Here we are, (almost precisely) 4 years since my last post. Which apparently was the sole, sad, lonely post of 2016. Maybe I was busy-ish back then, leaving the house on mere whims for things like jobs and social gatherings?
Who can remember. But here we are, mid-pandemic, "busy" being a cute, nostalgic concept for some of us, and there has never been a more apropos time to throw some content on a cooking/crafting blog. Yes, I can now take photos during the day to capture natural light. No, I probably won't after today, but at least free digital photo editing tools have made some strides since 2016.
What else could I possibly choose for my Homecoming 2020 post other than bread?? To quote one of the greats, I LOVE BREAD, and apparently during this pandemic, everyone is baking it! Luckily for me, I regularly buy yeast in 1/2 pound blocks, so (for now), I am unscathed by yeast scarcity. Assuming I post any further content on this blog, I will include some sort of yeast-less carb option for the less fortunate; in the meantime, I am hopping on this Covid-Wagon and showing off my risen riches.
I generally bake some sort of bread weekly (my go-to is this one hour or less skillet focaccia) but I rarely bake sandwich loaves. A) I have an obsession with Martin's Potato Bread (which is seemingly and heinously not available in Maine - !! - but Pepperidge Farm is an acceptable substitute) and B) most of my past attempts, while objectively decent, have been a little too "hearty" for my tastes as I prefer a very soft and slightly sweet bread for sandwiches.
Enter the Tangzhong Method.
I really don't know why I waited this long to try it out--I have read about this method for creating soft loaves and rolls for years, and I know from experience that Japanese bakeries have the BEST bread. For some reason it took a stay-at-home order to take the leap.
In a nutshell, the Tangzhong method is a Chinese technique (adapted and globally popularized by Japanese bakers) that starts with a small mixture of flour and liquid (water or milk), cooked together to form a paste, then added to the remainder of the flour and liquid once cooled. I don't fully understand the science here (follow the King Arthur link above for more info), but the liquid in that initial paste is kind of "trapped" in the dough, which leads to easier kneading, higher rising, and a finished product that is soft and stays softer longer.
The Tangzhong method can be used in any yeast dough but is especially popular for sandwich breads and soft rolls. (I'm itching to try cinnamon rolls with it.) Shaping the dough into multiple coils in a loaf pan is the traditional way to make Hokkaido, or Japanese milk bread, creating a pretty loaf and encouraging sky-high rising during baking.
Above -> dough after first rise, shaped and fitted into a 9"x5" loaf pan.
Below -> dough after second rise, brushed with an egg wash right before going into the oven.
A couple notes on bread-making ingredients:
Yeast: I exclusively use instant yeast (sometimes labeled Bread Machine yeast or RapidRise). I find it simpler to use than Active Dry, it tends to come in larger quantities (no little packets), and it's never let me down. When using instant yeast, you add it with the dry ingredients (no blooming in warm liquid first). The only risk here is that you won't know if your yeast is dead, as you don't have the initial visible activation as an indicator. That being said, I store my yeast in the freezer for 6+ months and have never had a dud. Active dry yeast will work just as well in this recipe (and in the same amounts). The recipe below includes how and when to add either.
Liquid: Even when using instant yeast, which doesn't require "blooming" in warm liquid, the liquid (in this case, milk) in the dough should be warm, about 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't feel like taking an exact temperature, I always use the "baby's bathwater" test - meaning, could I safely submerge a baby in this temperature? (Disclaimer, I don't have an actual baby.) Just keep in mind it shouldn't be too hot, which can kill the yeast. I recommend taking an exact temperature if you're new to yeast baking, then going forward you'll know what 108 degrees should feel like.
Measuring: Because measuring in volume (measuring cups) can vary a lot, I measure by weight whenever possible using a digital kitchen scale (this also saves dishes because you can just set your mixing bowl directly on the scale and spoon in ingredients). If you don't have a scale and are using measuring cups, use a fork or scoop to "fluff" flour up so it is not densely packed, then spoon lightly into a measuring cup and level it off. (Most "professional" recipe sites also encourage this method and thus their cups should more or less equal my cups, or 120-125 grams of flour per cup. If you dip a measuring cup into a bag of flour and scoop it out by packing it into the cup you'll end up with considerably more flour!)
Corona Note: Due to this bread-making boom, flour is also in short supply. I've noticed that my grocery stores now have ample stocks of all-purpose flour after the initial rush, but are still out of bread flour. You can make bread with AP flour, but it won't be as good - the higher gluten content in bread flour is key not only for chewiness (think bagels or pizza crust) but for rising, as it adds structure to the dough. Don't despair though - if your Whole Foods is out of bread flour like mine is, they may still be stocking pure, unadulterated gluten. Vital Wheat Gluten (look in the Bob's Red Mill section in the baking aisle) can be added to all-purpose flour to create bread flour; the precise amount varies depending on the gluten content of the AP flour you have (King Arthur, for instance, has more gluten than Pillsbury) but you'll probably use between 1/2 Tbsp and 1 Tbsp per cup of flour. Here's a better guide. And if can't get/don't want vital wheat gluten, just use the regular flour and count your blessings because you have yeast.
Speaking of rising, look at this beautiful loaf fresh out of the oven! See that dark-colored dent on its second hump? That's a battle scar from rising so high that it ran into the broiler--don't be like me; make sure to position a rack in the center of the oven.
And in case you didn't know, Japanese Milk Bread + Egg Salad are best buds. A loaf and a batch would make an amazing week of lunches, but this bread doesn't need much to keep it company. A toasted slice with a drizzle of honey is an A+ breakfast in my book.
Other serving suggestions? Favorite memories of Japanese bakeries from the Before Times? Leads on where to buy Martin's Potato Bread in Maine? Let me know.
Japanese Milk Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Recipe adapted from Dessert First
Ingredients (* see notes above)
- 3 cups bread flour*, divided (375g)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup milk, ideally whole, lukewarm*
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar (60g)
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 1/2 tsp instant yeast or 1 packet active dry yeast*
- 1 large egg, plus 1 egg for egg wash
- 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
If using salted butter, decrease salt in recipe to 1/2 tsp
1. To make the tangzhong, combine 30 grams or 1/4 cup of the bread flour with the water in a small saucepan. Over medium-low heat, whisk water and flour continuously until it thickens into a paste. This will take a few minutes but then will thicken very quickly, so don't leave it unattended. Transfer the tangzhong (flour paste) to a small bowl to let it cool to room temperature.
If using instant yeast:
2a. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine warm milk, sugar, and salt. With the paddle attachment, mix to dissolve sugar and salt. Add the remaining flour (345g or 2.75 cups) and instant yeast. (Now skip to step 3.)
If using active dry yeast:
2b. In a small bowl, combine 1 Tbsp of the sugar, 1 packet of active dry yeast, and warm milk. Stir briefly and let sit at room temperature until the yeast "blooms" and the mixture is bubbly. This should take between 5-10 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the remaining flour (345g or 2.75 cups), remaining sugar, and salt and mix with the paddle attachment to combine. Once the yeast mixture has bloomed, add this to the mixer.
3. Add the tangzhong and the egg to the mixture. Mix on medium speed until a it mostly comes together into a soft and sticky dough, about 8-10 minutes. It will still be too sticky to handle at this point but should mostly be formed into one mass with only traces of dough on the sides of the bowl.
4. Switch to a dough hook attachment. Cut the butter into 6-8 pieces and add to the mixture. Beat the dough with the hook attachment on medium speed for another 10 minutes. The butter should be incorporated after the first minute or two. After 10 minutes you should have a smooth and tacky dough ball; if it's too sticky to handle, beat for another 3-5 minutes. If it's still too sticky at this point, add a Tbsp of flour and knead for a couple more minutes. The goal is to end up with a ball of dough that doesn't stick to everything but without adding too much flour, which will create a denser loaf.
5. Lightly oil a large bowl and transfer dough ball to bowl, lightly coating the dough with oil to keep it from drying out. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let the dough proof until it is puffy and has doubled in size, which will take between 30-60 minutes depending on the temperature of your kitchen. My kitchen is cold, so I turn my oven on to 225F and place the bowl on top of the stove. (My oven leaks a LOT of heat so this creates a very warm environment.) Alternatively, you can preheat your oven to "warm" or the lowest temperature setting while your mixer is kneading the dough. Once it has preheated, turn the oven OFF, then when it's time to proof your dough, place it in the off but warm oven (kitchen towels and plastic wrap will be perfectly fine in there).
6. Once the dough has doubled in size, divide into 4 equal pieces (you can use a scale to measure or just eyeball it). Roll each piece into a ball and place them back into the oiled bowl; cover and let rest on the counter for 15 minutes.
7. Grease a 9"x5" loaf pan. Lightly flour or grease a rolling pin and rolling surface and roll out one ball of dough into a long oval, roughly 9" long by 6" wide. Fold one long side into the middle, then fold the opposite long side into the middle, resulting in a long rectangle (ish) that is 9" long by 3" wide. (These measurements are rough approximations just to help illustrate the folding.) Roll lightly over the rectangle to flatten it slightly. Then, starting at a short end, roll up into a spiral, like a fat Ho-Ho. Place seam side down on one end of the loaf pan (spirals facing the long sides of the pan).
8. Repeat with remaining 3 balls of dough and arrange evenly in loaf pan (see photos above for reference.)
9. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise again until the dough spirals are approximately even with the top edge of the pan, about 30-45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350F toward the end of this second rise and position a rack in the middle of the oven with plenty of space above it (and if your dough is proofing in the oven, take it out first!).
10. Whisk an egg with a tablespoon or water, milk, or cream to use as an egg wash. Remove plastic wrap and brush dough evenly with egg wash. (If you don't have another egg to spare, you can use cream or melted butter. The top won't get as golden brown but it will still be delicious.) You'll have egg wash leftover - save it for scrambled eggs, or dredge chicken cutlets in it before coating with breadcrumbs, which is what I did with mine!
11. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until top is golden brown and the bread feels firm to the touch. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then carefully turn it out onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing.