Week Thirty-Five: East Asian Breads
The theme for this week, East Asian breads, has been slightly troublesome for me. It’s difficult to pick recipes, you see, because most parts of Asia don’t have a bread-making tradition. The exception to this rule, of course, is Southwest Asia, comprising India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and other nearby nations, which have a rich variety of mostly flatbreads in the cuisine.
The reason behind this panary lack is, simply, climate. Wheat just doesn’t grow well in most of Southeast Asia, whereas rice grows plentifully. Because of the lack of gluten, rice makes rather miserable bread, but it makes excellent noodles. Rice, and noodles made from rice and many other starches, have historically taken the dietary and culinary place of bread in this part of the world.
But as the Western world crept into Asia through the Spice Trade and other monetary ventures, along with the occasional war, they brought their food with them. Asian businessmen who lived abroad in Western countries returned home with favorite new foodstuffs and methods, and breads of the Western world eventually gained a firm foothold in the various cuisines of Southern Asia.
Finding recipes for specifically Southeast Asian breads is challenging because there really aren’t that many. For example, many of Japan’s most popular breads are nearly identical to breads found in Western Europe and America, particularly enriched, soft, white breads. It didn’t make a lot of sense to post a recipe for “Japanese White Bread” when it’s exactly the same as “American White Bread“. I’ve tried to pick recipes that are either unique to the region, or are rarely seen in these United States; you’ll have to let me know how well I did at the end of the week.
To kick things off this week, I’m featuring a bread that is purely Japanese. Called Melon Pan (“pan” being Japanese for “bread”), it consists of a soft, rich roll topped with a sugar cookie (oh, yes). And there’s no melon. No melon chunks, no melon purée, no melon flavoring, absolutely nothing of the sort. So why the name?
The sugar cookie topping is usually scored in a crosshatch pattern, which is meant to look like a melon. Now, most people on teh interwebs will say it’s supposed to look like the skin of a melon, but I’ve never in my life seen a melon with crosshatched skin. If you have, please take a picture and send it to me; it sounds gorgeous.
What I have seen, though, is a thoroughly Japansese presentation of a melon wedge, cut into a crosshatch pattern, and bent backwards for serving. It’s a chic and simple way to serve melon, and one that avoids much mess in eating. If that isn’t Japanese, I don’t know what is. I propose that this is what melon pan is intended to imitate, rather than an entire melon.
As for why you’d want to replicate a melon in the first place, it’s important to remember Japan’s custom of gifting extremely expensive fruit. While standard supermarket melons rarely cross the five-dollar threshold, certain gift melons – such as the famed Yubari melons – can easily command prices of $100. Each. The all-time record price, set in 2008, was 2 million yen for two melons. That’s $21,000.
And that is why you’d want to replicate a melon in bread.
But the sugar cookie? I don’t even know. I can only assume it relates to the Japanese love of sweets; other than that, I got nothin’. What the sugar cookie does provide, however it came to be there, is a delightful crunch on top of an otherwise cottontail-soft bread. It creates a crisp crust that the tender bread alone could never achieve, and the overall effect is joyous.
The bread itself is reminiscent of brioche, enriched as it is with butter and egg, and has a fluffy, open texture with an appropriate hint of chewiness. Together with the cookie topping, it reminded me of nothing quite so much as king cake, which you might or might not be familiar with, depending on how far South you grew up. With the suggestion of vanilla in the cookie, and the buttery taste of the bread below, wrapped up in that incomparable texture, it’s easy to see why this bread is so popular in its native land.
I did have a little problem with scoring the cookie dough after it was placed on top of the risen bread dough, as it dried out just enough to become difficult; I ended up deflating one or two of the rolls a bit when crosshatching the cookie. This was mitigated by spritzing with a little water, but in the future, I think I would score the cookie dough before placing it on the rolls. I’ve reflected this change in the recipe, but use whatever method you like best.
For bread dough:
8 ounces (about 1 3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed
1 tablespoon nonfat dried milk powder
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold water
1 large egg, beaten
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
For cookie dough:
6 ounces (about 1 1/3 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 three-fingered pinch salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. To make the bread dough, whisk together the flour, powdered milk, yeast, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat the egg and cold water together until thoroughly blended. Add to the flour mixture in the bowl.
2. Using the dough hook, mix at low speed until a rough dough forms. Increase the speed, and mix at medium speed for about 4 minutes. The dough should have a rather stiff consistency.
3. Decrease the speed to low, and slowly add the sugar. Mix until the sugar is fully incorporated. The dough should soften a little at this point. Increase the speed to medium, and knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough becomes supple and elastic.
4. Again decrease the speed to low, and add the softened butter. Knead until mixed in, 2 or 3 minutes. You may need to add a little additional flour to help it fully incorporate; do so by spoonfuls. Increase the speed to medium and continue kneading for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until the gluten is well-developed.
5. Transfer the dough to a lightly-oiled bowl, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
6. Lightly grease a large baking sheet, or line with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and gently deflate. Divide the dough evenly into 8 pieces. Keeping the unused pieces covered, round each piece into a ball, and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Cover the dough loosely with lightly-oiled plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
7. While the dough proofs, make the cookie dough. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the bowl as necessary. Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.
8. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mixture, mixing at low speed just until combined. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate while waiting for the dough to finish its rise. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
9. Unwrap the cookie dough, and divide it into 8 even pieces. Roll each into a ball, keeping unused pieces covered. Using as little flour as possible, roll each ball into a flat round, about 3 1/2 inches in diameter.
10. With a sharp paring knife, score each round with a crosshatch (or diamond) pattern. Drape each piece of cookie dough over the risen bread dough, being careful not to deflate them. The cookie dough should encase the top and sides, but not the bottom, of each roll.
11. Bake at 350° F for 20 to 25 minutes, or until barely golden brown on top. Transfer to a wire rack to cool thoroughly.
1. You may prefer to make this bread dough by hand, as the volume of dough is quite small for a mixer. If you do, however, be careful to avoid the temptation to add excess flour when kneading. The dough is quite sticky, but over-flouring will lead to a tough bread.
2. Because the volume of the bread dough is so small, it’s easy for proportions of ingredients to go off. Use your intuition, and if the dough looks too slack or even a bit runny, don’t be afraid to add extra flour. Be sure to do so by small spoonfuls, though, avoiding an imbalance in the other direction. If the dough looks too stiff, add a little extra butter or sugar, again in small amounts.
3. This bread will keep in an air-tight container at room temperature for several days. Alternatively, it can be frozen and reheated in a 350° F oven, for about 5 to 7 minutes, or until heated through.