Best Home Cook Kristina Cho shares how she got her culinary start and a favorite recipe from her James Beard award-winning cookbook.
Kristina Cho is no stranger to rolling up her sleeves to get the job done, whether it is teaching herself how to laminate puff pastry or lavishing 20 people with an impromptu meal.
“I’m also a blanket-wrapped homebody,” says the self-taught spark behind the popular food blog and Instagram account Eat Cho Food
But she adds that she’ll “have snacks if you ever come for a visit,” perhaps a savory barbecue pork bun and a fresh Chinese bakery treat—a honey-pistachio mooncake or a pineapple bun with a thick slice of butter. “Food is a way to share with people that I care about them,” Kristina says, “and to connect with my family and my culture.”
Kristina’s culinary perspective is rooted in her experiences growing up in Cleveland and going to her grandparents’ Chinese restaurant. The cuisine was typical of Chinese American dining rooms, but it was at staff meals and weekend family feasts that she’d partake in the homey and authentic dishes made by her grandparents. “It took me until I was in my 20s and living away to realize the importance of this,” she says.
Kicking Off Her Culinary Career
Kristina’s food awakening started when she moved to San Francisco eight years ago. An architect by day, Kristina spent her time off in the kitchen. “I slowly started to get obsessed and to schedule my life around recipe testing,” she explains. Eventually Kristina decided to leave her job and kick her cooking into high gear.
On top of her wildly successful blog, Kristina immersed herself in the culinary world offline. “I was doing a lot of side hustles: working at a cake bakery, catering and hosting dumpling workshops,” where she delighted in showing students the pinching and pleating skills necessary to make homemade dumplings. “I was one proud dumpling mom,” she says, laughing. She was a one-woman show, with her boyfriend, Reuben, at the ready to haul hundreds of dumplings to the next restaurant pop-up. “He was a big, big support,” says Kristina.
Online, she shared versions of family recipes and stories, including those about her family’s road trips to seek out Chinatown bakeries in Chicago: “The first and last stop was for buns: for the weekend, and for more to take home with us.”
Kristina’s Award-Winning Cookbook
Experimenting with those nostalgic goodies led her to write Mooncakes and Milk Bread, her groundbreaking debut cookbook that is believed to be the first to focus exclusively on Chinese bakery treats and share stories from the bakers about why these businesses are so important to Asian American culture. Inside, Kristina talks about her favorite sweet shops across the country; she also explores the art of making bao and the joy of her grandfather’s almond cookies.
She’s now seeing the fruits of her leap of faith: Kristina was a double winner at the 2022 James Beard Awards, taking home the Baking and Desserts award for her cookbook and nabbing the Emerging Voice award in the Book category.
And the evening the awards were announced was doubly happy: Kristina and Reuben wed in a beautiful garden setting. She grew her own flowers, but no other side hustles were involved. “I was ‘forbidden’ by everyone to prepare any food for our wedding,” she says. “Even the cake!”
Kristina’s Red Bean Swirl Buns
Arlene Easterwood Photography for Taste of Home
“When I walk into a Chinese bakery, there is a 1,000,000 percent chance I’m grabbing some sort of red bean bun to take home or, more likely, inhale immediately,” Kristina says. Red bean paste is a common ingredient in Asian desserts. It’s sweet, a little nutty, luscious and smooth.
Red Bean Paste
- 1/2 cup dried adzuki
- or red beans
- 3/4 cup sugar
Milk Bread Dough
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups bread flour
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 package (1/4 ounce) quick-rise yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup water
Step 1: Make the bean paste
Rinse and sort beans; soak according to package directions. Drain and rinse beans, discarding liquid. Place beans and 2 cups water in a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, covered, until beans are soft, about 1 hour; drain. Transfer beans to a food processor; add sugar. Process until smooth. Cool completely. Store in refrigerator while making dough.
Step 2: Make the bread dough
In bowl of a stand mixer, combine flours, heavy cream, milk, cornstarch, sugar, egg, yeast and salt. Attach dough hook; mix on medium speed until dough is smooth and slightly sticky, about 15 minutes. Transfer dough to a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 11/2 hours, or cover and refrigerate 18 hours or overnight. Punch down the dough. Turn onto a floured surface; divide into 12 portions. Roll each portion into a 4×6-in. rectangle.
Step 3: Form the swirl buns
Spread 2 Tbsp. red bean paste to within 3/4 in. of edges. Fold each square in half lengthwise and pinch seams to seal. Starting 1 in. from the top of each rectangle, with a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut 4-5 vertical slits in dough. Twist each into an 8-in. rope. Starting at 1 end of rope, loosely wrap dough around itself to form a coil. Tuck end under; pinch to seal. Place 3 in. apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. Cover and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled, about 30 minutes.
Step 4: Bake and glaze the buns
Preheat oven to 350°. In a small bowl, whisk egg with water; brush over buns. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Meanwhile, place sugar and water in a small saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Brush hot buns with syrup glaze. Cool on pans 5 minutes. Remove to wire racks; serve warm. Store leftover buns in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Meet more of Taste of Home‘s Best Home Cooks, and nominate one, too!