And here we are again: the lush, verdant days of late spring. This time of year has such particular charms; it’s lovely in small specific ways. The air in the early mornings is still cool and cold, ripening under the day’s sunlight into soft, warm spring evenings. I love watching people emerge from the subway as dusk approaches, flooding the streets with activity. I like seeing them unclench their shoulders and turn their faces to the sunset. I like how everyone ambles slowly home, unlike in the winters when they dash from train or cab to apartment, trying to spend as little time outside as possible.
I spent yesterday morning walking around the farm at Blue Hill at Stone Barns—the restaurant and grounds are closed to the public on Monday and Tuesday, so it was wonderfully quiet. I was there for work (tough job, I know), learning a little more about the sustainable agriculture work being done at the center. (Did I hope that someone might spontaneously pop out and offer to feed me a six-course lunch? Yes, yes I did. Did they? No, no they did not.)
We wandered through the greenhouse, stopping to sample the by-products of recent cross-pollination experiments (like a gorgeously vibrant purple snow pea, edged in bright green). We walked through the restaurant’s gleaming stainless steel kitchens and into the warm, brightly-lit bakery. We tasted malted rye berries and debated the relative merits of einkorn flour and spelt.
We walked up the hill towards the far pastures, passing beds of snap peas and Jerusalem artichokes. A light mist drifted over the farm, shrouding the landscape in a chilly fog. It felt more magical than usual: a flock of white sheep dotting the green fields in front of us, low stone walls edging the property, throaty calls of birdsong and the insistent tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker in a far-off tree.
I felt shivery with pleasure at being outside in the quiet open air. It reminded me of these beautiful lines of poetry by Denise Levertov:
I told you about the
green light of
(a veil of quiet befallen
the downtown park,
shadows and cool
air, scent of
blossom on the threshold of
My day continued in a flurry of activity—driving home, a slew of work emails and meetings, and an evening event at the new Russ & Daughters space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was there for a bagel-making demo (again I know, really, taxing work day). In the hot, humid kitchen, we taught a crowd of eager New Yorkers to shape bagels, boil them in huge vats of bubbling water, coat them in seeds (and that iconic everything bagel blend!), then bake them to chewy, burnished gold perfection.
I was in the background, assisting where helpful. I love watching the head bakers in their element. Their movements are so deft and practiced; they roll, divide, knead, and shape dough as easily as they draw breath. But there’s something beyond that—an element of beauty—like watching a ballet dancer execute a flawless series of turns.
It reminds me of how much baking comes down often to muscle memory: the more you bake, the better you get at sensing how to handle dough, how to mix batter, and how to trust your senses (sight, smell, and touch) to know exactly when a cake is ready or bread is baked.
I woke up eager to bake, and I’d had my fill of warm bagels from the night before, so instead a simpler yet equally excellent bread will have to do today.
This recipe is one of my very favorite breads to bake. Fluffy and airy with an ethereal crumb that looks as soft as cotton candy, this loaf gets its great texture from a technique called “tangzhong”. It sounds fancy, but all it means is that you make a roux (by cooking flour and water together into a paste), and you use that in your dough.
I particularly love this bread for sandwiches, as it’s just as squishy and tender as Wonder Bread, but a million times more flavorful (not to mention better, since it’s homemade and free of weird preservatives and all that jazz).
Also, if you were to use this for French toast…well, that would not be a bad move, let’s just leave it at that.
Japanese Milk Bread
Adapted from the New York Times; makes 1 loaf
4 tablespoons (56g) water
4 tablespoons (56g) whole milk
5 tablespoons (35g) bread flour
2 ½ cups (300g) grams bread flour
¼ cup (60 grams sugar
1 tablespoon instant or active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup (113ml) warm whole milk
4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter, softened
First, make the starter. In a small heavy-bottomed pot, whisk together the flour, milk, and water. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, or until thickened and the whisk begins to leave tracks in the mixture. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and set aside to cool.
Make the dough: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix together the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt.
Measure out 1/2 cup of the cooled starter (you might have more than this; discard the extra). Add the starter to the bowl of the stand mixer, along with the egg and milk.
Knead the dough (medium-low speed if using a dough hook which I recommend, it’s tough to do this by hand as the dough is very sticky) for about 5 minutes.
Add the softened butter, a little bit at a time, and continue kneading for about 10 minutes or until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. It will still be a bit sticky but shouldn’t be crazy sticky.
Transfer the dough to a large, lightly greased bowl and cover it. Let the dough rise until nearly doubled in size, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Gently press the dough with your hands to deflate it, and turn it out onto a work surface. Divide the dough evenly in half, roll each half roughly into a ball, and cover each ball. Let rise for about 15 minutes.
While the dough rises, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Butter (very thoroughly!) a 9” x 5” loaf pan—if you use a Pullman pan, you’ll get the beautifully precise square edges to your loaf that you see with mine.
Starting with one ball of dough, roll the dough out into an oval shape, about a a foot wide.
Fold the edges of the oval in, making a square shape with the dough. Roll the dough into a fat log. Repeat with the other ball of dough, and then nestle both next to each other in the pan.
Cover the pan and let the dough rise for about 30 minutes (the two logs should now be pressing against each other in the pan).
**Note: You can also just skip dividing the dough in half and make one big fat log. I prefer this method!
Brush the top of the dough lightly with milk and bake for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until pale golden brown and puffy.
Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to finish cooling. Make sure you cool the bread fully—for at least an hour—before slicing into it. It’s hard to wait, I know! But this ensures the crumb stays delicate and soft instead, and doesn’t “squish”.