Mantou develop their distinctive fluffy softness through steaming instead of baking. This simple yeasted dough comes together easily and can be steamed plain as below or used as the base for fillings as well. Eat them on their own or as a side dish to take the place of steamed rice. In my family, we tear them open to slather with butter and sprinkle with pork floss for a savory breakfast or drizzle with sweetened condensed milk for a sweet treat.
From the story: You don’t even need an oven to make the simplest homemade bread
Make the sponge: Combine the yeast, ¼ cup flour, 1 tablespoon sugar and 2 tablespoons lukewarm water in a small bowl. Stir to form a uniform paste. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest in a warm place for 30 minutes. The mixture should be bubbly and puffed.
Combine the salt, remaining 1 ½ cups flour and 1 tablespoon sugar in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix well, then add the oil, sponge and ½ cup lukewarm water. Mix by hand or with the dough hook on medium-low speed until the mixture forms a mass. If mixing by hand, turn out onto a work surface and continue kneading until elastic and smooth, about 10 minutes. If mixing by machine, scrape the bowl and dough hook and continue mixing on low speed, about 8 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl. Form the dough into a smooth ball and roll it in the bowl to oil all sides. Turn it seam side down, cover the bowl with the kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Cut 12 4-inch squares of parchment paper. Scrape the dough onto a work surface. (It’s not sticky, so you don’t need to flour the surface.) Gently fold two sides of the dough to meet in the center, then gently roll into an even 12-inch log. If there’s still a seam at the bottom, pinch it shut and roll the log so it’s seam side down. Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, cut the dough into 12 even pieces, pressing straight down into the log. Place each piece on a parchment square, rounded top up.
Arrange in two large bamboo steamer baskets (or three small ones) or other flat-bottomed steamers, spacing 2 inches apart. Cover with the bamboo basket lid or the kitchen towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
Fill a steamer base (a wok or skillet that holds the steamer basket without gaps around the edges) with an inch of water. You don’t want the water to touch the steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a steady simmer. If using a non-bamboo steamer, wrap the kitchen towel around the lid, then cover. Arrange the stacked baskets or steamer over the simmering water.
Steam until the buns are puffed and cooked through, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let rest for 2 minutes to avoid burning yourself with steam, then uncover and serve hot.
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