AS OF MARCH 2020, Renton-based Kat Lieu was working as a physical therapist in the Renton School District. She was also a novice baker looking for a community: a place where she could connect with anyone who, like her, wanted to “be obsessed with Asian baking.” But she couldn’t find anything that satisfied her.
“If you Googled ‘Asian Pastry’ in 2020, you’d see something from a Western designer,” Lieu said in a recent phone call.
Knowing that representation is important, Lieu felt called to create a Facebook group in March; she called it “Subtle Asian Baking”. It was a place where people of all abilities could share recipes and cooking tips. He immediately gained popularity. Within a month there were 1,000 members; by December 2020, over 60,000. Today, across Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Discord, “Subtle Asian Baking” reaches over 350,000 people daily. Lieu also wrote a cookbook, inspired by the band; it is titled “Modern Asian Baking at Home” and is scheduled for release on June 28.
She began working on the book in April 2021 — asking the members about everything from their favorite ingredients to one-on-one dish clashes (“Do you want a melon casserole or pineapple buns ?”). All the recipes in the book have been written or rewritten. by Location and tested by 23 members of the Facebook group, working via email, text and Zoom meetings to send videos and notes of their successes and failures – ensuring that each recipe was as perfect as possible.
The resulting book features nearly 70 recipes, ranging from basic cookies and pastries to complex cloud-shaped holiday cakes, breads and pastries. There is a small introduction on the ingredients and a few pages on the technique. The tone is friendly, unassuming, even conversational. The recipes and flavors are those that appealed to his audience the most; matcha, ube, miso and black sesame feature prominently. There are recipes for milk bread, moon cake and Dalgona coffee.
“I am a home baker, a novice myself. I wanted to act like it was talking to a friend; the book is your friend,” she says.
Cooking my way through the book was a pure delight. Miso Garlic Buns started with a milk bread recipe, then used the dough to make a savory bun swirled in rich miso shallot butter. The pan of buns disappeared faster than a plate of cinnamon rolls.
The fluffy Japanese cheesecake was magical. Right out of the oven, it was a wonky, ethereal whisper of a cake. A night in the fridge (what Lieu calls it in the main note) “cured” the cake, making it creamier. A butter knife practically lived on the plate with this cake; I think I sliced off a little piece every time I opened the fridge.
The gooey and chewy miso brownies are gluten-free, replacing traditional flour with sticky rice flour. They have the famous bouncy chew described as QQ, a “Taiwan darling texture and mouthfeel”. It’s a bounce from the rice flour, and it gives the brownies (which already have a lot going for them, with a deep cocoa flavor and umami notes from the miso) an incredibly pleasant chew. Lieu says it’s her son’s favorite recipe in the book.
The book seems to forgive. Not only does Lieu admit how difficult it was to come up with the recipe for fluffy Japanese cheesecake (which makes home baker feel good if it doesn’t turn out quite right the first time) ; it also leaves many recipes open to interpretation. Add matcha to Japanese cheesecake or replace ube with black sesame in another. This is, for Lieu, the origin of the subtle Asian pastry.
For her, Asian cooking is not limited to traditional pastries, such as milk bread or mooncakes. These are also fusion recipes.
“A brownie, but I add glutinous rice flour and mochi – an Asian ingredient and texture – you slip something in there and you make it your own. Anyone can cook this way. It’s a matter of subtlety and intelligence,” she says.
Lieu’s favorite recipe in the book is Fluffy Taiwanese Snowflake Crisps, a crunchy, savory/sweet dessert with marshmallows, buttery crackers, chopped nuts, and dried fruit. She says it’s like a bar of Rice Krispies, another great example of subtle baking the Asian way.
“You can do it with any ingredient; you can mix whatever you want. It’s so moist and delicious that you feel like a kid,” she says. Who wouldn’t want that?