Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Experiments with Our Daily Bread

I'm not religious, but it reminds me of when we lived in Hong Kong.  We used to be able to hop on the elevator (we lived 20 or 30 stories up), walk a few blocks, buy freshly baked bread for breakfast and be home before it cooled.  My family is Chinese, and for the most part, prefers the bread in Chinese bakeries to French, Italian, or other loaves with a crunchy crust.  The exception is my dad, but he likes the soft and fluffy bread as well.  I was stunned when shortly after the bread came out of the oven, half of it was gone.  About 15 hours later, there was no trace of the bread left except the loaf pan.   

Several months ago, a friend of mine at school showed me a post on Kirbie's Cravings.  She's a great blogger and one of those who inspired me to write my own blog.  The post itself was about the soft and fluffy bread usually sold at Chinese bakeries and how to make them without using bread improvers or baker's ammonia.  Since purchasing expensive and rare materials in bulk did not appeal to me, I decided to try this method.  

Since I don't have a thermometer for cooking, I went by eye instead.  I cooked nervously until the paste resembled the picture on Kirbie's post.  It reminded me of pudding when I poured it out, but I was surprised at how much more liquidy it had gotten overnight.  It seems to have worked quite well, though.  The crust of the bread was somewhat chewy and the crust slightly tough from the egg wash, but that as only to be expected.  The inside was delightful, soft and fluffy as promised.  The hour I spent stubbornly hand-kneading this bread (after Kirbie warned that it would take a while) was well worth it, but I think that unless I'm at school, I'll just use the bread machine.  

Tangzhong from Yvonne Chen
Makes about 240g, twice as much as needed for this recipe

⅓ cup bread flour
1 cup water

1 balloon whisk
1 small pot


1. On top of a stove, stir the flour and water in the pot until there are no lumps.  Stir constantly until the mixture reaches 65 °C (about 156°F).  

2. Pour into bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing down to touch the surface of the flour paste.  Refrigerate until needed, up to few days.

Soft and Fluffy Milk Toast from Kirbie's Cravings
Makes 1 very puffy 9" x 5" loaf

2½ cups bread flour
3 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (originally instant, but it still worked)
1 egg
½ cup milk
120g tangzhong (about ½ the tangzhong made previously)

2-cup liquid measure
1 cup dry measure
½ cup dry measure
¼ teaspoon measure
½ teaspoon measure
1 teaspoon measure
1 tablespoon measure (Wow!  This is the first recipe I've posted that needs all four!) 
1 bread machine or stand mixer with dough hook(or 1 hour, clean hands and a lot of elbow grease)
     If no bread machine, instead you will need 
     1 large mixing bowl
     1 wooden spoon (or rubber spatula, but wooden spoon is sturdier)
Large, clean, flat surface area to work
A sprinkling of flour for dusting (I suspect this isn't necessary if the dough is kneaded enough)
1 sturdy butter knife


1. Mix together all the ingredients, saving just a little bit (less than a teaspoon) of the egg for egg wash if desired.  I happened to have extra egg yolks lying around, so I used a bit of that mixed with about an equal amount of water.  Once all the ingredients are combined, use the bread machine, mixer with dough hook, or your hands to knead until the dough is elastic and no longer sticky.  In the beginning, the dough will stick mercilessly to any dry surface it touches, but adding too much flour will make the bread dry.  The best solution is to simply knead until it no longer sticks. 

An easy method of beating eggs is in a sturdy liquid measuring cup.  I spin a rubber spatula between my palms to break up the egg and keep the egg contained.  Besides, it's one fewer bowl to wash.

2. Once the dough is no longer sticky, plop it back into the bowl, cover with a wet towel and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size (about 40 minutes).  I used a trick from 17 and Baking, microwave a cup of water for a few minutes, then leave the water and the bowl inside to rise. 

3. Knead the dough and divide into 4 balls.  Leave to rest under plastic wrap for about 15 minutes or so.

4. Roll out each ball into an oval, then fold into thirds.  Flip the dough over and roll out to flatten, then flip it over again and roll, starting with a short side.  Repeat with the other 3 balls of dough.  Kirbie has photos of this process here.

5. Tuck each roll into the loaf pan side by side and once again leave to rise until doubled in size, about 40 minutes.  

I am decidedly not good at this.  I tell myself the bread has character.

6. Preheat the oven to 325°F and brush the tops of the risen loaf with egg wash.  Bake for about 30 minutes, until the tops are shiny and golden brown (if you use a mixture of whole egg or egg yolk and water).  Slice or tug apart and enjoy!  It's wonderful spread with a little butter, especially fresh from the oven.

All beautiful and golden... a result of the egg wash which sticks so cheerfully to the pan.
Another thing I'll miss when I go back to school...

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