Wednesday, January 27, 2021

My Bread Odyssey and Tribute to Mom

I love making bread. I've been making all our family's bread since back in the early 1970s, living in Guatemala. The only bread recipe I had at that time was my Mom's (and before her, Grandma's) bread that she made for Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, and sometimes, if we were lucky, other times as well. It was something I watched her make all through my young life, before marrying and moving to Guatemala. I don't believe she knew any other recipe for bread, but it was so exceptionally good that it made no difference. I adopted it as our daily bread, and we just never get tired of it - it's just that good. An enriched dough, with milk, butter, eggs and sugar, it rises beautifully, makes fabulous sandwiches, toast or French Toast.

bread, enriched bread,
My Kitchen Aid Mixer Bread

The late '80s and '90s

When we moved back to the States, I continued making Mom's bread, and over the years, made small changes; things that didn't change the great taste or texture. I used powdered milk, instead of scalding 3 cups of milk and waiting for it to cool. I used honey instead of sugar. I used whole eggs instead of just the yolks. And as bread flour became available, started using that. Then my new husband bought me a bread machine from DAK. I managed to halve Mom's recipe to use in the machine, but never liked how it baked in there, so at the end, I'd form it and bake in the oven. Despite all that, the poor bread machine was so overworked that it dies after 2 years! DAK's machine came with a little recipe booklet, and I adopted and adapted some of those recipes, changing them to suit and also baking in the oven. My Double Chocolate Bread and Herbed Onion Bread are results of my tinkering. And eventually, the gift of a Kitchen Aid Mixer had me revamping Mom's bread to using the mixer.

Bread, enriched bread, fresh herbs
Herbed Onion Loaf

Then somewhere along the way, I found a book with some interesting bread recipes, and started trying some of them out. There were lots of them with additions like dried fruits, nuts, other flavorings and such. While they were delicious, most times the bread took forever to rise and often resulted in under baked loaves, despite following the recipes assiduously. I didn't know what was the problem.

The 2000s

Then in early 2014, my sister-in-law, Curator of Education at the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen, SD, brought me a stack of cookbooks someone had donated to the museum. I started out with one of them and haven't looked back: The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. I have come a very long way in my knowledge and understanding of bread, dough and how they work since then. My entire focus has shifted. Over the years, I have become so enamored with the different whole grain breads, finding out about long, slow rising periods and resulting enhanced flavor. I love anything that helps with eating more naturally, and using whole grains in bread is certainly better, in that sense. I have never entirely converted my husband. He loves white bread. 

During the next phase, and Reinhart's book, "Bread Revolution," while visiting the local health food store searching for malted grains, I got chatting with the store manager and he told me about a bread he was experimenting with, using a Tangzhong starter, and even printed his recipe for me. Finding that it was a white bread, I opted to set the recipe aside and finally, forgot about it.

Poilane Style Miche, from Bread Baker's Apprentice

Since watching The Great British Baking Show/Bake Off, I have also learned a lot about bread making from Paul Hollywood's comments on the show, and also discovered that kneading "for 10 to 12 minutes" is not necessarily enough to got the dough to pass the "windowpane" test. For me, kneading a whole grained loaf needs up to 20 minutes of kneading time to pass the test. I discovered that this was truly the biggest difference to getting my breads to rise properly.

This past year, my husband has been suffering tooth problems and wasn't able to chew well. As thing deteriorated, and with his fear of COVID while going to a dentist, it got to a point where he truly couldn't chew. My hearty whole grain breads were inedible for him. I went back to a modified version of my Mom's bread, adding just a little whole wheat, slightly less butter and sugar. It worked.

2021 - Full Circle

My husband and I were watching Paul Hollywood's program, City Bakes, and we came to where he spends some time in Japan. After lamenting that Japan really isn't known for bread, he comes across some bakeries, and discovers Japan's Shokupan, or Milk Loaf. Hearing Paul describe the method of making this bread, I exclaimed, "That's the kind of bread that guy in the health food store in Aberdeen gave me the recipe for!"

The whole thing about this type of bread is the "starter," for want of a better word. It is not a sourdough, but it is a pre-mix that helps the dough retain moisture and giving this bread a pillowy soft texture. I decided to try it out, mainly for my husband (who had the offending teeth pulled and is still needing soft food). I went online and searched. Surprisingly, while there were quite a few recipes for Japanese Milk Bread, not many of them actually used the pre-starter, opting to omit that step. This made me wonder why one would even call it by that name? 

Apparently there are two methods to this bread's starter. According to Chopstick ChroniclesThe Tangzhong method uses a starter that is 5 parts liquid to one part flour. This is cooked to 150 degrees F, cooled and the dough is made and baked as usual. The Yudaine method, uses a 1:1 ratio of flour to water, simply pouring boiling water over the flour and mixing to a dough-like consistency and refrigerating overnight. The bread is made the following day (though she does say it is possibly to make the bread after only a couple of hours of resting the starter.

Shokupan, Yudaine, Milk Bread
Yudaine Shokupan from Chopstick Chronicles

I actually made this recipe from Chopstick Chronicles as my second attempt (since it called for an overnight rest for the starter and I wanted one to make right away!) and it also came out beautifully, though I also had to add a little more water (10 grams) to the starter (to counteract this Arizona dry climate). The actual recipe, for just one loaf, is a far smaller recipe, but comes out equally well.

I wanted to make a batch right away, so I opted first to try a recipe by Julia Moskin in the Cooking section of the New York Times. She makes the Tangzhong starter, but then divides the starter in half, using only one half of it, leaving the rest for another loaf. I opted to just double the bread recipe and use all the starter. She also uses a fair amount of sugar and yeast, so I lowered those amounts. Adjustments were needed in her recipe: the dough is described as very wet and too difficult to be kneaded by hand. Mine came out so stiff there was no way it was going to be a soft bread. I added a full 1/2 cup more of both water and milk to proceed; this could be that I live in Arizona - most recipes require more liquid. This is what I did:

Tangzhong Milk Bread

bread, milk bread, shokupan, tangzhong
Tangzhong Milk Bread
Makes 2 loaves


120 grams water: 1/2 cup

120 grams milk: 1/2 cup

45 grams bread flour: about 1/3 cup

In a small saucepan, whisk these ingredients until smooth, then over medium heat, cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly and is still pourable. Pour the starter into a bowl and place cling film directly onto the surface to prevent it forming a skin as it cools. Cool to room temperature before proceeding. CAVEAT: If the mixture is too stiff, add in a second 120 grams of liquid.

For the DOUGH:

1 large egg

650 grams bread flour (about 5 cups)

30 grams granulated sugar (about 3 tablespoons

10 grams instant / quick-rise yeast (1 tablespoon)

8 grams salt (about 1 teaspoon)

60 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, soft (4 tablespoons)


(1/2 cup milk - if the dough is too stiff)

Dough like stiff batter

Pour the starter mixture into the bowl of a heavy duty stand mixer and add in the remaining ingredients, except the last half cup of milk. Start the mixer on lowest speed until mixture is combined, stopping to scrape down if needed. At this point the dough should be quite loose. If it is not, add in the half cup of extra milk and again mix slowly until combined. Now, raise the mixer speed to 4 or 5 and mix for 20 minutes. The very loose dough should be nearly a stiff batter (see photo). Scrape the dough into a greased bowl, then lightly oil the top. Cover well and set aside to rise until doubled, 40 to 60 minutes.

Grease two loaf pans, approximately 9 x 5 inches. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and punch down well. The dough will be very springy and yet easy to handle. Divide into two equal pieces, by weight. Cover them well and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. This helps to relax the dough, slightly.

Further divide one piece of the dough into two equal pieces, by weight. Roll out one piece into a rough rectangle about 6 x 10 inches. With the shorter edge towards you, fold in each side to the center, slightly overlapping. Start rolling up the dough tightly, keeping edges neat as possible. Pinch the last edge to seal and set into one end of one of the greased loaf pans, seam side down.

Repeat with the other half of this section of the dough and set into the opposite end of the same loaf pan, seam side down. 

Do the same thing with the other half of the dough, dividing into two equal pieces, rolling out, tucking in sides, rolling and setting into each end of the second loaf pan. Lightly oil the tops of the dough, then cover with cling film and set aside to rise. The dough will be ready to bake once it reaches the top of the pans, about 45 minutes. If desired, and for a very deep colored and shiny top, brush the tops of the loaves with an egg wash made of 1 yolk and 1 tablespoon water.

Have oven preheated to 350 degrees F. Bake the loaves for about 30 to 40 minutes. If you have an instant-read thermometer, internal temperature should be between 95 to 105 degrees F. Turn out and allow to cool completely before slicing. Bread will be exceedingly soft. Unless you have a very sharp bread knife, do not try to cut the bread on the same day. With a good, sharp bread knife, use a back and forth sawing motion, very gently, with no pressure, to cut without crushing the bread.

My passion is teaching people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and passing along my love and joy of food, both simple or exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me also at A Harmony of Flavors on Facebook, and Pinterest 

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