The Splendid Table's Sally Swift talks with Molly Birnbaum from America's Test Kitchen to get some sweet advice on making perfect Pineapple Buns.

Sally Swift: Molly, I've noticed you've been doing some work on a very mysterious object called the pineapple bun. Can you tell us about it?

Molly Birnbaum: Sure. The first thing about pineapple buns to note, is that they do not contain pineapples, which kind of blew my mind when I first heard about them. But pineapple buns are these sweet buns that are very common in Chinatowns in the United States. They are this fluffy, slightly sweet roll, almost similar to a dinner roll, and they're covered in this crunchy, shattery, sweet topping. Traditionally, this topping kind of cracks and has craters in it and it looks kind of like a pineapple, hence the name “pineapple.”

Molly Birnbaum Molly Birnbaum

SS: It looks kind of like the skin of a pineapple.

MB: Exactly.

SS: And where are they from? What's their origin?

MB: They are originally from Hong Kong, which is where they are predominantly popular now. And there are different versions of them all over the place.

SS: It's funny because you know when you dig into Asian cookbooks, you don't find chapters on baking, but there certainly is a tradition there.

MB: There isn't a whole ton of information about it in cookbooks or in literature in terms of figuring out how to make them or the technique behind them and what exactly is happening there. So we had to go out and just eat a lot of them and test them for ourselves, which you know, was not a bad thing at all.

SS: So what's the key to that dough?

MB: This recipe was developed by our test cook, Tim Chin, who told us about them originally because he was traveling in Hong Kong a few years ago. He had a pineapple bun at this legendary dim sum restaurant there, and when he told me about it, he said that it looked like not a whole lot-- just a bun. But when he first bit into it, it was this crazy immediate shatter of the topping and then the fluffiest, most tender bun he had ever tried. He said that he almost cried when he ate this bun. That is when we knew we had to start testing it ourselves.

So we launched into the testing process that we do in America's Test Kitchen, which involved first going out and getting as many pineapple buns as we could find, tasting all of them, talking about what was good, what was not good, what we liked, what we didn't like. Then Tim started developing a recipe. The key to the recipe that we found is something called tangzhong, which is a hot water roux. That sounds very complicated but really is quite simple. You heat a portion of the flour in water for the dough before you add it to the rest of the ingredients. By heating the flour and water together, which we do in the microwave until the mixture hits about 150°F, you get the starch to gel and trap water. So when you mix that paste into the dough, you're adding a lot of water without making the dough slack and sticky.

SS: Almost sounds like a French technique.

MB: Exactly, used in a different way. And here it's super effective. It really gets these buns to stay super moist and fluffy.

Pineapple Buns Pineapple Buns

SS: So you essentially make a dough, and then you fill it. How do you get those fillings inside? Are you doing that before the buns are baked?

MB: There are actually a few steps. So you're making the dough; you roll it into little circle buns, which is really kind of a satisfying experience. The second part before the fillings is actually the topping. And traditionally to get that craggy, crackly, pineapple skin crust, you almost make it a sugar-cookie like dough. Roll it out, cut it out, place it on top of these buns. Then when you bake them, it turns into that crust. What we did for our recipe is something that was inspired by a bun called a Mexican Coffee Bun, in which it isn't a sugar-cookie like crust, but it is instead a piped topping. You can put it in a Ziploc bag and pipe it on top of each of these buns. Then what happens with that when you bake it is kind of magical; that piped-on topping melts. We created a video for this, and we actually filmed the buns melting through a glass door to an oven. It is the most satisfying thing to watch ever. It becomes this crackly, shattery, top. [Click to see Cook's Science's video demonstrating pinapple buns.]

SS: Sounds fabulous.

MB: We created two potential fillings for these buns. One is just a really simple, slightly sweet pastry cream. You pipe that into the bun after they are totally baked and cooled. The second is a Chinese barbecued pork, or char siu, and this is made separately. Then we created a different type of filling technique so you can get the barbecued pork right in there. It involves rolling the dough out a little bit and draping them over a muffin tin so that you can get each one perfectly filled.

SS: Can you make that dough in advance and keep them in the fridge?

MB: You can retard the rising by keeping it in the fridge overnight. You can also make the dough, roll it out, put it on sheets and freeze it up to a week.

SS: That's a great idea. And you could go rogue and stuff it with anything you want.

MB: Yes. I'd be very curious to hear what else people stuff it with.


America's Test Kitchen
The Splendid Table frequently visits with the test cooks at America’s Test Kitchen to discuss a wide range of topics including recipes, ingredients, techniques and kitchen equipment.