As a lifelong bread-devourer--a fact I've likely mentioned more times than necessary--consuming more than my healthy share of the carbohydrate-loaded staple is yet another superfluous statement. Until a few years ago, I fueled this addiction almost entirely with pre-made rolls, loaves, and flat breads, hesitant from past frustrations associated with failing the yeast-proofing step. Until recently, standard, readily available, preservative- and refined flour-laden sliced loaves sufficed, so long as they were soft and airy in the middle. My current preference is for more hearty, rustic, whole-grain bread I am unable to replicate at home, although I still indulge in the occasional "white bread," via French baguette or Italian pugliese. Such carb-affinity inevitably encouraged further attempts at bread-baking, in turn manifesting my appreciation and enjoyment of the homemade process. I'm now rather engaged with the various methods involved with bread-baking, eager to try them all.
Despite my frequent trawling of online recipes and cookbooks, I sometimes stumble upon established cooking methods that are completely novel to me. (Of course, I am by no means an expert anyway, so it is reasonable to expect such an occurrence.) Lazy perusal of the food blogosphere recently introduced me to something called the "tangzhong method," which involves creating a flour and water paste (tangzhong) used in various Asian-style baked breads, in order to keep them soft. Intrigued by the alleged effects of such a simple concoction, I wanted to try it out for myself--in the name of science, of course.
The first attempt at bread using the tangzhong method occurred by way of making a variation of Hokkaido milk bread, the pillow-soft Japanese creation I've often seen served as "milk toast" at Chinese-style tea houses. The name alludes to the inclusion of milk in the dough, which provides distinct flavor and fluff. Of course, various alterations were necessary in order to make the bread vegan-friendly. Almond milk and vegan butter replaced the dairy ingredients, a water-flax mixture replaced the egg--I assumed it was there originally to enrich the dough--and an almond milk-sugar mixture replaced the egg wash.
The resulting bread was indeed quite fluffy. Flecks of milled flax seed made it obvious that this wasn't the typical store-bought milk bread I recall from my pre-vegan days--the loaves always had stark white interiors with shiny, golden-brown crusts--but the vegan version was rather similar in taste and texture: slightly sweet and incredibly soft. I honestly can't attest to whether the fluffiness of the bread is due to the tangzhong, but the partially-eaten loaf was still soft on the second and third days, so I suppose I can't argue against the method, either. In any case, this was one of the softest breads I've ever baked at home, and I'll likely revisit it repeatedly when I feel the need for a versatile sandwich bread.
Because the recipe only used half the tangzhong, I also made a second batch of bread into spiced cranberry-citrus buns for an autumnal spin. Making the same basic alterations as those for the first "milk" bread, I also substituted some of the bread flour with whole wheat flour and added 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, and 2 tablespoons diced candied orange peel to the dough. After the first rise, I kneaded in approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup orange juice-soaked, dried, sweetened cranberries, then allowed the dough to rest before dropping small balls of dough into a lightly oiled muffin pan and allowing them to rise for a second time. I then baked them as I did the first loaf for slightly less time, just until the buns were golden brown. These buns were not as soft as the loaf, likely because I added whole wheat flour to this most recent batch, but they were not dense, either. The spices and citrus are distinct and delectable, accented nicely by the bread's sweetness. The buns are a lovely, seasonally-appropriate variation of the original milk bread, and I imagine they could work beautifully in loaf form as well.
Following these first attempts at using tangzhong, I'm quite curious about exploring the flour paste method in further bread-baking ventures. The allure of cloud-like bread is difficult to resist, although the irony of its opposite effects of eating too much of it on one's body will probably prevent me from becoming too engaged. So I hope.