When I first set out to make Hokkaido milk bread from scratch, I was nervous. These sky-high, snow-white loaves are the cornerstone of any respectable Asian bakery—feathery-soft yet rich and decadent, with wisps of bread that pull away in sheets when you separate its parts. For me, it was practically legendary.
To add to the mythos surrounding this lofty bread, I couldn’t find much in my research on traditional ways to make it, or even on its origins. Most recipes appeared to use tangzhong, a type of roux-like paste designed to give bread a finer crumb and a softer, fluffier texture. And many of them lead back to the Hokkaido Milk Toast recipe by Christine Ho, which is, in turn, based on a cookbook called 65 Degrees C by Yvonne Chen.
In the end, I tested three different recipes, and the one that won my heart was indeed the one I adapted from Christine’s. It was a dream to knead, shape, and bake, and the bread was just like I’d imagined: sweet, fragrant, and pillowy-soft. It’s good enough to eat plain and even better in sandwiches, but in my opinion, it’s best when toasted, lightly buttered, and smothered in sweetened condensed milk: the milk toast of my dreams.
Note: This recipe yields one loaf made in a 9-by-4-by-4-inch pan. Taller loaf pans are ideal; I used a Pullman without the lid. For those using the metric system or a bread machine, feel free to check out Christine’s original recipe (https://en.christinesrecipes.com/2010/10/hokkaido-milk-toast-japanese-style.html); hers will also yield two smaller loaves or one (13-by-4-inch) loaf instead of one (9-by-4-inch). —Cynthia Chen McTernan
- Prep time 4 hours
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Makes 1 tall (9-by-4-inch) loaf
whole milk, plus 1 splash for the egg wash
1 1/2 teaspoons
active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups
(about 320 grams) bread flour, plus up to ¼ cup (30 grams) more
heavy whipping cream
sweetened condensed milk or milk powder (optional)
unsalted butter, softened, divided
- Prep the Tangzhong: In a small saucepan, whisk the water and flour until no lumps remain. Heat over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, for 3 to 5 minutes, until thickened to a gel-like consistency. As soon as lines appear in the mixture when stirred, remove the pot from the heat and transfer the mixture to a small, clean bowl. Let cool to room temperature.
- Assemble the Bread: Heat the whole milk to just above room temperature, about 110°F or lukewarm to the touch (I do this simply by microwaving it for 10 to 15 seconds). Sprinkle the yeast over the milk; set aside for 5 to 10 minutes for the yeast to activate (you’ll see the milk start to foam).
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk 2½ cups of the flour and the sugar and salt. In a small bowl or a measuring cup, whisk the tangzhong, cream, condensed milk, and 1 of the eggs.
- When it’s ready, add the yeast mixture to the tangzhong mixture and whisk gently just to incorporate. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in all of the wet ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a loose, shaggy dough, then switch to using your hands. Knead for 4 to 5 minutes, until the dough forms a semi-smooth ball. The dough will be quite sticky—1 tablespoon at a time, sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup of the flour over the dough and your hands as you knead to keep it from sticking too much. I usually use at least 2 tablespoons and often up to the full amount, but you may not need it all.
- Add 1 tablespoon of the butter to the dough, kneading to fully incorporate before adding the remaining 1 tablespoon of the butter. The dough will be slippery and messy at this point, but just keep kneading (actually, it’s oddly satisfying), and it should eventually form a soft and pliable dough that’s easy to work with. Knead for 4 to 5 minutes more, until the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
- Place the dough in a large bowl with plenty of room; cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise for 1 to 2 hours, until doubled. Alternatively, you can let the dough proof overnight in the refrigerator, which I prefer. It gives extra time for the gluten to develop and yields a better flavor, in my opinion. Plus, dividing the labor over 2 days makes the process much more manageable. The dough should be fine for up to 24 hours. If storing in the refrigerator, cover more tightly with plastic wrap to avoid drying out, but don't seal completely (an airtight seal can sometimes cause an alcohol-like smell to build up in the dough).
- Once the dough is doubled, turn it out and punch it down. Divide into 3 or 4 equal pieces. For each piece, roll out the dough to a long oval. Fold the oval into thirds widthwise, then flatten again. Roll the dough up lengthwise, then place into the loaf pan. Repeat with the remaining pieces.
- Let the dough rise again for about 1 hour, until nearly doubled. After about 40 minutes, heat the oven to 350°F. When the dough seems ready, test it by pressing it gently with one finger; when the indentation bounces back slowly but remains visible, the dough is ready to bake.
- Whisk the remaining egg with a splash of milk or water. Brush the egg wash over the dough. Bake for about 30 minutes, until golden brown on top. (If your heating element is at the top of your oven and the bread begins to brown too quickly, cover with foil to prevent burning.) When ready, the bread will sound hollow when tapped. Let cool slightly, then slice and enjoy!