The Zen of Japanese Cottony Milk Bread

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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.

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

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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.

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.