Mashed sweet potatoes make a smooth and soft bread. The filling is even more interesting. Equal quantities of ground meat, potatoes and onions are spiced subtly with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Then, a little sweetness comes with adding nuggets of sugared winter melon. These buns are a special treat and a Eurasian speciality. You would be hard pressed to find a place that sells them. Only one place I know of sells them and it’s only sold on some Sundays and for a few hours. I like them enough that I wanted to be able to make them myself just in case they stop selling them altogether!

Off I went to the bookstore and got myself The Eurasian Cookbook by Mary Gomes. A wise purchase. Her recipes are simple enough to execute for anyone who cooks on a regular basis and a large portion of the recipes work as written. Some needs to be tweaked but mainly to suit one’s own taste. My first tray of Sweet Potato Buns, called ‘Pang Susie’, by the Eurasian community -a rather cute name for a bun, came out fine but I wanted them to taste like the ones I had been used to eating. Those had a touch of sweetness and a crunch which I knew came from the addition of sugared winter melon. I reworked the recipe by adding new ingredients and changed the proportions and method of putting it together.  So Mary Gomes’ recipe is a good starting point and I would recommend her book. After all, true Eurasian cooking can’t be enjoyed outside of a Eurasian family’s home so unless you can secure an invitation, the next best thing is to get yourself a reliable cookbook and try to replicate the cuisineAnother Eurasian specialty that my family and friends enjoy, is the Curry Debal also known as ‘Devil Curry’. If you have not had it before, it is not like curry as you know it. 

There is no coconut milk in it but a list of ingredients that you would be surprise can actually taste good in a curry! Roast chicken, roast belly pork, smoked sausages, Spam, cabbage, cucumbers in a rich and slightly sour gravy made up of browned onions, ginger and chillies, lots of it! Perhaps, that is how the dish got its name? So delicious, it’s a dish that I am often asked to cook.

Sweet Potato Buns With An Asian Sweet And Savoury Filling

Prep: 1 hour
Cook: ~ 20 minutes per tray
Inactive: First rise  ~ 30 – 60 minutes
Second rise ~ 30 minutes
Level: Difficult as it involves multiple steps
Makes: 26 buns 3″ (7.6cm) in diameter
Oven Temperature: 400F (200C)
Can recipe be doubled? Yes
Make ahead? Keeps a week refrigerated in air-tight container

Ingredients

The dough
Dry ingredients
~3 and 1/3 cups (15.87oz) (450g) bread flour
3.52oz (100g) sugar
2 and 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt only if using unsalted butter
Wet ingredients
1.25 lbs (565 g) sweet potatoes to get 2 and 1/4 cups (~ 275g) of loosely packed cooked mashed sweet potatoes
OR
2 and 1/4 cup unsweetened canned sweet potatoes*
5.29oz (150g) softened unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
2 Tablespoons brandy/cream sherry/sweet sherry/port
1/4 cup evaporated milk AND 1/2 cup + 3 Tablespoons water
OR
3 Tablespoons instant milk powder AND 1 cup water
OR
1/2 cup milk AND 1/4 cup + 3 Tablespoons water
The filling
8.81oz (250g) potatoes**
8.81oz (250g) onions
8.81oz (250g) ground pork
3.17oz (90g) diced up sugared winter melon strips*** + 1/4 cup (~1.05oz)(~30g) diced up winter melon strips (1/4 cup is optional)
1.05oz (30g)
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons neutral tasting oil
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
For brushing buns
~ 1 egg white
* Canned ones might be either more or less liquid compared to freshly steamed sweet potatoes. Adjust the amount of water to get the right consistency for the dough. Detailed instructions under ‘Method’.
** Use a starchy potato such as Russet, Idaho, King Edward or an all-purpose potato such as Yukon Gold or Desiree. I do not use waxy potatoes (usually potatoes with a thinner skin), such as Nadine, Charlotte or Fingerling potatoes as I want to be able to mash them slightly so the filling will hold together.
*** Buy the sugared winter melon strips from Asian grocery stores from the dried goods section (not candy/sweets aisle). Winter melon is a vegetable and not a fruit. It is cut into strips, boiled, drained, coated in soft sugar and then dried. The process gives these strips a nice crust of soft sugar crystals. It can be eaten on its own but more often than not it is used for sweetening. For suggestions to use up any remaining sugared winter melon strips, scroll down to ‘Tips’. 

Ingredients for the filling.
Sugared Winter Melon Strips

Method

Cook the sweet potatoes
Boil, steam or microwave the sweet potatoes whole and with their peels left on until cooked through.

To boil
1. I would rather not boil sweet potatoes as it might absorb too much liquid. Really depends on the variety you buy. If you do have to boil sweet potatoes, once it is cooked, drain off excess water in a colander. Insert a skewer through the potatoes. If it goes through easily, it is cooked.

To steam
1. Choose a pot that will fit a trivet or a heat-proof inverted saucer/cereal bowl. In it, sit a heat-proof bowl.
2. Place the sweet potatoes on them.
3. Fill the pot with cold water to just cover the trivet or to almost reach the top of the heat-proof inverted saucer/cereal bowl. Bring the water up to a boil and lower the heat to medium and cook the sweet potatoes through. Insert a skewer through the potatoes. If it goes through easily, it is cooked.

To microwave
1. Place the sweet potatoes onto a microwavable safe dish. Place a bowl of water in the centre of the dish. The steam will prevent the potatoes from drying out.
2. I microwave the potatoes on high for 4+4+4 minutes (rotating the dish and turning the potatoes every 4 minutes). How long your potatoes take to cook depends on how large they are. Insert a skewer through the potato. If it goes through easily, it is cooked.

1. When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the peel and press the sweet potatoes through a potato ricer. If you do not have one, use a potato masher or a fork to get a soft mash.

Putting the dough together
It’s much easier to put this dough together with a heavy duty mixer. If not, you will have to use muscle strength.

With a machine
1. Add all the ingredients into the mixer bowl but hold back 2 Tablespoons of water if you are using canned sweet potatoes as canned sweet potatoes could be overly liquid.
2. Start the machine on low and work it up to medium-high speed. Let the machine run for 5 to minutes.
3. If the dough appears too dry, add 1 Tablespoonful of the 2 Tablespoons water. Add the remaining 1 Tablespoon water and more if necessary to ensure the dough is not dry. It should be just very lightly sticky but not at all dry. Add more water if necessary.
4. If the dough is too wet, add more flour 1 Tablespoon at a time, leaving the machine to knead for at least 2 – 3 minutes before adding more flour if necessary.
5. A point to note: As this is a buttery dough, the dough would feel and appear moist enough. If you had used fresh sweet potatoes, and are not quite sure if the dough needs more water, I would go ahead and add 1 – 2 Tablespoons of water. If the water does not get worked into the dough after 1 -2 minutes of machine kneading, then the solution is to simply add 1 – 2 Tablespoons flour. I would rather add more water (remember just add flour to rectify) than to not have added enough as it could mean the difference between dry or moist buns.
6. It takes my KitchenAid, about 10 minutes to get the dough smooth and elastic and to reach the ‘window pane’ stage. Refer to details and image below.

By hand
1. Instructions are the same as above but add the wet to the dry ingredients and knead away. I would say you need about 10 – 15 minutes of kneading for the dough to be smooth and elastic and to reach the ‘window pane’ stage.

‘Window pane’ stage
1. If you can stretch your dough easily without it easily tearing and you can see the ‘window pane’, the gluten in your dough has developed enough.

Divide dough into balls
1. Roll into ~1.23 oz (~46g) balls, ~ 1.25″ (3.17cm) in diameter.

2. Cover with plastic wrap or kitchen towel and let it rest and rise until it is almost double in size.

The filling

Preparing the sugared winter melon strips
1. Dice the sugared winter melon strips into slightly larger than 1/8″ (0.31cm) pieces. Refer to image above under ‘Ingredients’.
2. The larger quantity of sugared winter melon ~3.17oz (~90g) will be mixed directly into the filling.
3. If you want the filling sweeter, (like me), you will need to use the optional 1/4 cup (~1.05oz)(~30g) of diced sugared winter melon. You will be separately inserting 2 pieces of diced sugared winter melon per bun. Count the number of dough balls that you have. I had 26 buns, so I set aside 2 X 26 = 52 pieces.

Preparing the remaining ingredients
1. Dice the onions finely.
2. Peel the potatoes and cook them whole in salted water until just cooked. Drain off water and when cool enough to handle, cut potatoes into cubes. Set aside.
3. Mix the dry seasonings: nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves sugar and 1/4 teaspoons salt together. Set aside.
4. Mix the wet seasonings: dark soy sauce and fish sauce together. Set aside.

Cooking the filling
1. Heat up the 2 Tablespoons oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.
2. Add the onions and fry until edges are lightly brown.
3. Add the pork stir fry 1 minute breaking up any lumps.
4. Add the dry seasonings, stir fry for 2 minutes and then mix in the potatoes.
5. Stir in the wet seasonings. Mix well for ~3 minutes. Some of the potatoes need to be slightly mashed up, you do not want most of them in cubes. Use the back of your spatula to help mash it up slightly, remembering to leave some potatoes in cubes. Mashing the potatoes up slightly will help the filling to hold better together and gives a good textural contrast.

6. Adjust seasoning for salt at this stage.
7. Turn off the burner. Stir in the diced sugared winter melon and remove the pan from the heat source. Taste and adjust seasonings if required. It should taste just a little over spiced but sufficiently salty with a tinge of sweet.Transfer to a plate and cool completely.

Assembling
1. Divide the filling into as many portions as the number of balls of dough you have ready for filling. Since, I had 26 balls of dough, I divided the filling into 26. Each weighed ~0.84oz (~24g).

2. If you are aiming for a sweeter filling, now is the time to place the extra 2 cubes of sugared winter melon on each filling as shown in the image above.

Putting filling into dough balls
1. Work on one dough ball at a time, keeping the rest of the dough covered to prevent them from drying out.
2. Here’s how I fill, seal and shape the dough into round buns.

Shaping into a smooth ball
1. With one of your palm facing downwards towards the work surface, loosely cup/cover the dough ball.  Your fingers will be extended forward and downward at a 45° angle. The tips of your fingers will be barely touching the work surface.
2. Move that palm clockwise in circles. You should feel the dough ball gently knocking against the insides of your fingers and palm. This action will neaten up the base of the dough ball and make the dough ball just a little rounder. This should take 10 seconds. If you work too long on it, the top of the dough might start to thin out and tear. So don’t get carried away.
3. Check on the bottom and pinch any open bits shut. Leave it to rise (covered) on your baking tray for ~ 20 minutes until almost 1.5X the size.
4. Remember to preheat the oven to 400F (200C), oven rack adjusted to one rung below the centre.

Just before baking
1. Only when the oven is hot enough and you are ready to bake do you brush the risen dough with the egg white.

Bake
1. These take ~ 20 minutes to bake in my oven. However, check on them at 15 minutes and rotate the baking tray if necessary to encourage even browning.
2. When tops and bottoms of buns are a dark golden brown (refer to feature image), remove from oven, transfer the buns directly on cooling rack. Cool completely before eating. They will be hot, hot, hot on the inside!

Tips

What to do with any remaining sugared winter melon strips?
(1) These are thoroughly enjoyable eaten as a dried fruit snack except that they are generously sugared.
(2) Dice them and use in your bowl of cereal to replace the dried fruit you would otherwise have used.
(3) Make yourself a cup of hot Ginger Tea sweetened with a few sugared winter melon. It goes very well with these Sweet Potato Buns.

WHAT’S COMING  UP NEXT?

That’s bulgar wheat cooked in chicken stock then simply mixed with chopped coriander, spring onions and butter. Store bought rotisserie chicken is folded in. Served on a bed of mesclun. Tasty and easy.

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