These cute steamed snowman buns are made with an easy and fluffy Chinese mantou dough and an optional custard filling. They are vegan-friendly, dairy-free and the perfect snack for the holidays!
Ingredients you'll need
The full list of ingredient quantities and instructions are in the gray recipe card at the bottom of this post.
Notes about the ingredients
All-purpose plain flour. Or for more traditional, softer and whiter buns, you can use bao flour bought from a Chinese grocery store.
Instant yeast is the easiest yeast to use. I also added baking powder so the steamed buns are extra fluffy!
Sugar helps feed the yeast (which makes the buns rise), and to sweeten the custard filling. Traditionally, mantou buns are a little sweet.
Custard powder if you're making the filling. A few mainstream brands are accidentally vegan as they don't contain milk or egg powder (for example, Bird's and Foster Clarks). Alternatively, you can a mixture of cornstarch/corn flour and a few other ingredients, although it won't taste the same (see the recipe notes).
Dairy-free milk. I prefer using soy milk as it adds richness to the bread and custard. We're using cold or room-temperature milk so the bread doesn't rise too quickly.
Food dye (natural or artificial) to decorate the cute snowman buns. I also used charcoal powder for the eyes and buttons.
Optional: Making the custard filling
First, I recommend combining the dry ingredients with part of the milk, to prevent the mixture from getting lumpy. Then you can add the rest of the milk! It also helps to use a non-stick pan as the custard filling can stick to the saucepan.
While mixing frequently, cook the custard over medium-low heat, until it has thickened into a paste-like consistency. For a softer custard, you can add a dash of milk (however, don't add too much as it'll be harder to assemble the buns). Finally, let the mixture cool in the fridge or freezer.
Making the mantou dough
You can knead the dough using a stand mixer (recommended) or by hand on a floured surface. Initially, the dough will be a little shaggy, but just keep kneading until it's smooth and silky.
For soft cake-like buns, knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball. The dough should be slightly tacky but shouldn't stick to the side of your bowl or work surface.
For slightly chewier buns, knead the dough until it reaches the windowpane stage. This is where you can stretch a piece of dough and it doesn't break. You should also be able to see gluten membranes in the dough, just like the examples in King Arthur Baking's post.
How to shape steamed custard buns
You can shape your snowman decorations and buns without resting the dough!
First, I recommend making the decorations for your snowman buns. I made a candy cane scarf and a few small balls for the eyes, nose and buttons.
There are a few ways to shape plain mantou buns. I prefer to roll out the dough into a circle and fold the edges into the middle until the underneath is smooth and taut. Simply Recipes shows a step-by-step guide for shaping bread rolls.
If you're making custard buns, roll each piece of dough into a ball (like above) then flatten it into a rough circle. Place the custard ball in the middle and fold the edges into the center. Another method is to wrap the dough around the ball as seen in this YouTube video.
Finally, for super smooth steamed buns, roll out any 'wrinkles' in the dough by rotating the balls in between your hands and/or work surface. It can take a little practice to get super smooth buns, but just do what you can!
Assembling the snowman buns
I recommend putting together the snowman buns on little pieces of parchment paper as it makes them easier to transfer to your steamer!
Here are my top tips for decorating the cute snowman buns:
- If it's a hot day, decorate one snowman at a time and keep the rest in your fridge.
- Use water as 'glue' if you need to stick a decoration on your snowman buns.
- If your eyes, noses and buttons don't stay in place, use a toothpick or sharp object to indent your snowmen. If your little coloured balls are still falling out, add a little water to the indents.
- The buns will expand when they rest and are steamed, so keep this in mind when placing the decorations. The snowmen's eyes, nose and buttons will space out!
Tips for steaming the buns
To steam the buns, I used a wok, bamboo steamer and a curved wok lid.
The most important thing for steaming the snowman buns is to make sure they aren't exposed to sudden temperature changes. So, we're starting with cold water, steaming the buns, then letting the buns rest in the steamer for at least 5 minutes.
Also, the mantou or steamed custard buns grow in size by around ½ inch (1.5cm each) on all sides so make sure you space them apart! The picture below shows the buns before steaming.
Pro tips for making really smooth buns
While this recipe is easy to make, the trickiest thing is to make steamed buns that are as smooth as the ones from yum cha. I tested these steamed buns around 7 times and this is what I recommend:
- Make sure you knead any air bubbles out of your dough, the first time you knead the dough and when you're shaping each bun.
- If your kitchen is hot, keep the dough in the fridge. Overproofed dough will make bubbly steamed buns.
- Shape each bun so its surface is smooth. It sounds obvious but a smooth surface will more likely steam into a smooth bun. Uneven dough will make the buns dimply.
- Steam the buns slowly. As mentioned before, sudden temperature changes will make these buns wrinkly.
More cute holiday recipes
Steamed Snowman Buns
Vegan Custard Filling (optional)
- 2 cups (250g) all-purpose plain flour, or bao flour (note 2) and more as needed
- ⅔ cup (165g) dairy-free milk, cold or room temperature
- 1 tablespoon (15g) neutral flavored oil, optional for moister buns)
- 1 tablespoon (12g) granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon instant dry yeast, (note 3 for other types of yeast)
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- red, orange and black food coloring, or as desired (gel, liquid or powder)
Make the vegan custard filling (optional):
- Add the custard powder, sugar and flour and around ½ cup of milk to a saucepan. Whisk until there are no lumps. Add the rest of the milk and the butter and mix until combined.
- Place the saucepan over medium heat and mix constantly. When the mixture starts to thicken, turn off the heat and continue mixing until your custard turns into a thick paste. Place the custard in a bowl and chill in the fridge or freezer until needed.
Make the mantou dough:
- Add all the dough ingredients (except the food colouring) to a stand mixer (with the dough hook) or a mixing bowl. If using a stand mixer, knead the dough on medium speed for 5-10 minutes. If mixing by hand, mix the ingredients in your bowl then transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead until smooth.
- Your dough is ready when it's soft, silky and slightly tacky but not sticky. If your dough is sticky, add a little more flour and knead again. If the dough is too dry, add a dash of milk and knead again.
- Remove around 50g of dough and set aside the rest in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Divide the 50g of dough into 3 lots so you have around 45g for the snowmen scarves, 4g for the eyes (around 1 teaspoon) and buttons and 1g for the nose (around ¼ teaspoon). Knead each dough with your desired food colour until well combined. Shape each coloured dough as desired then store them in an airtight container in the fridge until needed.
Shaping the buns:
- Divide the dough into 16 pieces, so you have around 8 x 35g pieces for the snowmen's bodies and 8 x 15g pieces for the snowmen's heads.
- If you're making plain mantou buns: Fold the edges of the dough into the middle to give a ball with a smooth outer surface. Or keep repeating until you have a smooth ball. Roll and rotate the ball in between your hands and work surface to smooth out any wrinkles.
- If you're making custard buns: Divide the custard mixture into 16 pieces, so you have around 8 x 18g pieces for the snowmen's bodies and 8 x 7g pieces for the snowmen's heads. Gently roll them into balls. Flatten the dough into round circles and place a custard ball in the middle. Wrap the dough around the custard and pinch the edges. Roll and rotate the ball in between your hands and work surface to smooth the dough surface.
Assembling the snowmen:
- Cut out 8 rectangular pieces of parchment paper to fit your snowmen. Pair the snowman bodies with the snowman heads and place them on the parchment. Decorate the snowmen with the scarves, eyes, noses and buttons as desired. If any of the decorations aren't 'sticking' the snowmen, dab the dough with a little water. If needed, use a toothpick to lightly indent the snowmen for their eyes, noses and buttons.
- Cover the snowmen and let them rest at room temperature for 1-2 hours or until they're puffy and jiggly.
Steaming the snowmen:
- Carefully place your snowmen into your steaming basket. If you can only steam few snowmen at a time, store the remaining snowmen in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Fill up your wok or steamer with 2-4 cups of water (depending on the size of your steamer). Place your steaming basket into your steamer. Cover with a curved lid or bamboo lid. If you have a flat lid, wrap it in a tea towel.
- Place your steamer over high heat. When steam starts to come out of the lid, immediately reduce the stove to medium heat (I used 5 out of 10). Turn on your timer and steam the buns for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, turn off the heat. Leave the steamer on the stove and let it sit for about 3-5 minutes with the lid on. After then, remove the lid and repeat for the remaining snowman buns.
Serving and storing:
- Enjoy the buns warm or slightly cooled down. They will firm up as they cool.
- Store the buns in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. To reheat and soften the buns, steam on medium heat for 5 minutes or until warm. You can also heat them up in the microwave but they will be drier.
- Many brands of custard powder are accidentally vegan and pre-sweetened for example, Bird's and Foster Clarks. If using another brand, double-check the ingredients to make sure it doesn't contain milk or egg solids. Alternatively, you can use the same amount in cornstarch / corn flour, a pinch of turmeric and increase the sugar to ⅓ cup (65g). It won't taste exactly the same but will be similar.
- Bao flour is less absorbent than all-purpose flour so you may need to add more flour to make your dough a workable consistency.
- Instant yeast doesn't need to be 'proofed' beforehand. If you use active dry yeast, combine it with the milk from the recipe and a pinch of sugar beforehand. Wait until it bubbles then use it in the recipe.
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