Soft, fluffy, sweet buns were all a staple of the neighbourhood Chinese and Japanese bakeries that I frequented growing up. From square-cut honey sandwich loaves to savory buns with shredded bbq pork to sweet buns with custard fillings encased in a glazed dome shell, the doughs were all similar in their feather lightness with just a touch of something sweet that dissolved in your mouth.
My passion for baking started with bread. It was whilst browsing through the public library looking for cookbooks that an entire section dedicated to bread making caught my eye. My first breads were brick hard, hard enough to hurt if someone threw them. Hard. And flat. My rises were terrible (or worse, they just didn’t rise). But I persisted, and my interest in artisan breads continued to grow. I loved these breads, slowly getting the hang of the basics. However, it wasn’t until the last year or so that I came across the tangzhong method, which is used to make the fluffy breads I grew up with.
Tangzhong breads, or Hokkaido milk breads, are essentially based on a water and flour starter, serving as a base that retains much liquid. This hydrates the rest of the dough and as such serves two main purposes – it creates a softer loaf (with much rise!), and stays soft (doesn’t dry out and become crusty) for longer.
Many recipes call for cream, but since I didn’t have cream, I used what I did have – 1% milk. I made two loaves on separate days. The first one I wrapped in cling film (after it had cooled) for two days, then ate it. It was still soft and good, if a bit dough-y. The second I left sitting on the counter, unwrapped, and it was still fresh (enough) and soft four days later. I’m not sure how much longer it would have lasted, since the loaf was finished. Done, gone, digested. The second dough also had a slightly more complex flavor, a tinge of sourness with the sweet, having sat in the fridge a few days more, causing the beginnings of a sourdough flavoring to set in.
In terms of handling the dough, every recipe I came across called for a mixer. Since I don’t have a mixer, I mix and knead all my doughs by hand. It is not a beginner’s dough, since you need an understanding and feel for how dough works under your hands as you work with it, in order to play with dough based on the tangzhong method. I say this since this dough is challenging to work with, requiring time, patience, and lots of TLC. It took 30 minutes for me to knead the first dough, and just under 25 for the second (the refrigeration helped). It is a sticky dough, so you’d need to keep your hands and counter floured. The second time round, I used some barley flour I had lying around (barley flour tends to yield fluffy baked goods, so it worked with this recipe. It also added another layer of flavor to the overall loaf). I found a plastic spatula to be a most helpful tool in rolling the dough (I could barely fold it since it was so sticky).
How to make a tangzhong starter:
You’ll need 1/3 cup flour (I used all-purpose) and 1 cup water. Dissolve this until no more flour clumps remain, then heat this up over medium heat on the stove until it thickens, creating ‘lines’ in the dough (see image). I experimented by creating two tangzhongs. For my first one, I added hot water directly to the flour. It was clumpier, but the end result (the loaf) was similar enough that I don’t think it made a difference. However, I’ve only used this method twice so it may make a difference the next time I try it. After creating the starter, cool, and place cling film directly over it and refrigerate until needed.
Recipe and instructions for the rest of the bread are as follows. I adapted this recipe and mostly followed instructions provided for this bread here from Kirbie’s Cravings. They have excellent instructions.
After that, whisk all your dry ingredients – 2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp instant yeast; and add your wet ingredients ones – tangzhong, 3 tbsp + 2 tsp sugar, 1/2 cup 1% milk, 1 egg (beaten), 3 tbsp butter, softened. Mix into a ball using a wooden spatula, then turn onto a floured surface and knead about 30 minutes.
Let it rest for about 40 minutes or doubled in size, then divide it into four portions, shape into balls, and cover to let rest for 15 minutes.
Once this is done, place all four rolls into a greased loaf pan. Let rise for 30 minutes, turn on the oven to 325F, and let rise for 10 minutes more. Then bake for 30 minutes or until your knife comes out clean, and let cool before slicing.
It’s hard to hold off of steaming hot fragrant bread.
We had it with butter and homemade jam (made by Ben’s Mom!). A few nights later, we had burgers with it, toasted, in which it worked just as well.