A Cake With Sparklies | Char Siu Bao

char-siu-bao featured

A Cake With Sparklies | Char Siu Bao

If I were a baker, I’d be making cake – a fabulous multi-tiered work of red velvet art with enough cream cheese icing to frost the kitchen table.  But it didn’t occur to me until just a few days ago that my birthday was this weekend.  I was all set to celebrate my thirty-fifth year on Earth with nothing more than a fluffy char siu bao that I made on Monday when Norm informed me of my birthday “surprise”, which he needed to reveal because he didn’t know where the sparklies were.

I had a beautiful birthday-eve, and I plan to celebrate the real day with a turkey dinner prepared by my mom, movie date with Norm, and sparkly cake from Mari.  I’m inching closer toward middle-aged by the minute, but I’m not there yet, and if you ask me the mid-life years should be called the Wonder-FUL Years.

There are first days of school and birthday parties with monster slides in the backyard, finger art on the walls and living room plasma car races.  We’ve had our share of tantrums too and breakdowns and such.  But even those are worth treasuring, though I need to constantly remind myself of this.

Never again will the house be such a glorious mess, and never again in empty-nesthood can we bask in the blissful chaos that defines our mornings together.
There are new hobbies and the means to pursue them, new doors opened and some old ones closed, and a sense of knowing what’s important that has never before been so clear.

And then there are the birthday cakes with sparklies on it, flavored with the purest ingredients and intentions, which I would wrap up and freeze for the rest of my life if I could.

birthday cake

On other days, there is always char siu bao, which I promised I would make for you last week.  And I did!  And you know what?  It was so much easier than I thought it would be.  Time-consuming, but not difficult.  I suggest making an enormous batch, maybe even make a party out of it, like a cupcake decorating party.  Get all the girlfriends together and wrap cute little char siu bao, divide them into plastic bags, and freeze them for a lazy afternoon or a desperate four p.m. panic attack – I seem to be experiencing these a lot nowadays.  In any case, these are definitely worth the time it takes to make them.  And like cake with sparklies, they taste so much better when they’re homemade with love.


Char Siu Bao

For the filling:

  • 1/2 pound char siu (see recipe here)
  • 1 tablespoon char siu rub (reserved from making char siu)
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch

Dice the char siu meat and set aside.  Meanwhile, dissolve the char siu rub in the chicken broth and bring to a boil.

Mix the cornstarch with 4 tablespoons of water.  Slowly pour the cornstarch into the boiling broth while stirring constantly to avoid clumping.  Keep adding the cornstarch until the sauce thickens to the point where you can draw a line in it with your spoon before the sides run back in.

Mix the sauce with the char siu meat and set aside to cool.

For The Dough:

  • 2 pounds flour (best to weigh, but otherwise about 3 1/2  to 4 cups)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cups luke warm water (not too hot or it will kill the yeast)
  • Waxed paper cut into 3-inch squares (about 20 to 30 pieces)
  • Mix all the dry ingredients first, then add the oil and water.  Mix until a dough forms.
  • char siu bao dough
  • Knead the dough until it looks smooth as pictured above.  At this point, you can assess the dough to see if it’s too sticky to hold its shape or too dry (keeps cracking after kneading it) – adjust with more water of flour.  Divide the dough into quarters and stretch and roll until it becomes a long cylinder about 1 1/2 inches in diameter.  Take a small amount into your fist (a little larger than a golf ball) and in a quick motion, pull the dough off horizontally.  Do this with all the dough to achieve uniform sized char siu bao.

char siu bao dough form

Flatten the balls of dough with the palm of your hand, then using a small rolling pin, roll the edges of each circle so that the center is thicker than the sides.  Flatten until the dough is roughly the size of your palm.

Scoop about 2 tablespoons of filling (the more the better) into the center of the circle.  Hold the dough in one hand and use that same thumb to hold the filling down while cradling the dough.  Using the opposite hand, pinch the dough between your thumb and index finger, while turning the bao with your other hand, (pull, pinch, turn / pull, pinch, turn) until you work your way around the entire circle.  Pinch and twist the top firmly to seal completely.  If the bao is not sealed, it will open up during the steaming process.  Don’t worry if it’s not perfect, just make sure it’s sealed.

Place the finished bao on a piece of 3-inch square waxed paper.  If you are still learning and your bao doesn’t look very pretty, you can put it on the paper fold-side down.


Let the bao rest for about 30 minutes to allow the dough to rise a bit.  Put them in a steamer in a single layer.  Bring the water to a rapid boil and steam the char siu bao for 12 to 15 minutes.

Serve immediately or allow them to cool and then freeze for up to three months.

Note:  We make char siu bao in very large batches and freeze them in zip lock bags.  When you’re in need of a quick snack, take a few out and pop them in the steamer while still frozen.  Steam until the center is hot.

Yield: 25 to 30 buns

char-siu-bao cooked

I can always find comfort in my father-in-law frying something delicious in his wok, a masterpiece of welded parts that he fashioned himself like a Chinese MacGyver. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him pick up a measuring spoon or use a kitchen scale. He simply uses his hand as his scale and a rice bowl as his measuring cup.

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