They say "third time's the charm" and "practice makes perfect", but nobody ever mentions the 10 oz of duck fat consumed along the way...
I bought a tub for the purpose of developing this recipe, naively thinking that Round 1 would result in a Bun to End All Buns and that I would be left sautéing and searing with the leftover fat for the next few weeks. But as is the case with most of my experiments, the first couple attempts fell just shy of the end goal. What I was looking for: crisp sheet of crust flaking away to reveal airy layers, flavored with the traditional Chinese duo of subtly pungent scallions and toasted sesame seeds... plus just enough duck fat to add a dimension of rich umami. Well, I got there in the end!
My first two trials were good-not-great, hovering in the awkward limbo phase between satisfactory and addicting. At this point, I started to realize how wasteful recipe development can be. I wasn't ready to serve these to my friends as a finished product, but there was no way I would be able to eat a batch - let alone two - solo! The solution to this waste was proposed to me by an Uber driver. He told me about Food Runner, a fantastic group that picks up leftovers from restaurants in San Francisco and distributes them to homeless shelters. While my contributions weren't large enough to warrant pickup, I was able to drop them off to various locations in the city.
It was mildly interesting to me that during this particular Uber ride, the sharing economy ultimately redistributed excess in multiple areas. More importantly, though, I'm excited to be able to guiltlessly tweak and retry recipes!
But I digress - back to the buns. The tricks that made trial 3 work super well were as follows:
- Bread flour holds layers better than all-purpose; its higher protein content promotes more gluten formation.
- Neutral oil in the dough, and some sesame oil in the roux, helps to balance the richness of the duck fat flavor.
- Oiling the board rather than flouring it ensures that you can roll the dough into a very thin sheet - bread flour dough does spring back pretty quickly given its high protein content / strong gluten network, so it's more difficult to handle.
- A duck fat roux, instead of duck fat alone, is used to separate the layers. This prevents the fat from seeping into the dough when rolling and baking. (In a croissant recipe, the fat seepage is prevented by chilling the butter/dough between every fold, but that takes a lot of effort and time). The inspiration for the roux came from Serious Eats' great article on how to achieve a perfect pie crust - Kenji argues that flour-fat paste is the true layer-separator, rather than clumps of fat alone.
- After Roll #1, the individual buns are flattened gently and folded into half, doubling the layers and making the interior more visually interesting.
- Honey in the egg wash adds some extra caramelization to the crust, giving it a nice brown color.
I love unraveling these and dunking each strip in a vinegar-soy sauce blend. That is, after I've downed a few as quickly as I can to quell my initial cravings. These are not patient buns - irresistibly fragrant even when cold, they demand consumption, immediately.
Duck Fat Scallion Layer Buns Recipe (makes 8)
- 1/2 tbsp yeast
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 cup of water warm to the touch (~100-110 degrees F)
- 1 1/2 cups of bread flour
- 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp of neutral oil
- Pinch of salt
Ingredients: Duck fat roux
- 3 tbsp duck fat
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 3 tbsp flour
- 3 scallions (approx 3/4 cup), chopped finely
- 1 egg
- 2 tsp honey or sugar
- Pinch of salt
- Sesame seeds
Mix together the yeast, sugar, and warm water and let stand until foamy, approximately 5-10 minutes. Combine the bread flour and all-purpose flour into a large bowl. Once the yeast has proofed, pour the water-sugar-yeast mixture into the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon until a sticky dough forms. This should take a few minutes.
At this point, lightly oil and flour a board and your hands and turn the dough out onto the surface. Knead for 10 minutes, adding minimal flour (1-2 tbsp should be sufficient) and scraping the board periodically to catch all of the dough. When the dough begins to hold together and starts becoming smooth rather than tacky, add the 1 tbsp of neutral oil and knead to incorporate. [Adding oil slows gluten formation, which is why I mix it in later in the process.] Form the dough into a smooth ball.
Lightly oil a bowl and roll the dough ball so that it is covered in a thin layer. Let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, prepare the roux: mix together duck fat and sesame oil, and microwave until the fat has melted. Mix in the flour. The roux should still be a fairly thick liquid, and not a paste.
After the dough has completed its rise, punch it down and to remove all air bubbles, and divide into two equal pieces.
Sparingly oil your work surface and roll one dough half into a rectangle of 1/8th inch thickness. Oil, rather than flour, will help you roll a thin layer without the dough sticking to the board and tearing during handling. Spread ~1/3rd of the roux onto the dough sheet, making sure to cover fully including the ends. Sprinkle half the chopped scallions over the dough.
Create the layers: Starting from one side, roll the dough sheet along the long edge (to maximize layers) into a tight scroll. Cut the scroll into fourths.
Double the layers: With each small dough piece, pinch the ends closed so the scallions don't fall out. Gently roll the dough piece out to 1.5-2x original length and lightly brush the top with some roux. Fold the dough in half and pinch seams closed. (This is optional, but will add a few more layers).
Shaping: Shape into a smooth ball by tucking the edges and seams underneath, cupping the dough in your hand to maintain a sphere shape. Flatten gently with the palm of your hand and set onto a parchment paper-lined baking tray.
Repeat process with remaining dough half.
Beat egg, salt, and sugar together to make egg wash, and brush the tops of each dough round generously. Sprinkle on sesame seeds.
Preheat oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 22-25 minutes or until tops are golden brown and spring back when touched.