At Smallwares, chef Johanna Ware's Portland, Oregon, shrine to quirky Asian-inspired small plates, brunch revolves around fried kale flecked with candied bacon, horseradish buttermilk-smoked potatoes and Turkish eggs dressed with tahini yogurt and chorizo butter. But try to tear yourself away from all of that and direct your attention to one of Ware's best brunch dishes: a pillowy breakfast bao.
Surrounded with sausage gravy, topped with a fried egg and accompanied by a smear of vibrant green scallion paste, Ware's breakfast bao is a soft, silken respite from everyday egg sandwiches. The homemade bao is inspired by steamed barbecued pork buns, the classic dim sum staple Ware can't get enough of (she's also been known to top bao bread with oxtail curry and Chinese sausage during the restaurant's happy hour).
"I approached brunch with the idea of doing things you wouldn't find on a typical menu. It's just fun to pull from different cuisines around the world," Ware explains. "I was trying to think of an alternative to biscuits and gravy when I came up with this recipe." And, she teases, "we've been toying with the idea of doing a jelly-filled bao, like a doughnut, so maybe that'll be next."
Recipe adapted from Johanna Ware, Smallwares, Portland, OR
Yield: 12 to 14 buns
Prep Time: 30 minutes, plus cooling time
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 50 minutes, plus cooling time
For the Bao:
1 pound ground pork
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
¾ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons black vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1¼ teaspoons cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon water
For the gravy:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon shaoxing
1¼ cups milk, warmed
⅓ cup chicken stock
1½ teaspoons togarashi
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 medium scallion, thinly sliced
1. Make the bao: Portion the bao dough by pinching it into 12 portions. Cover with a damp paper towel and set aside.
2. In a large skillet over medium heat, brown the pork while using a wooden spoon to break it into small clumps, 7 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium low, then add the garlic, fennel seeds, maple syrup, black vinegar, soy sauce and cayenne pepper. Season with salt and pepper and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the cornstarch and water together to make a slurry. Bring the pork to a simmer and pour in the slurry. Once the sauce has thickened, after about 2 to 3 minutes, remove from the heat and set aside to cool completely.
4. Flatten each ball into a disk with a 3-inch diameter. Once the filling has cooled, place 1 tablespoon of the filling in the center of each dough.
5. Gather the sides of the dough up around the filling and slightly twist the dough together to close it into a bun. Transfer the bun to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining doughs and filling. Cover with a damp kitchen towel to keep the bao from drying out.
6. Fill a wok or skillet with 1 to 2 inches of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Line a steam basket with a circle of parchment paper. Place the buns 1 to 2 inches away from one another, as they will expand as they cook. Working in 2 batches, steam the buns until they have expanded, 7 to 9 minutes.
7. Meanwhile, make the gravy: In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. When the butter begin to foam, whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the shaoxing, then whisk in the warm milk slowly until the gravy has thickened, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, togarashi and soy sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and keep warm.
8. To serve, place the steamed bao on a plate and ladle the gravy over the bao. Top with the fried eggs and scallions.