out of the steamer. And Taiwanxifu Preschooler and Toddler agree, with both gulfing down homemade mantou, along with a glass of warm milk or soy milk, at astonishing speed.
A few months ago, I teased friends by posting photos of home-made mantou. I did not expect the rapid flood of comments, most envious that I made them. While not hard to make once you know how (although they do take a bit of time and effort), they are one of these simple, homely foods that I have found that people crave. And demand the recipe.
So, here it is, converted into metric, Australian style measurements and using a breadmaker. I find this recipe is slightly sweet, probably more so than traditional mantou. But to me the sweetness is just right, because enjoying these is more like eating a Chinese brioche than a solid hunk of crusty bread.
1 cup lukewarm milk
1 teaspoon yeast
2 cups plain flour (aka all purpose flour or medium flour)
3/4 cup self raising flour (if you can’t yet this, use 2 3/4 cups medium flour and add 1/2 teaspoon baking powder)
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon oil
pinch of salt
1. Add the yeast to the milk in the pan of the breadmaker and allow to sit for a little while until the yeast becomes frothy. My breadmaker starts 20 minutes after it is turned on (I think this is to adjust the heat), so there is plenty of time for the milk and yeast to sit a while. I would not suggest waiting this long unless you have a breadmaker like mine. I would also suggest holding back a little bit of milk, say one tablespoon, just in case your mix doesn’t actually need that much liquid. The amount needed will vary depending on atmospheric factors.
2. Add the oil, sugar, salt and flours and press start on the ‘dough’ cycle. The bread cycle will likely mix slowly at first, then speed up. Watch it during the slow mixing phase, and add more liquid if necessary. Then continue to mix for around 10 to 15 minutes until the dough forms a ball. This is actually quite a firm dough, and I found that my breadmaker strained a little bit with the effort. Lucky I wasn’t making it by hand.
3. Once there is a round, elastic ball turn off the breadmaker and allow the dough to sit inside (with the lid closed) for around 45 minutes or until it has doubled in size.
4. Remove the dough and cut in half. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle. My dough was around 1.5cm thick, and I guess roughly 20cm wide.
5. Gently lift the long edge, and roll up the dough like a swiss roll. Using a sharp knife, cut off the uneven edges and then cut the dough into pieces. I like to make smaller ones by cutting into six pieces, but for fatter ones cut into four.
6. Place the dough pieces on baking paper, with the join down so that it won’t be visible when cooked, and cover with a damp teatowel or a cling wrap. I steam my mantou in a Ta-tung electric cooker, so I place them on a round metal plate. But if you can also put the mantou into a bamboo steamer. Allow to sit for around 20 minutes, until they have increased by around 50 per cent.
7. Steam for around 20 minutes. Using my Ta-tung electric cooker (a staple in most Taiwanese households), I add one cup (375ml) to the inside of the pan. If you are steaming over a wok or saucepan, add around one cup of water.
8. Try not to open the lid of the steamer while the mantou are cooking. And wait for a little while after the steamer/rice cooker has finished; often there is still a bit of steam left that helps with final cooking.
9. Once steamed, unless you plan to eat the mantou immediately, allow them to cool and then refrigerate or freeze in a plastic bag. You can reheat in a steamer, or in a pinch you can reheat in the microwave next to a glass of water (which sort of acts like a steamer, although not quite as good). You can also eat them cold, but they are softer when resteamed.
Oh, and if you are wondering about the funny ‘lotus’ shaped mantou, I will confess that they are the ends of the roll. I think you are supposed to discard these, or reshape them, but I actually like their unique shape. They are perfect for snacking, i.e. for when I am denial that I am actually eating anything given how small and cute they are!
Is mantou Taiwanese? No, they are a northern Chinese import. But they are incredibly popular in Taiwan, and you can find mantou everywhere — even in southern Taiwan where there are higher concentrations of southern Chinese. And of course you can buy then at 7-Eleven and other convenience stores as well.