Asian Milk Bread

Growing up, my mom would often buy me breads from the Chinese bakery near our house. I loved these breads not only because they were stuffed with various fillings such as cheese, pork sung, or raisins, but also because the bread itself was extremely soft and carried a hint of sweetness.

The thought of making bread, however, has always intimidated me. My past few attempts have all failed sometime during the rising process, leading to breads that would come out of the oven flat and hard rather than puffy and light. Although I love trying to replicate the baked goods I would buy from bakeries, I had resigned to the idea that perhaps these breads were impossible to make in my own kitchen. That all changed, however, with this Japanese Milk Bread recipe I came across on Food52.

For the first time, I was able to take out of my own oven a few loaves of the chewy and sweet bread that I had enjoyed so much growing up. The secret to the chewiness and fluffiness? The Asian technique called tangzhong where a portion of the flour is heated with water to create a roux. When the roux is added to the dough, the final result is a fluffier and softer bread.

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For my first attempt, I stuck closely to the recipe from Food52. However, instead of using 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast, I used 2 teaspoons since the yeast I had in the refrigerator was pretty old. Although the recipe calls for bread flour, I used all-purpose flour and the bread turned out great! They were nice and golden and extremely easy to pull apart.

Happy with the first attempt, I decided to change it up by making different variations of the bread. Rather than sticking to the plain loaves, I made a raisin walnut loaf as well as a pork sung loaf. The results were delicious, and I can now make these breads straight out of my own oven! These loaves are extremely versatile, so you can add in any fillings you think might taste good! Cheese, raisins, nuts, and chocolate chips are all great options!

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Ingredients:

For the tangzhong:

6 Tbsp of water

2 Tbsp of flour

For the rest: 

1/4 cup whole milk

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

2 3/4 cups (about 350 grams) flour

Scant 1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk or milk powder (optional)

1 egg

2 tablespoons butter

For the egg wash:

1 egg

A splash of milk (optional)

Directions

  1. In a small saucepan, whisk together 6 tablespoons of water and 2 tablespoons of bread flour until no lumps remain. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. It should thicken to a gel-like consistency after just a few minutes. As soon as lines appear in the mixture when stirred, remove it from the heat and transfer it to a small, clean bowl. Let cool to room temperature.
  2. Next, heat the milk briefly to just above room temperature, about 110° F or lukewarm to the touch (I do this simply by microwaving it for 10 to 15 seconds). Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and set it aside for 5 to 10 minutes for the yeast to activate (you’ll see the milk start to foam).
  3. In the meantime, sift together the bread flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl or a measuring cup, whisk together the tangzhong, cream, condensed milk (or milk powder), and one egg.
  4. When it’s ready, add the yeast mixture to the wet ingredients, and whisk gently, just to incorporate. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in all of the wet ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a loose, shaggy dough, then switch to using your hands. Knead for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough forms a semi-smooth ball. The dough will be quite sticky — sprinkle flour over your hands and the dough as is necessary while you knead, but try to avoid over-flouring. (One tablespoon of flour should be enough.)
  5. Add the butter to the dough, one tablespoon at a time, kneading after each addition. Add the second tablespoon of butter only after the first has been evenly incorporated. The dough will be slippery and messy at this point, but just keep kneading (actually, it’s oddly satisfying) and it should eventually form a soft and pliable dough that’s easy to work with. Knead for an additional 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
  6. Place the dough in a large bowl with plenty of room and cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let proof for 1 to 2 hours, or until well doubled. Alternatively, you can let the dough proof overnight in the refrigerator, which I prefer. It gives extra time for the gluten to develop, and yields a better flavor, in my opinion. Plus, dividing the labor over two days makes the process much more manageable. The dough should be fine for up to 24 hours. If storing in the refrigerator, cover more tightly with plastic wrap to avoid drying out.
  7. Once the dough is doubled, turn it out and punch it down. Divide it into three or four equal pieces. For each piece, roll the dough out to a long oval. Fold the oval into thirds widthwise, then flatten again. Roll the dough up lengthwise, then place into the loaf pan. Repeat with remaining pieces. Note: when making filled loaves, add the filling and then roll the dough up. 
  8. Let the dough proof again until nearly it’s doubled, another hour or so. After about 40 minutes, preheat the oven to 350° F. When the dough seems ready, test it by pressing it gently with one finger; when the indentation bounces back slowly but remains visible, the dough is ready to bake.
  9. Whisk your second egg with a splash of milk or water, and brush the egg wash over the dough. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden-brown on top. When it’s done, the bread will sound hollow when tapped. Let it cool briefly, then slice and enjoy!

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