This week’s Hungry Still takes on an abbreviated format because the rise of natural yeast is a more time-intensive one than that of commercial dry yeasts. But as you can see, the wait is worthwhile. In light of food shortages—including yeast—we have been pondering how to achieve the perfect luxury of soft baked goods without relying on commercial dry yeast we took for granted for so long. Having hopped on the bandwagon to cultivate our own wild yeast starter, this bread is brought to you from wild yeast cultivated from dried dates, grown for weeks in a sanitized jar and maturing in hibernation in the fridge. Somehow, time makes everything taste better. This sesame-swirl milk bread is one of those things.
In high school, a French exchange student visited our school for a few months. He was a tall, dark-haired teenager— almost a man—whose mysterious silences gave away a lot more than his speech. Nonchalant, a little aloof, he was the object of adoration at our Midwestern school. We all became francophiles in effect, and even the teacher fawned over him. It may be because of his reticence that the only thing I remembered him saying was: “Where do Americans buy bread?” Then the word got out that his host family searched all around, checking Kroger, local bake shops and the like, and couldn’t satisfy the poor man’s craving. Bread? Pain? What?! You know, pain! It’s crusty, bubbly, warm, fragrant, elastic, flavorful…It’s…bread! Well, if he for some inexplicable reason were around today, I’m sure we’d have no trouble finding him some quality #quarantinesourdough from a nation’s worth of #quarantinebaking.
In the Midwest, we have a culture of baking and certainly of adoring bread, but, as with this suave young French man, not the kind I craved from my memory. As a child growing up in Taiwan, there was a bakery on every corner, selling fluffy buns with sweet custard or red bean paste, topped with a glossy egg glaze, sprinkled with sesame seed or laced with Japanese mayonnaise, corn and ham. For whatever reason—perhaps via Japan’s influence—the small country is a Pacific Island obsessed with eating and innovating the art of the European viennoiserie. What results is neither a French boulangerie nor a Hong Kong-style bakery, but new strains of sweet goods—tarts, cream breads, buns, rolls, twists, sandwich loaves, cakes—that emerge from Taiwan’s innumerable bake shops.
Most of these are based on the mastery of the enriched white dough. Wonder Bread, you might think? Almost. Some may know this to be milk bread, Hokkaido loaf, pain de mie, shokupan—but by whichever name, you will know it by its fluffy, cotton-like texture, its sweet milk-and-butter flavor, a good chewy bite due to a strong gluten structure and a soft airy crumb and crust. You’ll know this bread for pleasure, not for sustenance.
It is, at heart, a dolled-up, enriched sandwich bread. It’s a little more special than the basic bread because of the time (and the butter and milk!) you’ll lovingly pour into it. Because of a natural rise, it does take about a day to make (and just around 45 minutes to devour in its entirety if you’ve got friends and children at home). The recipe reveals a sesame swirl throughout the loaf, but you can easily replace this ingredient with one you have in your pantry—chocolate chips, cocoa, matcha, espresso powder, raisins—or forgo these add-ins altogether. In this version, moreover, the dough is also finished in a simple roll, so that the slice is against the grain, revealing the swirl. But you can achieve a myriad of other effects, such as the feathery-soft, cotton-like strands of the pull-apart bun, by dividing the bulk dough into three or more equal parts and baking together.
I wish Midstory could feed all of you out there with a tasty morsel, but a recipe to share will have to do for now.
Sesame-swirl Milk Bread
Recipe makes one loaf
200g Milk (you can use less milk if you’d like: 150g milk, 50g water)
3g Dry yeast*
320g All purpose flour (if you’ve got bread flour, by all means go ahead and use that)
75g Natural sourdough or wild yeast starter*
2 tbsp Unsalted butter
5-7 tbsp Finely ground sesame seeds (or whatever add-in you’d like, cocoa, chocolate chips, raisins, etc.)
- Get your starter ready (either the night before baking or at least 4-6 hours before depending on your starter maturity): take it out from the fridge, feed it, etc. Make sure it’s bubbly and active.
- In a large bowl, add warm (not scalding) milk, dry yeast. Let sit for five minutes until activated.
- Add in flour, sugar, salt and the starter. Mix with a wooden spoon until craggly dough comes together and no flour is seen.
- Cover. Let autolyse for 1 hour.
- After the autolyse, knead in bowl for about 5-7 minutes. Though the dough will be sticky, resist the urge to add flour. Use the slap and fold technique to knead: lightly flour your hands, and grab the dough in its entirety and slap it down and fold over until the dough is smooth and elastic, and the dough ball should be able to pick up leftover dough stuck to the bottom and side of the bowl. If it is too sticky for you to work with, step away and let dough rest for 3-5 minutes then come back to it.
- Check dough for window pane: grab a bit of dough in your fingers and stretch it out. If it stretches to a thin, semi-transparent membrane without breaking, you’re good to move on. If not, knead it another 5 minutes to develop the gluten structure.
- Incorporate room-temperature butter by kneading in the butter, and continually folding the dough over into itself about 3-4 minutes. After no more butter can be seen, you should have a very soft and smooth dough that has come together at the end of the process.
- Bulk rise until doubled (around 1-2 hours).
- After rise, punch dough down and take it out on a lightly floured surface. Divide into two.
- For the first dough, mix in sesame powder and fold until incorporated. The second dough is plain. Let rest for 15 minutes.
- Roll both doughs out to approximately the same shape, lay the sesame dough over the plain dough, and continue rolling together, pushing out the air bubbles.
- Sprinkle the top of the combined dough lightly with sugar. Fold in the sides of the dough to match the length of the bread pan you’ll use. Then, jelly roll tightly, adding tension to the dough, and pinching the seam shut at the end.
- Set it seam-down in a well-oiled bread pan. Cover for the final rise, about 45 minutes.
- Thirty minutes in, preheat your oven to 370F to ensure the oven is sufficiently hot.
- Right before baking, lightly brush the top with a tablespoon of milk. Bake uncovered for 35-40 minutes. If you notice the top getting too dark, lightly tent the top with aluminum foil.
- Dough should rise significantly in the oven, with a caramel-brown crisp top that will soften as it cools. When done, take out of the oven and remove from pan. Cool on a rack and wait at least an hour before slicing. The wait will be well worth it.
*If you only have commercial dry yeast at home, you can use a total of 2 tsp of it in place of the starter. You can shorten the autolyse in Step 4, and watch for the dough to double in ~45 minutes-1 hour in Step 8.