Japan is brimming with cherry blossoms this time of year. Just this past week, my great friend Danielle from This Picture Book Life got a glimpse of the blooming beauties, up close and personal, on her visit to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. Me, jealous? You got that right!Every spring, Japan’s meteorological agency tracks the blooming of cherry blossoms across Japan. This geographical mapping helps for people to plan for hanami, otherwise known as picnicking under cherry blossom trees…sounds splendid, doesn’t it? My only hope (at least for this year) is to sit back with a cup of sakura tea in my living room…because darn it, if I can’t enjoy springtime in Japan then at least springtime in Japan can come to me!Brewing sakura tea or sakura-yu is an exquisite experience. The pickled blossoms unravel into delicate, feathery, tutu-like blooms upon being hit with hot water. The diaphanous petals give way to a salty, floral sip that’s certainly not your everyday herbal brew. If you’ve ever had sakura tea before and found it too salty, do what my tea blogger friend Nicole from Tea for Me Please suggests and keep a spoon and bowl of the saltier first steep (used to rinse the blossoms) around. You’ll be able to easily adjust the strength of the tea to your liking.
Soft, fluffy, sweet, and classically Asian. There’s no other way to describe red bean buns. Where Americans have chocolate chip cookies, the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans have their red bean buns. Whether it’s someone’s birthday or time for an afternoon snack, in Asian food culture red bean buns are always a welcome treat.
Maybe it’s the American in me, but I don’t find red bean buns nearly as appealing as chocolate chip cookies. After all, they’re made with–of all things–beans! Everything changed this past week when I did some tweaking on my recipe for savory steamed buns. Inspired by spring, I sought out to make an Easter bunny-themed variation, with the perfect mild sweetness and tender texture. The results are some seriously yummy buns that can easily steal the spotlight from those chocolate chip cookies.
Azuki buns are so popular that you’ll often find them ready-made in the freezer or fridge section in Asian markets. The tell-tale sign of a mediocre (or bad) azuki bun is that it’s chokingly dry and dense. And a good one? Tender and slightly chewy with just the right amount of filling.
I based this recipe on the dough used for my Steamed BBQ Pork Buns and Chinese Fold-Over Buns, with a few changes. Instead of using Hong Kong flour, which is harder to find, I use regular all-purpose flour here. I also swap out the powdered sugar for superfine sugar, which creates a chewier, slightly heavier dough that steams up with a perfectly thin skin and smooth surface.
Decorated with a pair of bunny ears and a nubby nose made from soft candies, the humble buns are instantly transformed into wagashi-like Easter treats. You can also just scatter some sesame seeds in the center of each rounded bun before steaming. The buns will look elegant and easy, ideal for no-nonsense adults who aren’t in to adorably chubby bunnies. Enjoy these with Japanese green teas like a pale jade gyokuo, a toasty genmaicha, or a delicate sencha like Palais des Thés Tawaramine Shincha. Any tea that’s light, grassy, and fresh on the palette is ideal with the classic Asian flavor and look of these buns. Some may say that these Azuki Bunny Buns are too cute to eat, but as you can see I clearly don’t agree!Azuki Bunny Buns
Makes 10 buns.
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1 tsp SAF instant yeast
1 tsp baking powder
1 Tbsp non-fat dry milk powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil
6 Tbsp lukewarm water + 1-2 tsp water more (if needed)
1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp sweetened smooth red bean paste (koshian)
black sesame seeds, for bunny eyes
soft, pink chewy candies, for bunny ears and noses (I used Hi-Chews)
non-stick spray or oil, for coating proofing bowl
stand mixer with dough hook attachment
large bamboo steamer
wok with slightly larger diameter than steamer OR a stockpot with exactly the same diameter as the steamer
parchment paper, cut into 2 1/2″ squares
small cupcake liners (optional)
Japanese bento grass (optional)
1.) Place all dry dough ingredients into the bowl of a large stand mixer. Start the mixer on low, then gradually add the water and oil. About 3 minutes in, the shaggy dough should come together to form a ball. If it does not, add 1-2 tsp of water until the dough comes together. Let the dough continue to mix on low for 10 minutes, until you get a soft and supple ball of dough.
2.) Lightly spray a large bowl with non-stick spray, coating the top surface of the dough with some of the same oil. Place the dough ball in the large bowl, then cover it with plastic wrap and place it in a draft free place to rise until almost doubled in volume.
3.) After the first rise, take the dough out onto a work surface. Give the dough a few light kneadings, then portion it out into 10 equal pieces using a chef’s knife. Shape each dough piece into a ball, then flatten each ball into a disk about 3 1/2″ in diameter and fill it with 1 Tbsp of red bean paste. Gather the edges of the flattened dough disk, pinching them together to seal. Flip the filled dough ball over, then roll it into a slightly oval circle. Place this shaped bun on a small square of parchment paper.
4.) Attach the eyes of the bunnies with the slightly wetted tip of a toothpick. Place the bun into the bamboo steamer. Shape a total of 10 buns, placing them at least 1″ apart in the steamer. Cover the steamer and let the buns rise for about 15 minutes, until just slightly puffy. Meanwhile, boil some water in a wok or stockpot so that the water is at least 2″ deep in the pot. 5.) Steam the buns for 12 minutes over water at a full boil. After the buns have finished steaming, let them cool before decorating them with soft, pink candies (I used Strawberry Hi-Chews, but you could use any soft pink candy). Cut a candy crosswise, in 1/4″ thick pieces. Shape the pieces (see below) into elongated bunny ears. Use the center pink part of the candies to make tiny balls to make the bunny noses. Attach the candies to the surface of the cooled, steamed buns using light dabs of water. Decorate these buns just before serving as the attached candies get soft and sticky after being adhered to the buns. Place the buns on cupcake liners decorated with bento grass for a festive Easter finish.