Monday, December 4, 2017

Your perfect loaf of Chinese "toast"

Last week I introduced you to the concept of a roux-inflected loaf that arose from the cracklingly inventive mind of some Hong Kong chef. 

That first salvo of mine was meant to hook you through the ingenious ribbons of chocolate that turn a basic white bread into sheer heaven.  Now we are backtracking a bit in order to talk about the bread itself.

If you aren’t particularly familiar with Chinese-style Western breads and pastries, you will find their texture remarkably soft, yet resilient. This is not artisanal bread by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it will probably remind you of your childhood, for this is the kind of loaf that supermarket sandwich bread has tried (and failed) for years to imitate.

In fact, a proper white Pullman loaf will strike you as being more along the lines of something you’d find in proper English teas, where cottony offerings cuddle softened butter and thinly shards of cucumber.
Bubbly yeast & cooled roux

You will need a Pullman loaf pan to pull this off correctly. They’re not that popular in kitchenware stores nowadays, but very much available online. In a pinch, you still can bake this bread in a regular loaf pan. It will not have that perfect square shape, but it will still be extraordinarily delicious. But get yourself a Pullman loaf pan.

One thing I’ve come to love about these pans is the exacting layer of crispiness they create around the fluffy bread. This is necessary. The bread itself is so extraordinarily light that it requires something to tether it to planet earth. And unlike the yucky crusts you asked your mom to cut off when you were seven, you’ll adore these browned wonders because they taste so good and feel so good as they crumble on your teeth.

Sticky dough ready for the first rising
This bread melts in the mouth, too. It’s pure pleasure. It lacks all socially redeeming values. It’s Chinese toast.

Hong Kong style hot water Pullman loaf
Xiānggăng tāngzhŏng tŭsī miànbāo 香港湯種吐司麵包
Hong Kong
Makes 1 (9 x 4 inch | 22 x 10 cm) loaf

Roux:
½ cup | 120 ml cool water
3 tablespoons | 25 g Chinese flour

Dough:
1 teaspoon active yeast
After the second rising
6 tablespoons | 90 ml warm water
¼ cup | 50 g sugar
¼ cup | 30 g powdered milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 cups | 300 g Chinese flour, plus about 1 cup | 150 g for kneading
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ cup | 60 g | ½ stick unsalted butter, softened
Spray oil
Water for sprinkling

1. Start the roux at least 1 hour before you prepare the rest of the dough, as it will need time to cool off a bit. Add the water to a heatproof measuring cup and stir in the flour. Smash any major lumps that rise to the surface, and then microwave this liquid on high for 1 minute until you have a thick roux that is very elastic. Sample the roux, and if you can detect the taste of flour, microwave it for another 30 seconds or so. Stir the roux, and then let it come to room temperature before you proceed to the next step.

Roll out a ball of dough
2. Sprinkle the yeast on the warm water and sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (Theoretically, you can make this bread by hand, but the dough ends up being so soft and sticky that it’s definitely easier to have the mixer do all the work.) Let the yeast bloom for about 20 minutes, and then add the cool roux, powdered milk, egg, flour, and salt. Mix these together and then knead on medium-low speed for about 10 minutes, until the dough is elastic and silky. Add the butter and continue to knead the dough for another 5 minutes or so to really build up the gluten. Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm area until the dough is at least double in size, around 1 to 2 hours. Dump the puffy dough out on to a board covered with flour and knead it by hand until it is not very sticky. Cover it again and let the dough rise until it is again at least double in size.

About to be covered...
3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead it for a minute or so to wake it up. Divide the dough into 3 evenly-sized pieces, shaped these into balls, cover with the plastic wrap, and let them rest for about 20 minutes to fully relax the dough and make it easier to shape.

4. Working on one piece at a time, roll a ball of dough out into a 12 x 4 inch | 30 x 10 cm rectangle-ish shape, with one of the short edges facing you. Roll it up gently from a short edge to make a cylinder that is 4 inches | 10 cm long—in other words, so that it will be able to fit easily into your loaf pan. Repeat with the other two balls of dough. Cover these cylinders with the plastic wrap, and let them rest for another 15 minutes.

5. Spray your Pullman loaf pan and lid with oil. Arrange the cylinders side-by-side in the pan, sprinkle them with a bit of water, cover them again with the plastic wrap, and give them a final opportunity to rise until they almost reach the top of the pan. (Remember that you must be able to slide the lid on top, so don’t let them overproof.)
 
Gratuitous side design
6. Set a rack just below the middle of your oven and set it for 350°F | 175°C. When the oven is ready, sprinkle water over the dough to create steam inside the pan. Slide the lid onto the pan, set the pan in the oven, and bake for around 35 minutes. When you open the pan, the loaf should be a lovely golden brown and sound hollow when you tap it in the center. Remove the pan from the oven, turn the loaf out onto a cake rack, and let it cool before cutting it into slices. This freezes well, of course.

Tip

Wash your Pullman loaf and cover with water and towel it dry. They shouldn’t ever need more than that to get clean. Never wash them (or any other bakeware, for that matter) in the dishwasher, as the soap will corrode their surface.


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