One of the best things I've learnt to bake over the past couple of months (of rather zealous weekend baking stints if I might say so myself) is this - Japanese milk bread! :) The best thing about this, apart from the fact that it's incredibly light, fluffy, and browns beautifully on the outside, is that the variations to this basic bread are endless. I baked this plain/basic version about two weeks back and since then I've already attempted a couple of variations - adding raisins to them, making a Matcha and Azuki Swirl pattern, and just today, I did a walnut and raisin braided version which tastes even better that the raisin one alone. :) And it's just the beginning. I've already seen recipes for Custard fillings and there are probably tons more out there that I've yet to discover or think up for myself.
The secret to this Japanese Milk Bread lies in what's known as the Tang Zhong Method, something which I've only recently learnt about as well. It's something that has been written about by a Japanese author, Yvonne C., in her book, 65°C 汤种面包 (or 65°C Tang Zhong Bread), and is basically a Water-Roux (or starchy paste that is formed from milk/water and flour) that is the secret ingredient to making soft and fluffy bread. (Read more about it here !) I've always thought that Japanese bread (or Asian bread for that matter, and by that I guess I'm just thinking of breads that are sold in local bakeries) had a very soft, fluffy, slightly sweet taste to it and have always wondered why it's so different from the Western forms. So I suppose this is the first secret ingredient. :)
This is how my very first bread loaf looked like. I know it's somewhat strange since the individual loaves are in an elliptical form, but this is me, not realizing that all I had to do was shape them into round balls to place in the pan to get the typical bread loaf appearance. ;p The things we learn every day.
Japanese Milk Bread
Recipe adapted from Noshings (adapted in my own words)
(check out her site because it's chock-a-block full of recipes and delicious looking goodies!! I've gotten inspiration for so many recipes that I want to try out)
For Tangzhong mixture,
- 1/3 cup flour (all purpose/bread flour)
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 cup warm milk
- 2 tsp. yeast
- 3 Tbs. sugar
- 2 and 3/4 cup flour (all purpose/bread flour)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbs. powdered milk
- 2 Tbs. softened butter
1. To make the Tang zhong mixture, whisk together 1/3 cup of flour in a saucepan and heat the mixture over medium heat until it thickens (don't bring it to a full boil!). Whisk the mixture while it's being heated up and after a few minutes, almost magically, it'll start to thicken until it resembles a white paste. When that happens, switch off the heat, and let your Tang Zhong mixture cool by the side.
Here's what it more or less looks like when the Tang Zhong mixture is done!
2. In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup of warm milk, 2 tsp of yeast and 3 Tbs of sugar (I used normal white caster sugar). Whisk it together and set it aside for a few minutes to let the yeast start.
(One thing I'd recommend you do is wait until you see bubbles forming on the surface of the yeast mixture, indicating that the yeast is working! Today I ended up having a batch of dough that didn't rise probably because something had happened to the yeast. :( I can only assume it was because the milk I had added in was too hot and had killed off the yeast inadvertently but I could've saved a whole batch of dough if I had only waited a little longer to confirm that the yeast mixture was bubbling and hence working before mixing it into the rest of the dry ingredients! So it's my tip to you.)
3. In a large bowl, combine 2 and 3/4 cups of flour, 1 tsp. salt, and 1 Tbs powdered milk. Stir to mix. Once the Tang Zhong mixture is cooled off so that it doesn't hurt the yeast, measure out about 120g of it (almost exactly half of the mixture). Add it to your yeast mixture along with 1 large egg. Mix together then pour it over the dry ingredients in a large bowl. (You can create a well in the center of your dry ingredients and pour the yeast mixture in for easier mixing.)
4. When the wet and dry ingredients have more or less come together to form a dough, add in the 2 Tbs. of softened butter. Continue mixing it in. If the dough looks shaggy, you can add in some flour until it doesn't cling to the sides of the bowl any more.
(If you're using a mixer, let the dough knead for about 5 - 8 minutes till it becomes elastic.)
5. Transfer the dough to a well-floured surface and knead it by hand till it becomes less sticky. Since I don't have a mixer, I just kneaded it for about 5 - 8 minutes (or until I got tired ;p), adding some flour whenever the dough became a bit too sticky. Shape the dough into a ball and let it rise in a well-oiled bowl for about 1 hour or until it has doubled.
6. Once the dough has risen, divide it into 4 pieces. Form each piece into a ball shape, then flatten each one out into a round disc shape about 6 inches across. Roll the discs up cinnamon-roll style (starting at one end and rolling over like a log to the other end!). Shape each one into a ball and place into a well-greased pan. Repeat for the other discs. (The original recipe called for an 8" round cake pan)
See, unfortunately I didn't have the sense to shape each rolled up disc into a ball and instead I merely laid each rolled-up disc flat, parallel to each other. ;p I mean it really doesn't make a difference to the taste or the end product, just that you don't get the typical bread loaf appearance.
7. Let the dough proof a second time under a plastic cling-wrap for about 45 min - 1 hour. Carefully brush the surfaces with a beaten egg then bake at 180 deg Celsius or 350 deg Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes. At the 20 minute mark when the surface starts to get very brown, place a piece of aluminium foil gently over the top to keep the bread from overbrowning. (This is a really great tip in my opinion! :D Works for all breads/pastries you want to bake in the future too. Whenever it gets too brown and you're worried about the top over-browning/burning, the piece of foil saves the day.)
Ta-dah! Don't you love the gorgeous shade of brown with its lovely sheen? And trust me, it tastes SO good as a plain loaf of bread. Definitely not on the sweet side so it goes really well with jam.
And something that my mum really liked was the bread sliced up thinly and then re-toasted in the toaster oven. Do that for about 1.5 minutes (make sure you watch the bread at about that time to make sure it doesn't burn!) and then you'll get a really crispy slice of Japanese Milk Bread. Pretty darn awesome especially if you like crispy food.
It's definitely not the easiest bread to make because of all the steps and different things you have to do at the start but after a few attempts, you'll get used to it and really, you'll want to keep baking and eating it over and over again because it tastes so good. :)
Today I made a walnut and raisin braided version which I like even more than the plain one. Will share that with you soon.