November 16, 2011

Old-School Deliciousness

Recently, I’d found myself lost in the thought of living the life I once enjoyed in America. College life, to be exact. I think this is due to the work pressure I was recently subjected to and then had finally got out of (that was short-lived, just so you know — yesterday was my second day at my new job as a writer for healthcare communication).

In retrospect, while many of my peers seemed to be psyched about graduating high school, entering college, and the freedom to choose their preferred paths, I was, however, at a loss — I didn’t know what to major in and which college to attend.

The university
I miss that small-town college in the freezing Minnesota ...

I want to live in America. I want a taste of America. That’s all I knew, and it’d been so since I was 13 or 14. Was I a rebellious teenager? Yes — as a matter of fact, an introverted rebel who was (and still am) hungry for all things American.

Okay, I know it’s sad to say, but the fact is, my dad was the one who helped set my college path. Citing the reason of “providing a quieter, more decent study environment away from all the urban chaos,” for the benefit of his only daughter, my dad put me in a private college 75 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur. And the 17-year-old me then enrolled myself in the America-bound program offered there.

So for the first one and a half years of my college life, before being transplanted to America for another three years or so, I was stuck in that little town. As I can recall, it was dead quiet and underdeveloped, subsisted largely on the college student population there.

I was staying in the dorm. I was a culinary idiot. I wasn’t given the opportunities to learn and the exposure needed to foster the culinary interest in me. Every day was nothing but studying and sleeping. Those were the carefree days. Life was good.

I ate out and had takeouts all the time, too: for all three meals, every day. The food there was, unfortunately, mediocre and came with little variety: Asam laksa. “Pattaya-style” fried rice (nasi goreng Pattaya). Stir-fried ramen (a.k.a. Maggi goreng). Flat rice noodles stir-fried with beef strips (乾炒牛河). I know I could have done the small town a little justice by naming more, but really, they were pretty much the usual stuff. I got bored.

However, and surprisingly, there was one thing that I found myself eating almost every day: potato buns, the hot-cross bun lookalikes adored by many Malaysians. As a student who couldn’t bake and cook, I worshipped these store-bought buns, among other additive-laden mass-market baked goods.

Potato Bread

Years ago, long before they became a common sight across the nation, Malaysians would actually wait in line just to take home bags of piping-hot potato buns from their nearest Carrefour supermarket. The sweet, slightly eggy aroma of the bread would come wafting down the line. Because of that, I’ve been associating potato buns with Carrefour. Even little Pei-Lin called them “Carrefour potato bread” (I know, these are supposed to be labeled as “buns”).

Pillow-soft and tender. On the sweet side, with noticeable hints of vanilla and custard. My family loved them, and we usually grabbed home two bags whenever we went shopping for groceries at Carrefour.

Oh, man. I’m feeling nostalgic now. These buns are so old-school, and so delicious, too.

Back in those pre-America college days of mine, when I was alone in the dorm, and got so bored, I’d actually pick up the bag of potato buns I had bought from the nearest convenience store to study its nutrition facts label: Bleached and “enriched” flour. Artificial flavorings and colorings. “Permitted” additives with alphanumeric names that remind me of the periodic table. I wonder why I was even infatuated with stuff that now have me roll my eyes.

Picking up baking and cooking means that I can try to replicate my favorite foods at home, sans the undesirable stuff. (Not every food, though, like Cheerios, Marie biscuits, Tim Tam — I can’t for those.) When I was in the States, I was pining for the potato buns that they became one of those comfort foods I tried to recreate then. Alas, the late-night baking that persisted until 3 a.m. ended up in disappointment: The buns got a tad dry and tough. After some troubleshooting, I reckoned (1) I could have slightly overbaked them, or (2) it could have been the whole-wheat flour that I’d used to make them wholesome. But I’m sure the latter wasn’t really the culprit.

My First Potato Rolls, From November 2008
My first potato buns, back in November 2008.

Albeit discouraging, that incident never stopped me from making potato buns again. I tried to recreate my favorite bread in my Malaysian kitchen, but with a different recipe, in hope of a satisfactory result. Anyone who knows my eating habit will tell you that Pei-Lin takes only homemade bread — whole-wheat and whole-grain ones preferably. So as usual, I used a mix of plain and whole-wheat bread flour, both being organic and unbleached. (If you’re residing in Kuala Lumpur, and are into eating whole foods, you may consider trying Radiant Whole Food, my preferred brand for organic, unbleached flours. Bob’s Red Mill flours are rather expensive here.)

After some tweaking here and there, I must admit that this recipe, originally written by Alex Goh (吳景發), one of Malaysia’s prominent cookbook authors, produces potato buns that are so tender and moist, that tease your senses with a whisper of the alluring vanilla sweetness of the custard. They’re so good that I pulled apart three pieces in a row and stuffed myself silly.

As much as I’d like to, I am, however, unable to share these potato buns with you in the virtual world of the Internet. So the best bargain from me would still be the recipe. And the best favor you can do for yourself now is roll up your sleeves, get the yeast and glutens in the flour to work, fire up the oven and bake the bread yourself.

Potato Bread

Potato Buns
Adapted from The World of Bread[s] 《烘出麵包香》 by Alex Goh and Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan

I ain’t going to lie: The original recipe has been largely adapted. The custard powder, an optional ingredient here, is present mainly to taint the crumb with a milky yellowish hue, because the potato buns I grew up with always looked slightly yellowish to me. And if you don’t fancy anything whole wheat like I do, you can use just white bread flour.

Also, adjust the amount of sugar to your preference. But as I can recall, the bread is always on the sweet side, so 90 to 100 grams of sugar is just nice for me. And the dough for these potato buns is somewhat sticky, so dust the work surface and your hands judiciously with flour while handling it. In the end you’ll understand why all the hard work and patience are worth putting forth.

Oh, by the way, I even made my own custard from scratch for both the bread and the topping, with the vanilla pastry cream recipe from Paris Sweets, a favorite cookbook of mine, by Dorie Greenspan.

420 grams bread flour, or more if the dough becomes wetter than you can handle
180 grams whole-wheat bread flour
70  100 grams granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
1½ tablespoons whole milk powder
 2 heaped tablespoon(s) custard powder
4 teaspoons instant yeast

110 grams lukewarm water, at about 43°C
270 grams homemade vanilla pastry cream, at room temperature, and more for topping (recipe to follow)
120 grams plain, unseasoned mashed potatoes, warm or at room temperature

60 grams unsalted butter, cubed and kept chilled
All-purpose flour, for dusting the work surface and hands
Egg wash

In a large mixing bowl, combine (A). Stir in (B), and mix until a wet and shaggy dough has formed. Turn it out onto a floured work surface, flour your hands really well and knead until the dough feels somewhat supple and slightly tacky to the touch — by now the glutens inside the flour should have almost developed. While kneading, if the dough sticks to your hands, work in additional bread flour, say, a tablespoon at a time. Knead in the cold butter to fully incorporate. Now the glutens should have fully developed, and the dough becomes somewhat smooth and feels supple to the touch. Round it up into a tight ball, then let it proof in the same mixing bowl that’s been lightly oiled, smooth side up, covered and free of draft, until it is double in volume.

When it’s doubled in volume, deflate the dough, and let rest for about 15 minutes. In the meantime, grease two 9 x 9-inch square pans. Divide the dough into 30 equal portions, shape them into tight balls and place in the prepared pans, with four buns in each row. Cover the pans and let the dough proof until it’s almost double in volume in a draft-free environment.

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Transfer the vanilla pastry cream into a piping bag fitted with a tiny plain tip, and set aside. Brush the surface of the risen dough with egg wash, and then pipe the pastry cream over the top, with a line across each row, both horizontally and vertically, so that a cross is drawn atop each bun. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until the buns look golden brown and are cooked through. Remove from the oven, unmold the bread in its entirety onto a cooling rack to cool completely before consumption and/or storing in an airtight container or plastic storage bag.

Yield: 30 buns


Vanilla Pastry Cream (Crème Pâtissière à la Vanille)

Vanilla Pastry Cream (Crème Pâtissière à la Vanille)
Adapted from Paris Sweet by Dorie Greenspan

The nice thing about this cream is it can be made by two days in advance. If you don’t have (good-quality) vanilla beans, you may use one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract instead — but do so only after you’ve stirred in the butter.

500 grams whole milk
1 moist, plump vanilla bean, split and scraped

6 large egg yolks, at room temperature
100 grams granulated or superfine sugar
45 grams cornstarch, sifted

50 grams unsalted butter, cut into three pats, at room temperature

Over medium heat, bring the milk and vanilla bean (pulp and pod) to a boil in a small saucepan. Cover the pan, turn off the heat, and allow the milk to infuse for at least 10 minutes, or for up to an hour. (If necessary, reheat the milk until hot before proceeding.)

Whisk together (C) in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Whisking constantly, drizzle one-quarter of the hot milk over the yolks. When the yolks are warm, whisk the remainder of the milk into the yolks in a steadier stream; remove and discard the pod (or save it for another use: for instance, you may first rinse it, and dry it in a warm oven or over the counter, before plunging it into a canister of sugar or grinding with sugar in a food processor for vanilla sugar). Return the hot mixture into the same saucepan.

Place the saucepan over medium heat and, whisking vigorously, bring the mixture to the boil. Keep at the boil — still whisking energetically — for one to two minutes, then pull the pan from the heat and press the cream through the strainer into a medium-size bowl. Stir the cream frequently until it reaches 60°C, by which it should feel lukewarm to the touch. Then whisk in the butter, and continue whisking until the cream is completely cooled and ready for use.

On storing: Press a sheet of plastic wrap against the cream’s surface to create an airtight seal, and refrigerate, for up to two days. To smooth the chilled cream, whisk it for a few seconds.

Yield: 800 grams (about two cups)
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