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Pineapple Buns, Wife Pancakes: Inside Asian Bakeries

When many people think of Asian baked goods and desserts, the first thing that comes to mind are flavors like green tea, red bean, lychee, and sesame. But the differences between Asian and Western baked goods are about more than just flavor options.

Bread, tarts and cakes baked in an oven are a relatively modern addition to the cuisines of China, Japan and Korea. Previously, most breads and sweets were steamed, boiled or pan fried due to a lack of ovens in most kitchens. So it was with the introduction of ovens, and colonization by western countries and increased western influence during and after World War II that baked goods became a bigger part of Asian cookery.

So now it's common to walk into Asian bakeries in the area and find Western baked goods like trendy macarons and cupcakes, as well as croissants, cream puffs and eclairs. But what will be most noticeable at Asian bakeries such as Joy Luck House, Shilla Bakery, and Bread Corner is a plethora of flavored buns and breads.

But these breads and buns are not like those typically found in American bakeries. Most Asian breads have a squishy texture and tight crumb structure with a sweetness that's somewhat comparable to Wonder bread. The unique texture is often created with a "water roux" called tangzhong. It is a mixture of flour and water, heated until it becomes gelatin like. This process saturates the starch with moisture and helps reduce gluten formation. When added to bread dough, it yields a more tender, springy texture that takes longer to become stale.

This type of dough is used not only in loaves of bread, but also in the wide array of stuffed buns found in Asian bakeries. The bread is often enhanced with additional ingredients like sweetened condensed milk, milk powder, or glutinous rice flour to change the flavor or texture, and lard, which was more readily available, is used in place of butter.

In Asian bakeries, sweet buns are usually filled with flavored creams like coffee and strawberry, or with pastes made from beans or taro. In Chinese bakeries, dim sum regulars might recognize char siu bao, which are sweet glazed buns filled with chopped savory-sweet roasted pork. Another popular Chinese bakery item is the pineapple bun, named for the crackly appearance of its yellow cookie topping; it can be plain bread or filled with options like custard, pork floss (think shredded pork jerky), coconut, taro, or, yes, pineapple.

Cakes also take on a different form in Asian bakeries. Similar to bread found in Asian bakeries, the cake's texture is light with a tight crumb structure. Along with being less sweet, the batter has a higher proportion of eggs to flour. It may seem like this would weigh the cake down, but the egg whites are whipped separately and folded in like a meringue. And most bakeries stick to light, airy whipped creams for frosting, finished off with fresh fruit on top.

For those looking for Asian sweets that are a little more traditional, head to grocery stores like Hana Market, H Mart, Great Wall and Meixin — or a dim sum cart. Look for items like mochi filled with ground peanut, sesame and bean paste, or porous sweet steamed rice cakes. For something unique look for lao po bing (wife pancakes), which are flaky, layered pastries made by rolling together water- and oil-based doughs and filling them with lotus seed or bean paste.

Every cuisine takes advantages of the ingredients and resources at its disposal. But it's interesting to see how people adapt outside cuisines to their own tastes and terroir to make something new.
· Joy Luck House [Official Site]

Joy Luck House [Photo: Foursquare]

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