Chinese steamed custard buns also called Nai Wong Bao are deliciously sweet dessert. A popular Asian treat found at Dim Sum restaurants, but I’m going to show you how to make these right at home!
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my family and I would have dim sum at least once a week at our favorite Chinatown teahouse. It was exciting to see the servers push shiny silver steam carts filled with goodies around to each table. The pushcarts are loaded with different types of a la carte items like steamed dumplings, rice noodles with seafood or meat, chicken feet, sticky rice, and sweets.
I don’t speak Cantonese fluently, but I began to learn quickly how to order my favorite foods at Chinese restaurants. Even to this day, I anticipate the steam cart that brings my favorite dim sum treat; Nai Wong Bao or steamed custard buns! This is my absolute favorite comfort food, and I am delighted to share this bun recipe with you.
How to Make Steamed Custard Buns
To make homemade custard steamed buns is a labor of love, but well worth the time and effort! I recommend making the dough in the morning so that you can enjoy dessert after dinner.
The dough is made with yeast, so time is needed to allow for the fermentation process or “proof” several times at various preparation stages. When the dough has completed the fermentation steps, it’s ready for shaping into buns!
This method is called, “dough breaking,” you use your hand to separate each piece instead of a knife because it will be easier to shape back into round dough balls.
Once each piece of dough is separated, they’re rolled into balls, flattened, and rolled out to be large enough for adding the delicious custard filling. You can also make these buns into sliders by adding your own favorite fillings after you slice them!
A generous tablespoon of custard filling is placed in the center of each dough round. The custard should be scoopable (not runny) and hold shape so that it is easier to handle the bun once filled.
With the filling added, begin to pleat the edges of the bun, slightly stretching the corners of the dough to meet another side and pinch them together. As you fold the dough with your right hand, you are simultaneously twisting the buns with the left hand, resulting in a tightly encased ball.
The seam of the custard-filled bun is placed on the bottom, so the surface is nice and smooth when steaming. You can also keep the beautiful twisted seam side up when cooking for a similar look as my char siu bao recipe, a savory bun made with pork filling.
Whenever we would go to the tea house for dim sum, I would always tell whoever was closest to the server to ask if they had “the custard buns.” I knew they were the right ones when they arrived with a small red dot in the center of the pastry.
For authenticity and to bring back childhood memories I used food coloring and a small round stamp to create the red dot on the custard buns after they were steamed.
These heavenly pastries are so delicious that I always have to bring a pink box filled with more Nai Wong Bao home when I visit Chinese bakeries. When I make these buns at home, I can tell you that they don’t last very long!
This Chinese steamed custard bun recipe turns out soft, tender, and just the right amount of sweetness. Your sweet tooth will be undeniably satisfied after eating this soul-satisfying treat!
More Chinese recipes
The importance of yeast
Steamed custard buns are made with yeast dough. Fermentation of sugar in the dough by the yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae helps the dough to rise. Yeast can be killed at temperatures above 138°F (43°C), so make sure not to add water or milk hotter than directed during fermentation. This a long process, however, the result is worth the wait!
Chinese Steamed Custard Buns
- 1 ½ cups (360 ml) whole milk
- ½ cup (120 ml) heavy cream
- ½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
- 5 large egg yolks
- ¼ cup (38 g) cornstarch
- ¼ cup (57 g) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
- 1 ½ teaspoon (8 ml) pure vanilla extract
Steamed Bun Dough
- ½ cup (111 g) granulated sugar, divided
- ¼ cup water, warm
- 2 ¼ teaspoons (8 g) active dry yeast
- 4 cups (568 g) all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons (21 g) vegetable shortening
- 1 cup (240 ml) whole milk, warm (100 to 110°F / 38 to 43°C)
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon (17 g) baking powder
- 4 ½ teaspoons (23 ml) water, cold
- Add the milk and cream in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk in 1⁄4 cup sugar until dissolved and then turn off the heat.
- In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 1⁄4 cup sugar until smooth.
- Add the cornstarch to the egg mixture and whisk until incorporated.
- Remove the simmering milk mixture from the heat. Measure a 1⁄4 cup, then gradually add it to the egg mixture, whisking constantly to temper. Gradually add the tempered egg mixture to the remaining milk mixture, whisking constantly.
- Place the saucepan on the stove, heat over medium-high heat. Whisk constantly until the mixture slightly thickens, 3 minutes.
- Turn off the heat and remove the saucepan from the stove. Whisk in the cold butter and vanilla until incorporated.
- Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled and set, at least 2 hours. The custard can be made a day in advance.
- Dissolve sugar in warm water (100 to 110°F / 38 to 43°C), sprinkle yeast over. Let stand 2-3 minutes and then stir to mix well. Let set until it starts to foam, 10 minutes.
- Sift flour and make a well in the center. Whisk together the shortening, sugar, yeast mixture, and milk. The fat will not completely dissolve into the liquid.
- In a large mixing bowl combine liquid mixture with the flour. Gradually incorporate the liquid into the flour to make the dough.
- Knead the dough for 10 minutes, sprinkling with flour as necessary.
- Use the oil to grease the outside of the dough; cover and let rest in warm area 1 ½ hours or until double in size.
- Punch dough down and flatten out to about ¾ inch thick.
- In a small bowl mix together the baking powder and cold water. Spread the baking powder mixture evenly on the dough (this acts as a stabilizer).
- Roll dough up and knead about 10 minutes or until smooth. The dough should be firmer than regular white bread dough.
- Cover and let rest 30 minutes.
- Divide the dough into four equal parts. Roll one part by hand to form a rope approximately 9 inches long and 1 ¼ inch in diameter.
- Mark into 6 equal parts, 1 ½ inch long.
- Holding the dough with one hand, grip at the first mark with the thumb and index finger of the other hand and tear away to break off a small dough piece. Continue breaking until you have 24 pieces.
- Flatten each piece of dough with your palm.
- Using a rolling pin, roll each into a round disk, making quarter turn with each roll.
- Roll to leave the center thick; thinner edges are easier to pleat.
- Place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of each dough round, flat side up.
- Gather the edges by first pleating counterclockwise, and then twisting to seal securely. Place the bun round-side up on a square piece of parchment paper (2.5 X 2.5 inches).
- Let buns rest, covered for at least 30 minutes.
- Add enough water to a pot, about 1 inch in depth. The water should not be touching the bottom of the steamer insert. Cover the pot and bring to a boil.
- If a flat lid is used to cover the steamer, wrap the lid in a kitchen towel to prevent condensed steam from dripping on the buns.
- Add the first batch of buns in the steamer. Cover and steam on medium-high heat for 5 to 6 minutes. Do not uncover during the cooking process.
- Turn off the steam before opening the lid, remove buns with tongs and then add the next batch. Repeat the steaming process until all of the buns are cooked.
- Dough recipe adapted from International Cuisine, (Unbranded)
- Buns can be refrigerated in a resealable plastic bag for up to 3 days. Reheat the buns in the microwave until softened, 15 to 20 seconds.