Bolo bao-the pineapple bun-was always the first thing I grabbed. Every Sunday of my childhood in Los Angeles, I'd gravitate to this Chinese bakery staple, with its soft, light, and feathery interior and it's crumbly-sweet cookie crust. The pineapple bun earned its name thanks to its bright yellow glow-the result of an egg-yolk wash that gives the scored exterior a resemblance to the outside of a pineapple. (There's not actually any pineapple involved.) I'd convince my parents to buy five or more, so I could stash them in the freezer and eat them every day until we came back the following weekend. I loved-and still love-eating a bolo bao for breakfast with a hot cup of Hong Kong milk tea.
The Mexican bakeries I went to as a kid seemed to have their own version of a bolo bao: the concha. I found it trippy that two geographically distant cultures created baked goods that had so much in common. The concha, scored with gradient lines, was also named after its resemblance to something that definitely does not appear within: in this case, a seashell. The conchas I loved were a bit crunchier on top, a bit denser within, and were usually enjoyed with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. They came in vanilla and chocolate, but a rainbow of other colors too.
As a young teen I made my first trip to Japan, where I found yet another iteration of a sweet bun with a crunchy cookie top: melon pan, named for its resemblance to the exterior of a cantaloupe melon. I'd say that the melon pan falls somewhere in between a concha and a bolo bao. The texture of the enriched dough is sturdier than what you find with a pineapple bun, but softer and sweeter than a concha, and the cookie top is usually more solid and cookie-like than both its counterparts. Melon pan is sometimes scored in a crosshatch design, or it's not scored, but through baking it separates a bit, yielding a crackly pattern that brings to mind the appearance of the peel of a cantaloupe. Melon pan are also frequently made into fun shapes like turtles or bears. (I can't resist a baked good that looks like a turtle; I'd take any excuse to eat or make one.)
These days I'm a pastry chef at Kimika in Manhattan. When developing a melon pan recipe for the restaurant, I gravitated toward black sesame, dreaming of a dessert that boasted a sophisticated shade of gray. My recipe has a black sesame cookie crust in a beautiful shade of gray, though you can feel free to riff with whatever flavor or color you prefer. You can fill the buns with red bean paste, custard, or whipped cream-though I love to eat them plain.
Making melon pan isn't hard, but it does require a bread dough and a cookie topper. While the bread part can be made with a brioche-style dough, I like to use the tangzhong method, which is essentially a cooked roux that is added to the dough to give its signature feathery, squishy texture. (It's the method used in many milk bread recipes-and these honey buns.)
The dough is allowed to rise before it is punched down, shaped, and proofed again before baking. During the second proof, the buns are topped with black sesame cookie disks, which are dunked in sugar before they're added. After baking, the melon pan is tender and delicious, with just the right amount of nutty crunch.
When I bite into this melon pan, the tender bread reminds me of all the pineapple buns I inhaled as a child, and the crunchy top that brings me back to all the Mexican bakeries I spent time in in Los Angeles. The subtle black sesame flavor connects my work right now with these nostalgic textures-it's like my whole life wrapped up all in one bite.