Autumn. I can feel the warmth of the leftover summer sunlight on my cheeks. The smell of the crisp breeze, the taste of harvest sweetness put me in the mood to create new dishes in fall. In fact, there are a few dishes I've enjoyed making when I get together with friends for afternoon tea, especially dishes made with purple yams. The natural color of purple yams, or ube, is vibrant, the flavor is subtle and the smell is rich and soothing. You can often find them this time of year at the North Coast Co-op. Mixing them into classic steamed Chinese pork buns, or baozi, and fried sesame balls, or jian dui, adds color and seasonal flavor.
The steamed purple yam buns and purple yam sesame balls are fun to make. I like to see the colors of the buns changing from light to dark purple as they steam. I love the nutty aroma of crispy fried sesame balls. In the kitchen, we laugh at mistakes when the buns don't puff up or the sesame balls crack. And we're thrilled when they turn out well, exclaiming, "They are so rounded like real buns!"
Make them both — the contrasting softness and crunchiness of these two dishes are delightful for any gathering.
Steamed Purple Yam Buns
Purple sweet potatoes also work but the color comes out more pink than purple after steaming. Makes 24.
For the dough:
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
4 tablespoons white sugar
2 cups warm water
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups cooked and mashed purple yams
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a large bowl, mix ½ cup flour, ½ cup warm water, 1 tablepoon sugar and 2 tablespoons dry active yeast. Let the mixture proof at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Mix in the mashed yams, remaining 4½ cups flour, baking soda, 3 teaspoons sugar, 1½ cups warm water, salt and oil.
Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 15 minutes. Add more flour a little at a time if it's too wet and sticky. Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel. Let it rise in a warm room until it triples in size. This takes about 90 minutes. While you're waiting, make the filling.
For the filling:
1½ pounds of fresh ground pork shoulder
½ cup chopped green onion
1 cup chopped fresh shiitake
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon corn starch
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 pinch white pepper
24 hardboiled quail eggs (optional)
Mix all the ingredients but the optional quail eggs well and set aside.
After the dough triples in size, punch it down and knead it for 5 more minutes. Place the dough on a floured surface. Divide the dough in half and roll it out into 2 logs. Cut these logs into 12 pieces each (24 pieces total), and roll them into balls.
When it's time to make the buns, flatten a ball on your palm. Place a rounded tablespoon of the meat and a quail egg (if desired) on top. Close the bun by pinching the dough upward and twisting the top together — you can experiment and make some ripple patterns. Cover them with a kitchen towel and let them rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
Punch a few holes into a sheet of parchment paper and place it on the bottom of a bamboo steamer. Arrange 5 to 6 of the buns on the paper, leaving space between them. Place the steamer over a pot of boiling water, making sure the lid is tight, and steam on high heat for 18 minutes. Take the lid off before turning off the stove to avoid water dripping back onto the buns.
Purple Yam Sesame Balls
You can make the filling ahead and store it in the refrigerator overnight in a sealed container. Wheat starch and glutinous rice flour are available at local Asian markets.
7 cups of vegetable oil for frying
1 cup white sesame seeds
For the filling:
1½ cups cooked and mashed purple yams
½ cup coconut milk
¾ cup sugar
Mix the filling ingredients together in a pot and simmer for 15 minutes until it becomes a thick paste. Let it cool at least 30 minutes. Use a teaspoon to scoop the paste and roll it into 24 balls. Set them aside on a plate.
For the dough:
1 cup wheat starch
3 cups glutinous rice flour
¾ cup white sugar
1½ cups boiling water
In a heat-proof bowl, add the boiling water into the wheat starch and mix well. Let it cool for 5 minutes, then add the sugar and the glutinous flour. Knead the mixture well, adding a little cold water if the dough is too dry. Knead until smooth, about 10 minutes.
Divide the dough into 24 pieces and roll each one into a ball the size of a small egg. Use more rice flour if your hands become sticky. Use your thumb to make a deep indentation and place the yam paste in it. Seal the dough tightly around the filling and roll it into a ball. After all the balls are filled, place the white sesame seeds on a plate. Dampen the balls with a little water and roll them in the sesame seeds until they're well coated.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil to 330F. Fry 5 to 6 balls at a time, turning them in the oil until they float to the top and turn golden brown. Remove the sesame balls from the oil with a slotted spoon and place them on a plate covered with paper towels to absorb the excess oil. Enjoy.