One of my pastry goals for 2015 is to start making more Asian pastries. I grew up poring over the Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks on my mom’s shelf, but I also remember the red bean and sesame-filled buns, flaky egg custard tarts, and fluffy breads from the Chinese bakeries and dim sum restaurants we would frequent on the weekends. For years I’ve meant to try my hand making these pastries myself, and this year I’m giving myself no more excuses. So here we go – I hope you enjoy this new side of Dessert First!
Milk bread side view
My first recipe is a true classic of Chinese bakeries: Milk bread, sometimes called Hokkaido milk bread in deference to its origin. This bread has been very popular on Asian food blogs and has been slowly making its way through English language food blogs. I’ve had this wonderfully soft, fluffy bread from many a Chinese bakery, yet never thought about trying to make it myself until recently. (The problem for me with many Asian pastries is that they are so inexpensive – in Hong Kong, bakeries selling milk bread and pineapple buns all for about $1 US are ubiquitous – that it often seems not worth the time or expense to replicate it at home). Milk bread is basically the softest, fluffiest white bread you can imagine – in general the preference in Asia is for very light, fluffy, pillowy yeast breads, as opposed to the chewy baguettes of France or the sturdier, coarser grain of American sandwich breads. Milk bread, with its sweet, milky flavor and, makes an ideal base for all sorts of toppings, makes a stellar toast, and is delicious enough to eat on its own without further embellishment.Whenever I go to my mom’s place, she will always have some of this in the kitchen, and I’ll find myself just snacking on a slice during the day. When’s the last time you did that with Wonder bread?
The other reason that milk bread has fascinated me for so long is that it is a prime example of an Asian baking technique called the tangzhong method. This method refers to adding a roux of flour and water (or milk) to your yeast bread mixture, which helps make it lighter and fluffier when it’s baked. The tangzhong method is credited as originating in Japan, but it became widely known to home cooks with the publication of 65°C Bread Doctor, a cookbook written in Chinese by Yvonne Chen in 2007. The 65°C refers to the fact that at 65 degrees C (149 degrees F) is when the starches in the flour gelatinize and the tangzhong comes together into a pudding-like roux.
There’s a lot of great, food-nerdy information on the internet about tangzhong and why it works. Basically, you are making a gel(or a roux) out of a portion of the flour and liquid that goes into any bread. This gel essentially locks in in the liquid throughout the entire rest of the mixing and baking process, so it doesn’t evaporate. The flour in the roux is also sealed away and will not develop gluten during the kneading process. As a result, the baked bread has a higher moisture content, and lower gluten development, which means it’s softer and lighter – and stays that way for longer. One of the more common home breadmaking laments is how quickly your perfectly-textured loaf goes hard in a couple of days. Tangzhong bread is beloved because it stays soft and fresh for longer –thanks to the extra moisture trapped inside. A great Western baking analogue is the pudding cake. Think of those recipes where you add in instant pudding to get a beautifully moist cake. Now that tangzhong method doesn’t seem that strange, does it?
See how elastic the final dough is?
There are a couple translational hurdles I had to overcome when researching and making my first loaf. One is that many of the recipes I found call for instant yeast, which is almost the same but not quite the same as the active dry yeast that I’m used to using. Active dry yeast requires activation in liquid, while instant yeast does not. Although some recipes insist the two yeasts are interchangeable, I chose to follow my own instincts from my experience and I let the active dry yeast bloom in part of the milk before adding it to the bread.
Here’s a cross-cultural observation: The reason most of the milk bread recipes I found called for instant yeast is because they make the bread in a bread machine. In many kitchens in Asia where space is at a premium (my parents live in a relatively spacious flat in Hong Kong, and their refrigerator is literally half the size of mine – daily grocery runs are a necessity for my mom!) the bread machine, not an oven, is the tool of choice for breadmaking. So most of the recipes I found for tangzhong bread call for dumping all the ingredients straight into a bread machine and pressing the button. However, a bread machine is one of the few kitchen appliances I don’t have, so I had to convert the recipes to work with active dry yeast and my stand mixer.
milk bread trifold – when making the rolls
Many recipes also call for kneading the dough by hand for the best results; the part of me that went to pastry school agrees, but the part of me that’s also watching an active 2 year old toddler says the stand mixer is a perfectly wonderful and adequate substitute. Because you have to work extra hard to get the gluten developed, kneading by hand can take a while, again probably why most recipes recommend either a bread machine or a stand mixer.
After making my first loaf of milk bread, I’ll say it’s not that tricky, even if you’re not a big bread baker (like me!) This bread is enriched with butter, milk and egg, and all that added moisture and fat make it easier to work it and more forgiving than your leaner breads. The tangzhong doesn’t noticeably change the texture of the dough – once you make it and add it in to the mixer, you can practically forget about it – but you’ll realize its presence when you see how high this bread rises in the oven!
The photos above show the traditional sequence of making four separate little rolls that you nestle into a loaf pan – this formation helps the bread rise even higher, and gives it the classic humped top and pretty swirly sides.
One of my other goals for 2015 is to start introducing Isabelle to the world of baking. I’ve been looking forward to when she would be old enough to take an interest in my kitchen activities! Here’s my little kitchen helper brushing some egg wash on top of the bread before baking:
Egg wash for the bread
Out of the oven: a beautiful golden brown domed loaf with a slightly firm exterior, and a delightfully cloud-tender interior. It slices like a dream, and in fact slices have been disappearing from it with increasing frequency. Better save some for myself…
In conclusion, although the tangzhong method sounds intimidating, it is an easy, additional step that takes very little extra time to do, and it makes milk bread possible: a dreamily soft loaf that is wonderful on its own, or for almost anything else, from sandwiches to French toast. It is also a great bread for little kids – they love the lightness and sweetness, as Isabelle demonstrates below (she calls it “Isabelle bread” now!)
I’ll be exploring other Asian bakery classics throughout the year – hope you enjoyed this inaugural post!
Tangzhong (Water Roux)
- 25 g bread flour
- 100 ml water
- 125 ml whole milk, lukewarm
- 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 350 g bread flour
- 60 g sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) salt
- 1 large egg, plus another for egg wash
- 30 g unsalted butter, room temperature
For the tangzhong:
- Whisk flour and water together in a small saucepan. Place over medium-low heat on the stove.
- Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens into a pudding-like consistency and you can leave lines in the mixture, about 5 minutes. You might be tempted to walk away from the mixture at the beginning when it's taking a while to thicken, but don't - it will come together surprisingly quickly and you don't want it to overcook. If you want, you can check the temperature - it's finished when it reaches 65 degrees C (149 degrees F), but I don't find it necessary.
- Let the tangzhong cool to room temperature before using. You can also store in the refrigerator for a couple days and bring to room temperature before using. If you see grayish spots in the tangzhong, discard it and make a fresh batch.
For the bread:
- The milk should be at 108-110 degrees F to develop the yeast (any hotter and it will kill the yeast). Combine yeast and milk and 2 teaspoons of the sugar in a small bowl and let stand for about 5-8 minutes until yeast is bubbly.
- Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add in the yeast mixture, the tangzhong, and the egg.
- With a dough hook attachment, mix all the ingredients until it comes together into a soft, sticky dough, about 10 minutes.
- Add in the butter and mix to incorporate. Continue beating the dough for about 10-15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. You should be able to stretch the dough out fairly thin without it breaking (the windowpane test). If it breaks right away when you try to stretch, mix it for a couple more minutes.
- Turn out the dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let proof for about 40 minutes until dough has doubled in size. The amount of time this takes will depend on the ambient temperature. I like to leave the bowl on top of the stove (no burners turned on) but with the oven turned to 250 degrees.
- When the dough looks like it has doubled in size and is puffy to the touch (if you poke the dough it should hold the indent and slowly fill back in), take the dough and split into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.
- Grease a 5"x9" loaf pan. Set aside.
- Roll one piece out on a lightly floured surface into a long oval. Fold the right third of the oval over the middle, then fold the left third of the oval over the middle to make a long, narrow packet. Lightly roll over the seam to flatten and seal.
- Roll the packet up from the bottom to make a fat roll. Repeat with other three balls of dough.
- Arrange the four rolls of dough, seam side down, in the prepared loaf pan. Cover with plastic wrap. Let proof for another 40 minutes until the dough reaches just below the rim of the loaf pan.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F while the bread is proofing for the second time.
- Brush the top of the bread with a little egg wash. Place in the oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the top is dark golden brown and the bread is firm to the touch and sounds hollow when you tap it.
- Turn out bread onto wire rack and let cool before eating.