I need to open this post by admitting that I have never once in the history my life made custard, nai wong bao, or green onion pancakes.
Naturally then, you can imagine that my attempt to magically whip up all of the above in ONE MORNING did not go great.
So, welcome my friend, to the story of how I spent Easter morning rolling deliriously around my crumb-strewn kitchen floor, wondering why I so often make my life far tougher than it needs to be.
Let’s rewind this story to the night before Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday Eve? Easter Saturday? Cadbury Cream Egg judgement day? I don’t know.
ANYWAY, I don’t usually celebrate Easter, but with my travelly wings clipped for obvious reasons, I wanted to make Easter Sunday a little bit special this year… also I was getting kind of bored by day 3 of the long weekend. So, I did what any sane person would do: I stared in my cupboard at the yeast I’ve been rationing and decided that tomorrow would be the day…. dough would be leavened tomorrow. It was time.
Now, what could be worthy of my limited yeast? Bao? I hadn’t made bao from scratch….. ever… and with my new nifty bamboo steamer, it seemed time to give it the old college try. But, with it being Easter, I did (again) what any sane person would do, and began to think about how I could make my bao Easter themed. Instagram street cred might have factored into my decision, but soon, visions danced in my head of Pixar-worthy bunnies and chicks, plopped neatly in a bamboo steamer…
I went to bed that night with a psychotic grin on my face. I was going to Masterchef the crap out of these bunny bao.
I slid stealthily out of bed early in the morning, giddy at the thought of my perfect bao being the scent that stirred my boyfriend awake. Last-minute, because my brain is hardwired to crave failure, I decided to attempt Nai Wong Bao to jazz things up. I chose this well-rated recipe from the Woks of Life to power my endeavour.
First, I made the dough. It was really sticky but nothing some extra flour couldn’t handle. I had some powdered food colouring in my cupboard so I figured I would use those to dye my dough at the end. (Spoiler: this is a terrible idea and is not advised). I put it in a warm oven with a towel over top just as I had been advised to do in a seedy food hacks video (Spoiler: this does not end well).
Then I went for the custard. I had never made custard before but how hard could it be? (Spoiler: it was very hard).
I followed the recipe with a few substitutions… condensed milk in lieu of powdered milk, a little pot instead of a metal bowl…. somewhere along the way though, I done goofed, because as I whisked and whisked and whisked, my custard remained a sad, pale puddle of misery.
Even after a brief success turning the heat up, the custard started to thicken, but not at all to the level that would turn it into a cohesive ball of filling. Still, I shoved my shame into the fridge and hoped for the best.
As I waited for my dough to rise and my custard to harden, I set my sights on green onion pancakes. These were a whole other project… and, to be fair, they turned out alright. They were just a weird cumbersome detour though and I would not advise trying to make these two things at once.
Anyways – back to the bao. I checked that my dough baby had risen properly and indeed it had… but it was… dry? Flaky even a little? It was my first time proofing dough in a warm oven and I was mortified. At this point I was vaguely in denial, so I just massaged the dry bits away and moved on. It was then time to add some dye!
Except it wasn’t… because waiting until the very end to add dye was the dumbest idea ever, given my powdered food colouring needed water to dye properly, so I effectively was messing up the dough texture IMMEDIATELY upon contact. The colours also wouldn’t mix properly and I got strange marbly dough instead of a cohesive mix. Meanwhile, the custard wasn’t setting, the clock was nearing noon, and I was getting real hangry. In a rage, I threw 90% of my butchered dough in the trash.
Yes, I had a bao breakdown.
I sat on the floor for a solid five minutes wondering where my life had gone wrong.
After a brief floor cooldown, I returned to my giant bowl of gooey custard and my remaining ball of dough. It was enough for maybe two bao, so I thought “why not” and just threw some custard into some half-assed dough and steamed them, hoping to at least taste test my creation.
WOW did that not go well.
The thing looked like a hungover bunny vomiting. To add insult to injury, my boyfriend was Skyping his parents as I stumbled deliriously out of the kitchen, derp-buns in tow. I had to stand there and smile as they BSed how could they could totally see the bunny thing, how they could make out an ear for sure, and how I wasn’t a total loser-failure.
As a reminder, THIS is what I presented to the camera:
I was delirious at this point… but slightly revitalized by the few bites of bun I’d wolfed down.
And… after a few bites, I realized… they didn’t actually taste bad.
In fact, if I could ignore their numbingly grotesque aesthetic, they were actually… kinda good?
After we ate our (much nicer looking) green onion pancakes, the rest of the day went on as if Bao-Gate ad never occurred. I banished my boyfriend from the kitchen, where every surface was covered in a dribble of liquid custard and flour clumps. We watched Netflix. All was well………
But I refused defeat! Maybe watching the Tiger King gave me strength, but I decided to try again. I was ready this time. I knew where I had gone wrong… I threw the custard in the freezer and got back to work.
This time, I separated my dough in advance. This required every pot and bowl I had, but I did it. I added the colours with my liquid ingredients, and sure enough, they added seamless colour to the dough.
I left it to rise, watched more Netflix, and returned to the most beautifully fluffy risen dough I’d ever seen.
Next up – assembly. I dutifully rolled out my dough, spooned some (much more workable) half-frozen custard and molded the bao into a cute little ball. So far so good. I added eyes… a beak… AND I DID IT! AN ACTUAL BAO CHICK.
I repeated this process for some bunnies. At this point, I was drunk with power. I put all those cuties together and did a mini photo-shoot:
Then as they steamed, I even made emojis with the leftovers:
The end result after steaming? They came out super puffed and way too close together, but they were actually CUTE and not to mention delicious. I felt like the Grinch after he saved Christmas, except I saved literally nobody’s day but my own (boyfriend did not care for my drama one bit).
And the my friends is the story of my special Easter nai wong bao that eventually went right.
What I Learned & Notes for Next Time
- Maybe stick with one project at a time. Oh my goodness how dumb was it to tackle two new dishes at once? Three if you include custard? Why did I willingly subject myself to that kind of torture on a Sunday morning? Why? This was the culinary equivalent of trying to learn two dance moves at the same time. NOPE. From now on, Christina is a one bao at a time kind of woman… unless I’m eating them of course, in which case I will default to my usual double fist.
- Colouring dough needs to happen early on in the dough process. I don’t know why I thought adding colouring at the end was my go-to in my first attempt because that genuinely makes no sense. Colours definitely mix in MUCH easier in the initial stages of dough making (i.e. when you’re mixing flour with the wet ingredients) so be sure to add colours in sooner rather than later.
- Custard is weirdly difficult to make? To be fair, I had to substitute some ingredients and thought (for no reason at all) that condensed milk would make a worthy sub for milk powder. Nope. I also didn’t have a metal bowl to cook over my boiling pot of water, so I just used another smaller pot. That was dumb. I definitely wouldn’t recommend tackling all of this at once. In the future, I would prepare the custard earlier to break up the workload and make things less stressful. I wasn’t in love with the custard from this recipe, so I’ll definitely be tweaking that for next time.
- Dough recipes are a lie. I have never once followed a dough recipe to a T and had it turn out well. I used to blindly follow recipes thinking they would eventually turn out okay. NOPE! Dough is weird… and the precise amounts of liquid/flour you need varies depending on your exact ingredients/circumstances, so just keep adjusting and adding flour. Don’t worry too much about not following the dough part of the recipe.
- Bao expands like crazy. The fluffiness of bao comes from the yeast in the dough which (naturally) makes the buns expand when they’re being cooked. I forgot this and ended up with a stuck-together (but still adorable) group of huddled bunnies. Next time I’ll force them to practice better social distancing.
- The potential for cute character bao is endless. Ending on an optimistic note, I thought my bunnies and chicks came out pretty adorable, which made me realize that making cutesy bao isn’t actually as hard as I always imagined in my head. I can’t wait to experiment with this more in the future and create some ridiculously adorable treats.
In sum, making these buns not just once, but twice in a day was a valuable learning moment for me, and taught me a lot about bao and what it takes to create decent ones. My most fatal mistake? Biting off wayyyyy more than I could chew. I’m glad I got a chance to redeem myself though!
Let this be a lesson to my fellow kitchen dumb dumbs: pick a dish at a time, make a plan, and be patient… things will usually work themselves out.