Last fall, I came down with a terrible case of pumpkin fever. It’s as rough on us cookbook writers as the flu is on the civilian population. The only way for us to fight through the disease is to buy half a case of pumpkin puree (or, in extreme cases, a cart full of pie pumpkins) and give in to our illicit, gourdy desires.
I made Pumpkin Chai Bread, Pumpkin Beer Bread (with both pumpkin beer and actual pumpkins), Pumpkin Granola, and an entire Thanksgiving meal in a steamed pumpkin bun. Finally, I created the one pumpkin recipe to rule them all: Asian Cowboy Fusion Bao. It’s an inside-out pumpkin pie that combines the best western flavors with the best eastern techniques for a recipe that would be a proud addition to any table on the inner planets. I didn’t know how badly the world needed this until I bit into the first one out of my steamer. All I can say now is, “You’re welcome.”
Inside Out Pumpkin Pie Bao
4 ½ – 5 cups flour
1 tbsp yeast
¾ cup warm water
¾ cup warm whole milk or full fat coconut milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garam masala (or pumpkin pie spice)
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp green food coloring.
½ cup gingersnap crumbs, toasted
½ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
To make your pumpkin pie bao, start by mixing the yeast and warm water. Let it work up a bubbly excitement about it’s impending fate. Come back in 10-15 minutes, when the yeast is a frothy mess.
Now add in everything but the flour. Once you have a dark orange soupy mass, fish out ½ cup of the liquid.
That ½ cup of liquid looks so lonely. Add your green food coloring and 1 ⅓ cups of flour. Quickly mix that into a rough dough. This will become your pumpkin stems.
Meanwhile, add the rest of your flour to your far more important mass of pumpkin dough. If you have a stand mixer, let it knead away for 6-8 minutes. While the stand mixer churns, knead your green dough by hand. If you don’t have a stand mixer, first knead your pumpkin colored dough for 8-10 minutes, cover it with a clean kitchen towel, then knead your small knob of green dough for another 6-8 minutes.
Once you’re done mucking about with the doughs, cover them both with a clean towel and let them rise for about an hour, or until they double in size.
While waiting on the doughs to rise, mix up your filling. The goal here is to create an inside-out pumpkin pie. The bao dough should be soft and creamy while the gingersnap filling should be crunchy, like a pie crust.
Spread your ground gingersnaps on a clean cookie sheet and toast them at 350F for 8-10 minutes. Don’t skip this step. You need the extra toasting to ensure your filling stays nice and crunchy instead of turning into a soggy mess.
After the cookie crumbs are toasted, mix them with the brown sugar, garam masala (or pumpkin pie spice), cinnamon, and salt.
Once the doughs are fully risen, mix the butter into the cookie crumbs. You want to wait until the last minute for this step.
Now grab a hearty golfball sized knob of pumpkin dough and roll it into a large, flat disc. In an ideal world, your edges will be thinner than the middle.
Add a heaping teaspoon of gingersnap mix to the middle.
Pinch in the edges then twist them closed so you seal all the gingersnap crumbs inside a nice sphere of pumpkiny dough.
Turn the sphere over so it’s facing seam-side down. Use a chopstick or bamboo barbecue skewer to deeply indent the sides so it looks like your nice round shape now has pumpkin-like ridges.
Roll a small piece of green dough into a stem. Place it on top of your pumpkin bao so the stem looks like it’s growing out of the center.
My rice cooker has a steamer basket. I filled it with water and let it come to a boil while my first batch of bao rose for half an hour. I put four bao in the steamer and let the water work its magic for the next 15 minutes while I continued to make more bao. Every 15 minutes, I removed steamed bao and replaced them with freshly risen pumpkin dough.
I ended up with 20 bao, which meant 5 total batches. Each one was magically delicious. Happy autumn, gourd-lovers.
To make these vegetarian bao entirely vegan, replace the dough’s whole milk with either almond or coconut milk. Also replace the butter in the filling with coconut oil and double the spices.
If you don’t have a steamer or you’re not a fan of the texture of steamed bread, then let your pumpkin buns rise for 30-40 minutes. Bake at 350F for 16-18 minutes, or until they’re golden brown. If you’re not vegan, then as soon as the buns come out of the oven, use a pastry brush to paint the exterior with a generous layer of salted butter. This adds both a handsome shine and a delicious extra richness of flavor.
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