Bake of the Week: Honey Milk Bread
I’m taking a little break from cakes to post about this amazing bread that has been the talk of the bread baking world lately. Ok, actually, I am a bit late to the party, but only on the act of actually baking this bread.
We have been eating this bread for years. It’s common in Japan, where the bread originates, but here in the states, you mostly find it in Asian markets that have a bakery section. It’s sort of a cross between white wonderbread and brioche, but softer, moister, and with a bit more structure..
The bread gets its texture from a cooked flour paste called Tangzhong. Cooking a portion of the flour with liquid, usually water but sometimes milk, gives the bread the ability to hold more moisture and have a finer texture.
I kind of got a little obsessed with this bread and baked it several times in a row, mostly because I was trying to get the perfect texture. The first try was ok, but nothing really to write home about. Everyone else here loved it, but it was not quite right.
With the subsequent tries, I discovered a few more keys to getting the right texture of the bread (the first being the Tangzhong). Firstly, the dough needs an autolyse, which is a rest period when the flour is allowed to hydrate without any salt or butter added. Holding the salt back for the autolyse also helps the yeast to distribute more quickly throughout the dough as salt slows down yeast reproduction. It’s like giving the dough a jump start in life.
The next secret is one that most recipes don’t mention, but anyone who has ever made brioche dough will know. This bread dough needs a lot of mixing to create the long strands of gluten that give you the signature texture of Japanese Milk bread. Brioche doughs have a similar texture and are generally mixed for almost 30 minutes. I found that this dough benefits from the same treatment.
You can see in this short video how cleanly the dough clears the bowl and if you look closely, you might even be able to see some long strands of dough that get separated and incorporated back into the main ball. These are signs that your dough is properly kneaded.
It is important to knead the dough until it is really smooth and completely cleans the sides of the bowl. I can’t imagine making this dough without a stand mixer because of the amount of kneading involved, so if you don’t have one, try to borrow one! The butter gets slowly added bit by bit after the dough’s first kneading and it takes almost as long to incorporate the butter as the first stage of kneading.
Another secret to the texture of this bread is in the shaping. To get those long strands of fluffy bread, the dough has to be rolled tightly into sausages before its final rise. I include a video above of me doing this one handed which I hope gives you the general idea of how it should be done. It is, of course, easier and more efficient to do with two hands, but there was no one else around to take the video, so this is what you get! Note how I pull the dough gently toward me as I roll. This helps to lengthen the strands of dough, give the final baked bread those long stretchy fibers that make it so yummy.
Unlike many recipes, my version uses honey for a sweetener, which I like because it gives a more flowery fragrance and sweetness. Honey is also hygroscopic, which basically means it has the ability to hold moisture and keep it. Sugar is not as hygroscopic and can also impede yeast reproduction.
The last bit of advice I am going to give you about making this bread is that if you have a pizza stone or baking stone, then use that to bake your bread on. The stone holds heat and will transfer it more quickly than the air will to the dough, which will in turn give you a higher rise (oven spring) than just putting your breads on the oven rack. It’s not a deal breaker. You will still have great bread if you do not use one, but the bread will be higher if you use one.
Ok, enough about the mechanics of the bread. After making this recipe several times, I was finally happy with the taste and texture of this bread. It’s fluffy and soft and moist, but still has some structure to it. I think of it as the perfect bread for toast in the morning and it is also awesome for sandwiches.
Some of you might notice that even though the bread is called milk bread, I actually use cream in the recipe. You can make it with milk, but I find cream to be much better. It gives the bread a little extra richness and adds to the texture. Plain milk is just not the same, in my opinion, but it’s up to you.
Also, I have been making this bread on some of the coldest days of the year, so rising times are definitely affected. In summer, I fully expect the dough to rise faster and would probably cut the yeast back a little to compensate. This bread has become a family favorite now and I hope you will try it and let me know what you think.
HONEY MILK BREAD
This recipe yields enough dough for 2-3 loaves of bread, depending on how high you want them. Two 8.5 by 4 inch loaf pans will give you breads that tower and spill over the sides. I liked using one 14 by 4 inch pain de mie pan and a regular loaf pan to give me more reasonable slices that would fit in a sandwich bag. You could also use three loaf pans for squatter loaves. It’s up to you. The shaping of little cylinders (four to a loaf pan) is the traditional method of shaping and will also get you the best texture as the edges of the dough push up against each other and encourage the formation of those long gluten strands.
For the Tangzhong:
2 ounces (55g) (6 1/2 Tablespoons) bread flour
8 ounces (225g) (1 cup) water
For the bread:
8.75 ounces (250g) (1 cup) heavy cream
5 ounces (150g) (1/2 cup) honey
1 ounce (30g) (1/3 cup) nonfat dry milk
2 large eggs
4 teaspoons (15g) instant yeast
24 ounces (650g) (4 3/4 cups) bread flour
1 Tablespoon (15g) kosher salt
4 ounces (115g) (8 Tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, softened or at room temperature
2 Tablespoons of heavy cream
some flaky sea salt
- To make the Tangzhong: whisk together the flour and water in a small saucepan until no longer lumpy. While whisking constantly, heat over medium low heat until the mixture thickens into a pudding like consistency.
- Begin making the bread dough: Whisk the heavy cream, honey, and nonfat dry milk into the Tangzhong mixture. There is no need to cool the Tangzhong before hand, but before proceding, test the Tangzhong, cream, and honey mixture to make sure it is no longer hot. It should be slightly warm, but not hot.
- Transfer mixture to a large standing mixer bowl and whisk in the eggs and yeast. Add the flour on top and, with a dough hook, mix in the flour until just combined, but still shaggy. This will take about a minute. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest for 20 minutes.
- Add the salt to the dough and mix on medium until very smooth and the dough cleans the sides of the bowl. This can take awhile, up to 10 or 15 minutes.
- Once the dough is smooth, add the butter, two tablespoons at a time. After each addition, mix the dough until the butter is incorporated. You may have to stop the mixer to scrape the butter back into the dough as it will tend to climb up the sides. The whole process of adding the butter should also take 10-15 minutes.
- Cover the bowl with plastic again and let the dough rise until doubled, 45 minutes to an hour.
- When the dough is almost doubled, place your baking stone in the oven in the bottom third and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray your pans with oil or coat with butter.
- Turn your dough out on a lightly floured surface and divide into pieces. You should have four pieces for each regular sized loaf pan. I used six pieces in my long 14 inch pain de mie pan. Shape each piece into a ball and let rest, covered, for about 10 minutes.
- To shape each piece, flatten it into an oval about 3 inches wide by 6-8 inches long. I just use my hands for this instead of a rolling pin so that I don’t knock al the air out of it. Starting at a short end, roll up the dough into a tight four inch wide cylinder and place in the pan. Repeat this for all the remaining pieces of dough.
- Cover the pans and let rise until more than doubled. Depending on how many loaves you decided to make and the shape of the loaves, the dough may or may not rise above the edges. The pain de mie pan has 4 inch high sides and the dough just barely started rising up past the edge when I decided to bake. The second rise will take about 60 minutes to an hour and 30 minutes.
- When the dough is done rising, brush each loaf with cream and sprinkle some flaky sea salt on top. Bake for 30-35 minutes for standard loaf pans or until dark golden brown. A large 14 inch pain de mie pan will take about 5-10 minutes longer. They are done when they sound hollow when tapped or when a thermometer registers 200 degrees in the center of the loaf.
- Remove the bread from the pans and allow to cool completely on a rack. It is normal for them to cave in on one side or two while cooling, especially if they are top heavy. Enjoy!