Oh, dear. Here I go …
I’m gripping a ball pen and scribbling on paper. I am writing a blog post on paper!
Thanks to Trojans and computer viruses, for crippling my computer (or maybe I should be blamed for?). It’s now fastened inside the laptop bag, waiting to be reborn. I’m living without a personal computer. I am surviving through this!
But by the time you’re reading this, I’m sure I’ve found a way to relocate the draft to the World Wide Web, to this blog that’s basking in your attention.
It could be a mix of nervousness, uncertainty, and excitement. My left hand quivered, for a few seconds, while reaching out for the pen. Staring at a clean sheet of paper, I hesitated, I wasn’t sure where to begin with. Still, there was something at the tip of my tongue, waiting to be penciled down, waiting to be clarified.
The Muse is here! The Muse can’t wait! I dipped my foot into the pool of words and ideas and found myself, in the words of Molly Wizenberg, “wade way in and splash around.” Within minutes, now, as I’m writing this paragraph, ADD has kicked in and my mind is wandering. Yet, I keep telling myself to persist. I guess that’s how I write. It’s a love I’ve been struggling at.
And whenever I write, I’d be reminded of kneading – the kneading of a bread dough.
I rest my hands on the dough. I trust that they’d go all out with this adhesive amalgam. In seconds, clashing thoughts and mixed sentiments color my world. Staring at the shaggy mass, thrusting my hands into the sticky mess, I grumble – or, sometimes, curse – as my hands toil in stubborn ickiness.
But with experience and confidence I persist, I anticipate, knowing that through consistent pressing and stretching and folding of the gluten only I’ll have the unruly dough tamed. My hands hunger for a smooth and supple – if not, tacky – ball of dough. Interestingly though, the longer I’m at it, the likelier my mind is to wander, too. And, if the day spells frustration, you’ll see me turning into a grumpy lady, who pulls and stretches and slaps the dough against the counter repeatedly. (Why don’t you worry, I would never, ever overknead the dough.)
On some other days, aggression – in the form of constant, more forceful pulling and stretching and slapping – is required to conquer a stickier dough like this.
I’d plunge my hands into a mélange of flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, among the myriad of ingredients, that will lead me to the homey aroma of freshly baked bread, that will bake into this nicely browned, impeccably verdant, whole wheat loaf of bread. It’s got matcha and azuki beans in it. It’s got a magic ingredient known as the tangzhong (湯種) in it, too.
It’s sheer magic. It’s caught the attention of The Fresh Loaf. The tangzhong makes the dough rather a challenge to tackle, though, due to its phenomenal water retention properties. This should make sense, if you’ve already read my lengthy post on the how and whys of the tangzhong business. (My post has been referred to by The Fresh Loaf community, too. Hurrah!) (Stay tuned, because I’ll soon be screaming at the world “I nuke my tangzhong!” Yes, I do nuke my tangzhong.)
Adding to the loaf are the matcha (抹茶) powder, which bears a mellow and naturally sweet floral fragrance, as well as azuki beans (紅豆), which lend a wonderful grainy mouth feel and a distinctively earthy and savory tone. The beans, when stewed, also make for a clingier, wetter dough that had me break into sweat and had me fight to knead my way out.
My complaining was ephemeral, though. The aroma, flavor, and texture of the bread made up for all the bad and the sad episodes, including the backache I got out of the doughy workout. At the end of the day, I was graced with a soft crumb, which is a success indicator in baking most Asian-style breads.
At the first bite, then a second bite, then another bite, my senses were greeted by the refreshing herby-floral, sweet-smelling mild cologne that matcha wears. Albeit faint, at least for me, it hit the right note. What also delighted me are those azuki beans. I seriously think these two are match made in heaven. I mean, chocolate and yuzu are probably good candidates, offsetting matcha’s bittersweet-ness with ease. Still, the azuki bean, when stewed, with its unmistakable warm tone, not only offsets matcha’s bittersweet-ness but also complements and even accentuates matcha’s understated charm.
Really. The hard work and persistence paid off. Look at what I’d got: a handsome green loaf that tastes as good as it looks. And now, as I’m wrapping things up here, a blog post. This is yet another snippet of my life, which takes five days, on and off – in my bedroom, on the train, and on my work desk in the office – to write. It’s dear to me, because it’s so me. (Sorry for spamming you with Pei-Linness.)
Writing and kneading bread dough are my catharses. I dread doing them as much as I love. It seems they’ve become struggles that I love having, too.
Matcha and Azuki Bean Bread (抹茶紅豆吐司)
Adapted from Bread Doctor, by Yvonne Chen
474 grams bread flour (I’ve been using unbleached organic whole wheat bread flour for my bread.)
2 tablespoons milk powder or dry milk
10 grams baking matcha powder 煮食焗焙專用的抹茶粉
10 grams instant yeast
30 grams caster or granulated sugar
6 grams salt
200 grams milk, preferably at room temperature
156 grams tangzhong 湯種, at room temperature (I used 30 grams of unbleached organic white bread flour and 150 grams of water for this batch. And I nuked to prepare the tangzhong, like I said. I’ll tell you more about microwaved tangzhong next month. Okay?)
50 grams unsalted butter, cubed and kept chilled
200 grams sweetened cooked azuki beans 蜜紅豆, a.k.a. tsubuan (粒餡), drained (I bought canned ones imported from Hokkaido, Japan. Back in the States, I used to make them from scratch. With age, I’m getting lazier and less civilized, apparently.)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together (A). Then stir in (B), and, with a huge, sturdy wooden spoon, combine both the dry and wet ingredients together until a coarse-looking ball of dough has formed. The shaggy mass should almost pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Use a bench scraper to scrape the bowl clean, if the dough sticks.
Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead – press, stretch, fold and, if possible, slap the flabby thing against the work surface – until the gluten in the flour has been activated and has developed. Keep kneading until you’ve gotten a dough that feels tacky, almost supple to the touch. Now, remove the butter from the fridge and knead to incorporate it into the dough. Keep kneading until the dough becomes less tacky. Knead in the azuki beans just to have them mixed into the dough. The dough, because of the additional moisture from the beans, should now be stickier, and if that’s the case, don’t hesitate to flour your hands and the work surface – of course, do so judiciously. Excess flour in an Asian-style bread dough may lead to a drier bread. You can stop kneading once the dough has become fairly supple and not as tacky. It won’t look super smooth, mind you, which is okay, because this dough is supposed to contain a higher moisture content. Round it up tightly, and place in a large, oiled mixing bowl. Cover loosely with, say, a sheet of plastic wrap. Or you can do what I do with a clean, huge plastic bag:
Set the dough aside to proof until it’s doubled in size. Your eyes can do the judging, trust me. But if you’re still unsure, dip your finger into some all-purpose flour and slowly and gently poke it into the center of the risen dough, taking care not to puncture it. If a dent remains at where you poked your finger into, this shows the dough has been given sufficient time to proof. Otherwise, if the same spot bounces back, continue with proofing the dough.
On a lightly floured work surface, deflate the risen dough and divide it into three equal portions (I always weigh the dough for that; greater accuracy this way). Round them up tightly and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Rest the dough for 15 minutes.
To shape, take one portion of the dough and, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roughly roll it out for the shape of a rectangle or an oval. (In the meantime, leave the other two blanketed in plastic wrap to keep them away from drafts.) Then, roll it up tightly from one of the shorter ends to the other, like how you would a jelly roll, and pinch the seam to seal the dough. Because you’re dealing with a stickier dough, lightly flour your hands and the work surface, if needed and only as necessary, while you proceed with the recipe. If possible, minimize the use of extra flour throughout the process. Repeat with the other two portions.
Generously grease a 15(L)x8(W)x8(H)-centimeter Pullman loaf pan with, say, shortening (which is a much cheaper alternative to butter). Arrange the shaped dough in the prepared loaf pan starting from the middle, then to the left, and then to the right. Now, the dough should have about half the height of the loaf pan. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap, and set it aside to proof until the dough is almost double in size. Warning: this dough will wind up to be a very tall loaf – as though it’s going to explode anytime while it bakes in the oven.
Preheat the oven to 170°C.
Gently remove the plastic wrap from the loaf pan. Bake the risen dough for 35 to 40 minutes, or until it is cooked through and looks golden brown – gently tap on the center of the baked loaf, it should sound hollow. Remove from the oven and unmold the loaf immediately. Leave to cool completely, on a cooling rack, before slicing to serve and/or storing in, say, a heavy-duty Ziploc bag. The bread keeps for about three days in room temperature, but beyond that, it’ll start to go stale. So at that point, I kept mine refrigerated, and I nuked it for a few seconds, which helped to warm and soften it up again, right before serving.
P.S. As you can see, I knead my bread dough manually, with my hands. And, as of now, the laptop has yet to be fixed.