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The Zen of Japanese Cottony Milk Bread

Jan 21, 2017 | From the kitchen of Rose

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It's been 30 years since I first experienced it on a visit to Japan--the softest and most unusual bread. I never hoped to recreate in my own country and kitchen but then it appeared on the web. Of course I had to try it. And it became an obsession. In one week, I produced 7 different loaves and now finally my ultimate version. It is soft, slightly chewy, and captures the exact flavor of the aroma of bread baking in the oven. When toasted it becomes amazingly light and only a little chewy.

This soft white bread flies in the face of artisan breads having no whole grain, no long rise, and the addition of sugar. If only I had a picture of a young boy named Oliver, tasting this bread for the first time, closing his eyes in rhapsody, and hugging his mother to thank her for telling me that he loves white bread. Marissa tells me that by the time we came back from dinner, Oliver and his sister Cate had managed to polish off all but 2 inches of the bread.

When I saw a picture of this bread on line, I noticed immediately that the crumb was similar to the one of my memory. And there is a delightful video. The voice of this Vietnamese baker, Linh Trang, is nothing short of enchanting. And her instructions couldn't be more explicit and easy to follow.

The recipe on her blog RicenFlour is given only in grams, which is the way I bake as well, and ensures successful replication.

I have made a few modifications. Because the exact size of the loaf pan is not readily available, I prefer a 8-1/2 by 4-1/2 inch 6 cup loaf pan. It offers the best height for the loaf but the 9 by 5 inch 7 cup loaf pan offers more support to the risen loaf giving it a better shape on the outside.

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BAKED IN AN 8-1/2 BY 4-1/2 INCH LOAF PAN

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BAKED IN AN 9 BY 5 INCH LOAF PAN

I used King Arthur Bread flour which is 12.7% protein, whereas the original used 12% protein flour. So for one loaf, I decreased the amount of bread flour to 238 grams and increased the cake flour to 62 grams. This made it whiter in color and more delicious in flavor as bleached cake flour has a floral quality.

I increased the yeast to 9 grams, so that it would rise within the parameter of about 1 hour for the first rise and shaped rise. A larger amount of yeast is needed than for most breads due to the addition of the sugar.

When shaping the logs, I only rolled them out one time as it was difficult to keep the shape well even when rested between two rollings. I found it had no effect on the texture of the bread. Before dividing the bread into 4 pieces, instead of kneading it, I pressed it down to eliminate air bubbles. I found that kneading it made it harder to shape into even logs.

In the 6 cup loaf pan, the dough rose to 3/4 inch from the top of the pan at its highest point when ready to bake. (The baked loaf was 4 inches high at its highest point.)

Instead of an egg wash, which together with the sugar in the recipe caused it to brown too much, I sprayed the risen loaf with water and added ice cubes to a preheated cast iron pan on the floor of the oven, after placing the bread on the lower rack.

I also tried using 100% unbleached all-purpose flour and shaped it as a single loaf. You can see from this photo that the texture is quite different and less fluffy than the one with bread + cake flour shaped into 4 separate sections. The flavor was not nearly as delicious using all-purpose flour.

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ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR ON THE LEFT, BREAD FLOUR + CAKE FLOUR ON THE RIGHT

I love Linh's technique of brushing the baked loaf with heavy cream instead of the usual butter. And I love how she describes it as giving a glow to the crust. It also softens the crust, which perfectly complements the soft interior.

I am offering all these details because I want you to succeed in making this extraordinary loaf. I'll be making it on a regular basis, after I deplete the large supply now in my freezer.

Please also see The Zen of Japanese Cottony Milk Bread Revisited.

and

for a single loaf please see The Zen of Japanese Cottony Milk Bread Final Frontier.

Comments

Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Tonia
03/25/2017 09:50 AM

Tonia! what a beautiful thing to say! it truly is my joy to share the exciting baking discoveries. it's hard to hold back a few of the new things that will appear in the upcoming book but 2018 is right around the corner.

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Thanks so much Rose! Your commitment to the fine art of baking is inspiring! Your books have been a constant companion in my kitchen since I learnt to cook and one day, I will swap my legal profession and bake full time. Thank you so much for sharing your passion

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Tonia
03/24/2017 11:54 PM

Tonia, the original one used 12% bread flour (all bread flour is unbleached) so use the same amount to add up to 300 grams total: 270 grams bread flour 30 grams cake flour. the Japanese pan pictured on instagram is ideal as it is narrower and higher than the US 7 cup pan but if i didn't have it i'd use the 6 cup 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 US pan.

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Dear Rose,

Thank you for sharing the recipe, I agree, what a beautifully executed video! I do have a questions though, if I were to make the recipe per your suggestions, and I only have the bleached cake flour but UNbleached bread flour, how would I go about the measurement in grams? I should note the bread flour here is 12% protein so not quite as high as the King Arthur Flour.

Also, are these modifications just for one8 by 4 inch loaf? And which would you consider the superior loaf size 8 or 9 inches?
I look forward to your reply!

Best, as always,

Tonia

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Hsiaohui
02/ 2/2017 09:22 AM

thank you Hsiaohui! of course i googled immediately and have ordered it from Hong Kong! i'll be trying it as soon as it arrives.

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I've been made the cotton-soft like Japan bread for years. One of the key secrets is the flour, Japan has developed "Casarine flours" , in Asia it also was called the " tearful flours" as anyone who eats the bread made with this flour would be tearful for tasting such delicious bread. 11.7% protein and is made by extracting the very heart of a wheat. I also found using the fresh yeast instead of dry/instant yeast can produce very moist and soft loaves.

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Now I'm thinking of making some caramelised bread with ice cream on my own :-D The idea is interesting and it sounds delicious, too (with proper caramel, of course). Maybe I will try with some slices of soft whole wheat bread. I will send you some photos if I really make it.

I'm starting to dream about the day that you will visit me in Vietnam. Hopefully it will come very very soon :)

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Linh Trang
01/28/2017 04:27 PM

you are so right Linh--when you bake with love it shows as does the contrary. the person who prepared this recipe started off by cutting the bread evenly unevenly. then when using the propane torch to caramelize the sugar, it started out looking so beautiful and bronze but to my dismay--and i wanted to cry out STOP--she just kept going until it turned black. now, as we know, blackened sugar or honey loses its sweetness and becomes very bitter. the concept of the caramelized milk bread with ice cream and a drizzle of honey was a lovely one but the execution was a disappointment.

i am still getting chills of joy to think that i was so worried you might not see my comments, or not like them, or never write back, and that it is quite the opposite. in back of my mind now i will plant a little seedling of dreaming of a trip to Vietnam to visit you. do let us know if you come to the US.

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Dear Rose,

I really appreciate that you would spend time on my blog and my videos. I hope that they won't make you bored as most of them are for beginners. If there are anything that I can do to improve my recipes and my videos, could you please kindly let me know?

Thank you for sharing with me your recent experience in New York city. I feel curious about that caramelized milk bread, too :-). Actually I always think that things coming out from our kitchens are always the best because they are made with passions and love. And this bread is coming from YOUR kitchen, so there should be no doubt about how tasty it is... :-)

It will be really really great if I could meet you in person some days. I used to live in EU but I have come back to Vietnam recently and will stay here for some years. I am not sure if I will have a chance to visit the US again but I will be very pleased to host you in Vietnam (I know that there are many Vietnamese looking forward to seeing you, too). The baking industry is still quite young here but we have many other interesting things for you to experience.

At this moment, we are celebrating the Lunar New Year (Tet Festival) in Vietnam and this conversation with you makes this the best Tet Festival that I have ever had so far. I hope we could keep in touch. Have a very nice weekend!

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Trung
01/27/2017 11:34 AM

Trung! what a beautiful thing to write. she so deserves the recognition and i'm overjoyed to know that she is so happy about it. she is indeed a Queen--a true treasure of one.

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Linh Trang
01/27/2017 11:32 AM

Linh, is there anything better than being admired by the person one admires?!

are you living in Vietnam now? i hope some day to meet you in person. meantime i will certainly check out the photos on your blog and any videos you do that are in english or even in vietnamese which i don't speak at all.

i think you will be interested in knowing that yesterday i was in new york city and went to a place known for its caramelized milk bread and ice cream. they did not actually make the milk bread there. i was so curious to see what a commercial one would be like after 30 years of not having tasted one and it had none of the delicacy of your recipe. now i know that i have arrived at my final version thanks to you.

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Thank you Rose for making our Queen Linh Trang happy :) We love her so much and love to see her excited and happy like this!

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Dear Rose,

Being able to talk to you in person like this is really like a dream to me. Your books have been with me since the day I started to learn to bake. They are now still among the most reliable and inspirational sources that I refer to whenever I need any information on baking and/or want to try a new recipe. Even though, I could never imagine that there is a day when one of my recipes is tested by you, in your kitchen....

It will be my pleasure and honor if you would take a look at my books and maybe give some thoughts on them. However, all of my books are in Vietnamese and are only available in Vietnam. My youtube channel and Rice 'n Flour are the only two platforms where I share my recipes and my thoughts in English. I have been blogging for some years but only started these two platforms about a year ago. So there are not many posts there, but in the coming months I will invest more efforts on them. You are always more than welcome to pass by whenever you have time.

Thank you very much for your very kind words and compliments on the recipe and my video! Your words and your feedback on my video have given me a lot of encouragement to continue exploring the baking world. I hope that in the future, I will have chances to talk more with you and to learn from you. It's really a pleasure to meet you!

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Linh Trang
01/25/2017 11:40 AM

Linh, you can't imagine how thrilled I am to have you write back and what your wrote!!! you say it was more than a dream come true so how perfect that i felt the same way about you and your recipe!

i would love to see your books--as i'm sure would other people in this blog community. i looked on amazon but am not finding anything so are you on another amazon in vietnam or another country? i'll see if i can find something on your blog as well.

did i mention that your video is one of the best i've ever seen?

so very lovely to meet you!

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from Scott
01/25/2017 11:36 AM

Scott the bread is rising in it right now so i'll be doing a posting today or tomorrow. you'll see i had the same thought as you and used paper clamps to prevent the dough from pushing and expanding the pan. i bought the pan in london a long while ago thinking it might come in handy.

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Dear Rose,

Thank you so so much for your feedback and detailed notes on the recipe.

I have to say that it is really a great honor of me to have you tested the recipe and giving feedback on it. I haven't logged into RicenFlour for some days. When I saw your comment and your post today, I couldn't believe in my eyes. ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM TRIED MY RECIPE AND LIKED IT!! It was more than a dream come true... I will definitely try the recipe again with your modifications.

Regarding your question on bleached flour, honestly I am not sure about it. This video was recorded while I was living in Germany and there they did not mention explicitly whether the flour was bleached or not. But I guess not because I noticed that the flour that I used was not very white.

A final note, I have all of your books and I learned a lot from them, not just the knowledge on baking and your beautiful recipes, but also the writing style ( I am also a cookbook author). Thank you very much for all of the efforts that you have put on these books. I am looking forward to your next bible in the future :-)

All the very best,
Linh Trang

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An *expandable* loaf pan?? I'd never heard of such a thing! Is it a particularly British item? Most of the search results I see come from Commonwealth nations rather than the US (and Amazon had nothing).

How does it work containing the baking bread--i.e., does the pressure from an expanding loaf push it open at all and so reduce (the vertical) rise?

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I'm surprised that you can detect the potato flavor from potato starch. The flour has a very pronounced potato aroma, since it includes the peel, but I don't detect any aroma from from the starch. But your acute senses are probably one reason you've been so successful in the culinary field. :-)

I use the starch in everything where there's a risk of overmixing, such as pancakes and muffins. For dinner rolls, I use potato flakes and people are always surprised when I tell them the secret ingredient.

Recipe development is fun and I love reading about your thought processes.

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from CharlesT
01/22/2017 01:39 PM

we've experimented with potato starch to improve the gelatinization of unbleached all-purpose flour and it does work better than cornstarch bc it gelatinizes at a lower temperature. this is no doubt why potato buns are moister as well. but it does have a distinct potato flavor which i enjoy in a bun and also potato bread but for this bread it's so pure and perfect and perish the word yeasty i don't want to introduce another flavor. it has so little egg there is no egginess either.

it would be great if you frozen a slice or bun from each batch so you can compare.

glad to know i'm not alone in spending so very much thought, time, and effort, to get to the bottom of this bread. the process does reveal and teach so many things. your putting into words why the 4 log shaped pieces of dough that are set in pan in opposite direction to 1 piece have that peelability in the baked bread. which i didn't understand this fully until you expressed it so perfectly.

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Rose, thanks for your insightful comments.

One thought I had regarding the Tangzhong method is that while everyone uses flour for that, the mechanism I've seen described involves gelatinization of the starch. My thought was "why not use all starch?" So I've tried it with potato starch and it seems to work. For the potato buns that I make, I use potato flour, rather than starch, and it seems to gelatinize almost instantly. In fact, I'm not sure it even needs heat. I'll have to try that next time. With buns, however, I was originally using potato starch to reduce the strength of the flour, so if the Tangzhong method does the same thing, all to the good, right?

Since I usually make batches only ever few months, I can't directly compare Tangzhong vs no Tangzhong, so I can't really say whether I'm wasting my time or not.

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from CharlesT
01/22/2017 09:08 AM

CharlesT, i think she probably did not use bleached though her crumb looks very light. could be the lighting.

so glad you mentioned the tangzhong method as i didn't think to add about how i tried this a few years ago from the ny times and didn't like the results. i gave up on the bread until i saw it on the web still using the tangzhong method so i tried it again and still did not like the slightly pasty result.

i no longer scald milk as ultra-pasteurization seems to kill the enzyme that impairs yeast production. i experimented with buttermilk in popovers and it significantly reduced rising. i think the acidity impacts the gluten development.

all interesting thoughts. i've reached the end of my experiments because i'm so happy with the results but not quite the end: as soon as there is room in one of the 3 freezers test #8 will be in a pan that is 6-1/2 cups! i brought an expandible loaf pan back from england years ago when translating the cake bible to UK terminology. i've never used it but i thought some day it may come in handy. le jour est arrivé!!!

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Thank you, Rose. :-) Do you think that the author of the recipe used *bleached* cake flour? I understand that it's hard to come by in many countries abroad.

When I first saw your posting, I assumed the recipe would incorporate the Tangzhong method, but I had to read it several times to realize that it didn't. I thought this was tightly associated with Hokkaido Milk bread?

I also wonder whether scalding the milk would be beneficial. Or maybe using buttermilk?

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Rose Levy Beranbaum
Rose Levy Beranbaum in reply to comment from CharlesT
01/21/2017 08:39 PM

Charles, so clever of you to realize this. i needed to make it both ways to discover the difference. i knew it wouldn't be the flour that accounted for this.

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I wonder if the texture difference is because you're rolling up the dough in different directions with respect to the loaf pan. Normally, the axis of the dough roll is aligned with the long axis of the pan, but with this recipe, it's perpendicular. Only a small roll will fit in the pan that way, which is why you need several of them.

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