A breakfast and afternoon snack staple in Hong Kong, these Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns are delicious on their own but pair perfectly with some good old Hong Kong Style Milk Tea!
When I was younger and all those budget flights were not in existence yet, I was already aware of how lucky I was to get to ride on a plane and go places. Most often, we headed to Hong Kong, first because it was only an hour away from our country; second because my grandma liked to visit family who lived there. That said, we still don’t really go to Hong Kong that much so I never really got the chance to get close to my cousins, but I fondly remember my ah-pe.
My father’s elder brother, my grandma’s eldest son, had lived in Kowloon since his twenties. I will always remember ah-pe‘s confident stride as he led us to one of his recommended mum-and-pop restaurants for a delicious treat. For some reason, he used to only wear a vest over a shirt and a long-sleeved polo during cold days in Hong Kong. He also had this habit of walking block upon block without losing his sense of direction, even when he was the one visiting Manila.
It wasn’t until I made these Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns that I realized how much I miss my ah-pe. I haven’t been to Hong Kong since his death, and with everything that’s happened there lately I haven’t had the chance to return. It’s one thing to appreciate these buns as a must-try food of Hong Kong, but quite another to have your subconscious attach a person to it. In the depths of my memory, I suppose there must have been at least one time during my childhood where he took me to eat 港式菠蘿包, or Hong Kong Bolo Buns, as these are also known.
It’s funny that the angle I was going for when I decided to make this recipe combination for the blog was to “transport you to Hong Kong wherever you are quarantined”. But when I sat down to actually write the post, I realized there was so much more to it.
I have this collage in my head, of memories from different points in my youth featuring my visits to Hong Kong. And I realize now that all of them pretty much feature my ah-pe in them, one way or another. I was never close to him or anything, and to be honest, I don’t even know him that well. But if I had to look back on all the different meals I had in Hong Kong, more often than not, he would be sitting on that same table, sharing that same delicious food. Obviously I am a food person, so there are these really random things I remember whenever it comes to food. Usually I also remember the people I’m with when I ate them.
That very first time I ever got to try Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong? It was because ah-pe got up early and lined up outside the restaurant on our behalf before it even opened. When we arrived, he was already very close to the front of the line. (For the record, that was one hell of a meal. The local franchise of Tim Ho Wan doesn’t even compare!)
Here’s another really funny memory that surfaced thanks to this recipe. I was just a wee kid at this time. After arriving in Kowloon from the airport, ah-pe had taken us to this little restaurant near our place of lodging. The inside could barely fit four tables, but it was a cozy little location. We were the only customers because it was during that time between lunch and afternoon snack. He spoke Cantonese with the restaurant owner, and after a few moments she brought each of us a piping hot glass of Hong Kong Milk Tea. The Milk Tea was served in a tall glass, similar to the ones I used in my photos.
Ah-pe urged me to take a sip and asked if it was delicious. When I said yes, he asked me if I wanted to know the secret to this special milk tea. He might’ve even leaned in conspiratorially for effect: ‘It’s because they strained the tea from worn-out stockings that they didn’t want to throw away after wearing.’ I probably had this stricken look on my face, because either my Dad or my grandma ended up needing to explain that they do in fact strain the tea through stockings, but new and clean ones. And that, my friends, was my first exposure to Hong Kong Milk Tea.
When I prepared to shoot these Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns and Milk Tea, I unconsciously drifted towards the plates and glasses that felt truest to the fragments of memories in my head. From the plain tall glasses to the floral-themed plates I often come across in family-owned small Chinese eateries, I felt a compulsion to do all of these details right. At the very least, I wanted to make this feel authentic, because in terms of flavor and quality, these buns and this milk tea REALLY hit the spot.
I wish I could’ve shared these Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns with my ah-pe and my grandma. My grandma, by virtue of being a staunch supporter of her grandkids no matter what, would say anything I make is delicious. But I’m curious to see what my ah-pe‘s reaction would’ve been. Although I am pretty confident about these buns, I can’t help but wonder. If I had to guess, he would probably make another joke about the milk tea because I didn’t strain them through stockings.
I may have plenty of personal reasons to love this combination of Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns and Milk Tea, but bias aside, I can assure that this recipe I’m sharing with you today is absolute perfection. In fact, this is my favorite thing I’ve made during this quarantine period so far. It did more than transport me back to Hong Kong; it even brought me back in time! I made a lot of instructional modifications to the original recipe, but in terms of the main recipe structure, there is absolutely nothing I would change to Yi Reservation‘s recipe. I hope that you guys will give this a try.
This recipe for Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns, while not very difficult, requires some time from start to finish. My suggestion is to accomplish this in chunks: On Day 1, make the tangzhong and the cookie crust. On Day 2, make the dough and bake the buns. If you’re not familiar with tangzhong, it’s actually the secret to every fluffy, pillowy Asian bread you’ve ever encountered. It’s a Japanese technique where you cook liquid and flour together to make a slurry or water roux that you later on add into your dough.
This roux traps moisture within the dough as it bakes, creating a moister, fluffier bread with a crumb so tender and so impossible to resist. Ironically, tangzhong breads tend to have a longer shelf life, but I’m pretty sure these will be gobbled up in no time. Precooking the flour also helps the gluten develop more elastic strands, which is key to making amazing bread.
To make tangzhong, you cook flour and liquid in a saucepan. In this case, we use bread flour and milk. You can use all purpose flour but I do recommend using milk rather than water for some extra flavor. It’s important to cook this roux over low heat and in a saucepan with a thick bottom. This makes a small amount of roux, just enough for this specific recipe, so it may burn easily. Whisk the mixture CONSTANTLY to keep it from burning or overcooking. You don’t want an actual paste in your hands, but paste that looks wet and watered down.
What I did for this particular recipe was to whisk the tangzhong mixture until thickened. As soon as my mixture was thick enough that it made lines where my whisk passed, I took it off the stove and kept mixing it a little more using the residual heat from the pan. You want it just thick enough to hold soft peaks, or to hold a shape, before melting back into the mixture, but not thick that it’s like a sticky dough already. Press a piece of plastic wrap on top to prevent skin from forming on the surface, then let cool to room temp.
When I’m in a hurry, I sometimes let this cool about 10 minutes on the countertop then refrigerate. Hot roux will kill your yeast so always use your tangzhong at room temp! This recipe makes about 90 grams of roux.
Next, the cookie crust. It’s simply a matter of creaming butter, sugar, and egg together, then adding in the dry ingredients. We sift in the dry ingredients to make sure our cookie crust is as smooth as can be. Cake flour and milk powder sometimes tends to be clumpy after all. If you don’t have cake flour, you can make a substitute using all-purpose flour and cornstarch following these instructions.
Once you get your dough, you will need to refrigerate it for at least an hour. You can shape it into a log to make cutting and dividing easier. For this recipe, we’re weighing everything to make sure we get uniform bun to cookie crust ratio, so I suppose you can just flatten it into a disc. Any shape that will be easy to slice through is fine.
So now that you’ve got your tangzhong and cookie crust prepared, you can move on to the actual bread-making. Again, I recommend breaking this recipe down into two days’ worth of work so you don’t feel like you’re baking all day, but you can make this in one day perfectly fine too. For the dough, you will need the help of your stand mixer and dough hook to make your life easier. You can knead the dough by hand but it usually takes thrice the amount of time.
You make the bread dough by mixing all the dough ingredients together in your mixer bowl, plus the cooled down tangzhong. Use a spatula or wooden spoon until you get this really rough, really shaggy dough. Then attach the bowl to your mixer and let it rip. Medium speed at the most, medium-low at the least, for at least 5 minutes. As the dough comes together, it will clear the sides of the bowl and transform into this beautiful, smooth dough. It should feel damp and sticky to the touch.
How do you know if the dough is sufficiently kneaded? Pinch a bit of that dough off and stretch it out. Some people like to do it with a big chunk of dough and really stretch it out, but a small amount is enough for the test. If you can stretch it out with your fingers and form this translucent membrane before it breaks apart, it means your dough has developed enough gluten. Gluten is your friend in bread-making. If the dough tears apart the moment you try to stretch it, keep kneading. You should be able to stretch it easily if it’s ready. This is called the windowpane test, by the way.
Now just oil your hands lightly to make handling this sticky dough a little easier. Shape the dough into a ball by tucking the rough edges underneath and plop it into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover, preferably with a damp towel to minimize trash, and leave to proof until doubled. Mine took a little less than 1 hour because it’s so hot here.
Oh the joys of a grown yeast bread! We will proceed to punch it down to release the air.
I like to knead the dough a few times on a lightly floured surface just to make sure all the excess air is released, but you don’t really need to. We don’t want to over-knead the dough after all. Just divide the dough into 10 portions of 62 grams each (more or less).
Now we make our buns. For me, the easiest way to turn a chunk of dough into a round is not by rolling it between my hands. I smush it between my palms to get a flat surface first, and then I tuck the edges of the dough underneath, going all round until I get a nice smooth surface. Then I turn the dough over and pinch the seam to seal all those rough edges. I flip back to the smooth side, and just to create that perfect round shape, I gently roll the dough between two cupped hands. (These instructions are clearer in the recipe video so please watch that too.)
All your dough balls now go into a large baking sheet. I staggered mine in a 9×13-inch baking sheet, though you may need a bigger one if you don’t want the buns to touch each other once baked. As soon as you finish your dough balls, they will automatically go into their second rise. It takes time to drape each of them with the cookie crust so by the time you’re done, you’ll have to wait only a little bit until the buns finish their second proof.
Anyway, let’s get to the cookie crust.
Take your chilled and hardened cookie crust from the fridge and divide into 10 portions, about 24 grams each. Then working quickly so we don’t melt these things, we roll them into balls with our hands.
Take two pieces of parchment paper and sandwich a buttery ball between. Squash it with your palm and take a rolling pin to flatten out into an even disc that’s about 4.5 to 5 inches in diameter. Rather than being the one to move around, use your parchment to rotate the dough until you roll the cookie crust all the way around. You should get a fairly even round.
Peel the top parchment off and use the bottom parchment to bring the cookie crust over your buns. Make sure to center the thing before you coax the cookie crust off the parchment. Once it’s on the buns, it will be impossible to lift if off without tearing it. (You can see how I ruined one because I messed up.) Be patient and use gentle fingers to get the cookie crust to detach from the parchment. Then also use gentle fingers to press the cookie crust onto the bun. It should cover the whole thing. Do this process one bun at a time.
Once all of your buns are covered with the cookie crust, you can do this optional step of putting that crisscross pineapple pattern on top. Use a toothpick and hold it diagonally instead of using the point. Slide the smooth side of the toothpick across the crust to make the markings. If you don’t have a toothpick, go ahead and skip this step. I don’t recommend using a knife but you can try. You don’t want to cut all the way, just score the crust halfway through.
Unless you are an expert bolo bun maker, chances are, you’ll have some rough-looking buns. That’s okay because these taste amazing, and those uneven crusts will still look amazing after baking. If you finished your cookie crust draping process before the buns have doubled in size, leave them to proof further, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. During this time, preheat your oven to 380°F (190°C).
As a final step, brush the entire surface of the buns with egg wash. This will give it a sheen and a golden color. To make it very yellow, use an egg yolk with the tiniest splash of water to thin it out a little. Otherwise, just use a beaten egg.
Bake the buns at 380°F (190°C) for 8 minutes, then turn oven down to 350°F (180°C) and bake for another 10 minutes, until crust is golden and set. The reason why my crust is a little browned is because I turned on my broiler during the last 5 minutes of baking. I thought the bread wasn’t golden enough because I used a whole egg for my egg wash. I don’t recommend broiling any longer than that because you may burn the tops and it might also dry out the bread a bit.
These Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns are SUPER fluffy, SUPER delicious, with just the right hit of milky sweetness. They pair so perfectly with the Hong Kong style milk tea! If you feel extra indulgent, you can eat the buns with a slice of butter in the middle. To reheat these babies, I pop them in the microwave or toaster for about 20 seconds. These are a lot fluffier and moister than any pineapple bun I’ve ever bought here in Manila. Totally worth the effort, in my opinion.
As for the milk tea, the steps are really straightforward. You want to boil down the tea to make sure you extract all the flavor from the leaves. Ideally, you want to make this with Ceylon or any black tea you have, but I’ve tried this with Oolong (Tieguanyin) and it’s still pretty good. If you can, use actual good-quality tea leaves rather than the ones from tea bags.
If you want to really go for the authentic experience of straining the tea through a stocking, The Woks of Life blog gives you instructions. Otherwise, straining it in a mesh strainer works well too.
How much evaporated milk you should add is entirely up to you. I like mine a little thick so I don’t tend to water it down with too much milk, but I do add a few teaspoons of condensed milk it the tea is a bit strong. Enjoy!
Hong Kong Style Pineapple Buns and Milk Tea
Makes 10 buns and 4 to 6 cups of milk tea
For the tangzhong water roux
- 20 grams bread flour
- 80 mL whole or 2% milk
For the cookie crust
- 50 grams butter, at room temperature
- 45 grams sugar
- 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
- 10 mL whole or 2% milk
- 110 grams cake flour
- 10 grams powdered milk
- 2 grams salt
- 2 grams baking powder
For the dough
- 310 grams bread flour
- 5 grams instant yeast
- 50 grams sugar
- 3 grams salt
- 100 mL whole or 2% milk
- 1 large egg, about 60 grams, at room temperature
- 30 grams butter, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Chilled tangzhong water roux, about 90 grams, from above recipe
- 1 large egg yolk, beaten, for egg wash*
For the milk tea
- 1.4 Liters 6 cups water
- 20 grams 10 Tablespoons black tea leaves of choice (typically used is Ceylon or Earl Grey, or combination of both)
- Evaporated milk, to taste
- Sweetened condensed milk, to taste
Make the tangzhong
- In a small sauce pan, whisk together the milk and the bread flour until flour has dissolved. Place the pan over low heat and whisk constantly to keep the mixture moving and to keep the flour from forming lumps. The mixture will start to thicken as you stir. Do not stop stirring at any point to keep the mixture from burning.
- Once the mixture forms obvious lines right on the path where you stir, take it off the heat. You want a roux that looks a bit like watered down paste. It should not be too thick but rather should form "soft peaks" when you lift up your whisk. Since this is a small amount of roux that yields about 90 grams, you might reach this stage faster than you expect. Be alert.
- Immediately transfer the roux into a clean bowl to stop the cooking process. Allow to cool briefly then press a piece of plastic wrap on the surface to keep skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature before using, or place in the fridge up to 2 days if not using right away. (Make sure to use within a few days as this does not keep well.**)
Make the cookie crust
- In a medium bowl, beat together egg yolk, sugar, and butter until fluffy and smooth. Add in the milk in two portions, mixing to combine each time. Beat until the mixture turns fluffy.
- To the same bowl, sift in cake flour, milk powder, and baking powder, then fold into the wet mixture until fully incorporated. It should be similar to cookie or pie dough in consistency.
- Transfer the dough onto a piece of clingwrap and shape into a log. Wrap the dough and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, reshaping as necessary. This can also be made 1 day ahead. Take the cookie crust out only when ready to use.
Make the bread
- Take the roux out of the fridge while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. In the bowl of the stand mixer, add in all the bread ingredients (except the egg yolk for egg wash), then add the entire amount of roux. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to mix everything together just until the flour is moistened and a very shaggy dough is formed.
- Attach bowl to stand mixer with dough hook attachment, then knead at medium low speed for about 5 minutes or so, until the dough pulls away from the bowl and is smooth and elastic, but still tacky. To test if the dough is ready, do the windowpane test: Take a chunk of dough and gently stretch it with your fingers. It should be able to stretch to a very thin translucent membrane before it breaks. This means the gluten in your dough is developed enough.
- With lightly oiled hands, shape the dough into a round by tucking the edges underneath, then transfer the dough into a lightly greased bowl. Cover and let rise for about an hour, or until doubled in size. Depending on how warm it is where you are, it could take a shorter (45 minutes) or longer (1 hour 30 minutes) time.
- Once the dough has doubled, punch down the dough and turn out on a lightly floured work surface. Knead it about two to three times to knock out any leftover air, then pat into a rectangular shape. Divide the dough into 10 portions, each about 62 grams each.
- Form each portion of dough into rounds by flattening the dough between your hands in a rolling motion. Tuck the edges underneath, going all around the dough until you form a ball with a smooth surface. Turn the dough over and pinch the seam to seal. Flip back so the smooth side is facing you, then gently shape the dough into a more perfect round shape between two cupped hands. Place onto a large baking sheet. (I staggered mine in a 9x13-inch baking sheet, though you may need a bigger one if you don't want the buns to stick to each other once baked.) Repeat with all the pieces of dough.
Assemble the pineapple buns
- Take out the chilled cookie crust dough. Divide into 10 pieces about 24 grams each, then roll into balls between your palms. Working one piece at a time, place a cookie crust round between two pieces of parchment paper. Press with your palm to flatten slightly, then roll out into a 4 or 5-inch flat disc. Use the parchment to rotate the dough as you move the rolling pin with your other hand.
- Peel off the top layer of parchment, and use the parchment underneath to move the crust over the bun dough in the baking sheet. Flip the paper and make sure to align the center of the crust disc to the center of the bun before you gently coax the crust to release from the paper. (If you make a mistake, it will be hard to re-align!) It's very delicate so be patient. Let it fall on its own over the bun, until most of the surface is covered. Lightly press the crust against the sides and bottom of the bun to adhere. Repeat process until you've draped the cookie crusts over all the buns.
- Take a toothpick and holding it diagonally, run it lightly against the crust in a crisscross pattern to create that distinctive pineapple bun design. Do not run all the way through the crust! Leave the dough to proof another 20 to 30 minutes until doubled. (This will be the only time you need for the second rise since they've already started proofing as you worked on the cookie crust.)
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 380°F (190°C).
- Once the buns have sufficiently risen, brush the dough with some egg wash, completely covering the entire crust, as well as any exposed dough. Bake the buns for 8 minutes, then turn oven down to 350°F (180°C) and bake for another 10 minutes, until crust is golden and set. Cool the buns on a cooling rack for a bit, then serve warm while crust still has a crisp to it. Some people like to slice the buns in half and spread or lay pieces of butter inside.
Make the milk tea while the buns are baking
- In a large pot, bring to a boil the water and tea leaves. Turn down the heat and simmer for another 15 minutes until the tea is thick and reduced. (It will reduce to about 4 ½ cups of tea.) Pour the tea into a spouted jug through a fine mesh strainer (or clean pair of stockings if you want to do it like they do at Hong Kong).
- Portion out the tea to a little over 2/3 of your serving glasses, then pour in about 1/4 cup of evaporated milk. Stir in 1 to 2 teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk until completely melted into the drink. You can adjust the amount of evaporated and condensed milk depending on your preference. The number of servings for the milk tea will depend on how big your glasses are as well. Serve milk tea hot with the warm pineapple buns and enjoy!
**You can make the roux the day before or on the same day but you have to wait for it to cool to room temp before using. I prefer making the roux the day before.
Pineapple buns adapted from Yi Reservation blog; Milk Tea from The Woks of Life blog
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