I've always liked baking—I found cooking tedious, from the chopping and preparing ingredients for the mise en place to standing over a stove waiting for things to simmer and brew. I wasn't very patient if I had to be on my feet. But with baking, I could get lost in the mixing and measuring. All I have to do is pop my batter in the oven then wait for things to rise and bake while I sat down and relaxed.
But I never attempted to bake anything more complicated beyond brownies, cupcakes, cookies, and the occasional one-bowl chocolate cake. It wasn't that I did not want to—I just didn't have the time.
And then the pandemic happened.
With the pandemic, of course, came more time—lots of it, in fact. So much so that I didn't know what to do with it. It felt like a "be careful what you wish for" kind of situation.
While I had more time on my hands, I had also lost the routine I had just started to build.
While I had more time on my hands, I had also lost the routine I had just started to build. I had just resigned from my job of almost three years and jumped immediately to a new job that was more flexible, time-wise. I wasn't required to work in an office at my new job, so I spent my days either working at one of the restaurants where I handled all of their marketing or looking for a coffee shop to hang out in. Eventually, I was even able to squeeze in regular spinning classes at my favorite cycling studio and inuman and hangout sessions with my friends. It wasn't perfect, but I was getting the hang of having more control over my time—and my life.
When we were put in lockdown, I didn't really mind it. I was a homebody, and I figured—and I know how privileged this sounds now—that it'll be like a vacation. I had more time to laze around and relax, maybe even catch up with my Netflix queue.
But it wasn't as simple as that. I work in the restaurant industry and when it became evident that we had to cut down the dining-in capacity of our restaurants, it was a mad scramble to start offering delivery service as soon as possible. Of course, no dine-in meant fewer customers and sales, which meant less profit for the company.
Still, I had convinced myself that everything was fine. I'm luckier than most: I had a job. I had a roof over my head and everything I needed to survive this lockdown and more.
I was a bundle of nerves. I caught myself with my jaw clenched more often than not. I always got tension headaches from holding in so much, and I couldn't sleep until 3:00 or 4:00 am.
But eventually, I was forced to admit that I wasn't doing well. I was a bundle of nerves. I caught myself with my jaw clenched more often than not. I always got tension headaches from holding in so much, and I couldn't sleep until 3:00 or 4:00 am—or it was more like I didn't want to sleep. I dreaded being caught between sleep and wakefulness with nothing but my thoughts.
It soon became apparent that the lockdown wasn't ending any time soon—though the restrictions were loosened eventually and my parents were required by their bosses to go back to their offices, which only added to my anxiety.
One day, I decided to bake Japanese milk bread or shokupan.
It wasn't a conscious effort to fight my anxiety—to be honest, I think I was just really craving one of those Japanese egg sandwiches that looked really aesthetic. I wasn't alone in feeling this sudden urge to make bread. Every time I scrolled through my Facebook feed or watched Instagram stories, there was always someone making sourdough bread or feeding their starter.
And it isn't just a local phenomenon, too—in the United States and the United Kingdom, supermarkets were running out of flour and yeast. According to a story by Vox, this isn't really surprising: "Bread baking is a thing we do in a crisis, perhaps because bread is one of the very foundations of human civilization, and perhaps because it has been marketed to us as life-giving." When society as we know it seemed to be on the verge of collapse, we instinctively turned to things we could be sure of: Flour, yeast, and water make bread and bread will feed us.
Making Japanese milk bread
The first step was to acquire yeast. At first, I didn't want to buy yeast because I still thought the pandemic would end soon, and then I wouldn't have time to use up the yeast and bake more bread. So I tried making natural yeast from potatoes, which I used to make focaccia bread—and it was a disaster. My yeast wasn't active enough yet when I used it and I ended up with flatbread that was rock-hard. So I decided to give in and just buy commercial yeast.
I bought Red Star Active Dry Yeast from Shopee for P200—which I thought was pretty cheap because I didn't really have a point of reference. So when my yeast finally arrived, I was shocked to discover that I had accidentally bought a huge 800-gram bag of yeast—and my recipe only required seven grams per loaf!
Then, I needed a recipe: Most people recommend the one by The New York Times or King Arthur Flour but I decided to look around and eventually stumbled upon the Japanese Milk Bread recipe by The Flavor Bender, which had a lot of five-star reviews.
I had everything I needed for my first attempt, at least, ingredient-wise, 'cause I had just gone grocery shopping and the ingredients were pantry staples like flour, butter, eggs, and milk. Eventually, however, I realized I was lacking in the equipment department: The ingredients were in grams, and I had to eye-ball everything using measuring cups and spoons.
Estimation will fly with cookies and brownies
but not with bread.
Here's the thing: Estimation will fly with cookies and brownies but not with bread. For one, I had miscalculated just how much tangzhong I needed for my loaf. Tangzhong is a roux made with flour, milk, and water that is added to milk bread to give it its distinctive milky flavor and ultra-softness. But because I had accidentally added too much to my dough, it became way too sticky to dump on the counter and knead. I eventually gave up and stuck my dough in the fridge, praying it would be easier to handle the next day.
I realized my next mistake when I took my dough from the fridge and noticed that it had a yeasty smell similar to beer. I had overproofed my dough! Because I didn't read my recipe thoroughly, I completely missed that I only had a 12-hour window to let my dough rest and that I had to watch it super carefully to make sure I didn't overproof it. It was now a race against time to prevent my bread from becoming even more beer-flavored. I had to roll out and shape my dough in the middle of the day—and a meeting!
One more mishap happened after that: I had forgotten to preheat my oven. So I had to wait several long agonizing minutes, my loaf already prepared and proofed, for my oven to get to the right temperature. And then it was finally go-time.
My first loaf of Japanese milk bread was far from perfect. My dough was so sticky and hard to handle, so I wasn't able to roll it out and shape the three balls that made up the loaf smoothly—which resulted in bread with a wrinkly crust. The crumb inside didn't seem right, too, because of the off tangzhong ratio.
Once I had my first bite though, I was committed to making this bread perfect—because it was honestly one of the best slices of bread I've had in my life.
While my first attempt at making Japanese milk bread wasn't exactly zen, it gave me a distraction that somewhat calmed my nerves.
While my first attempt at making Japanese milk bread wasn't exactly zen, it gave me a distraction that somewhat calmed my nerves. It just felt so relaxing to have my mind focused on something else other than the pandemic and the uncertain future.
I made my second attempt just two weeks after my first one. This time, I was prepared: I had bought a baking scale from Shopee for P360 as well as a cooling rack (P255), a flour sifter (P61), a dough cutter (P22), and a silicone baking mat (P180) for kneading dough. I also made sure to work on a Saturday, so I can devote all my time to bread making. And it was a success! I still wasn't completely satisfied with it because I accidentally left it a little too long in the oven and the crust looked browner than what I wanted but the shape and crumb were so much better. And, of course, it tasted great, too!
For my third attempt, several months later, I pretty much already knew what to do so I was able to relax and be zen as I measured and weighed ingredients, kneaded the dough, and shaped my loaf. Binantayan ko na talaga ‘to, lol, so it was the perfect shade of brown, and while, again it wasn't perfectly shaped, it looked the closest to what I wanted among my three attempts.
So far, my third attempt at Japanese milk bread has been my last. I’ve baked lots of other things aside from shokupan like Korean garlic cream cheese buns, cinnamon rolls, melon pan, pizza, and more. But I do plan on making more Japanese milk bread. I feel like I've spent so much time now with this one recipe (that hasn't failed me so far!) to know how it works and how it can go wrong, and to feel comfortable with it. And when everything around me seems so uncertain at the moment, I want to hold on to things that I know I can be sure of.
Other things I made
Garlic cream cheese bread
How much I spent trying to perfect Japanese milk bread
- Baking scale: P360
- Cooling rack: P255
- Flour sifter: P61
- Dough cutter: P22
- Silicone baking mat: P180
- Milk (1-Liter x 3): P246
- Yeast (800-grams): P200
- Brown sugar (1kg): P46.50
- Bear Brand milk powder (33g): P9.50
- Maya all-purpose flour (800g x 2): P160.50
- Magnolia Gold unsalted butter (225g x 2): 135.00
- Robinsons fresh eggs x 12: P101
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