Out of curiosity, I wanted to try making Hokkaido-style soft milk buns, even though I personally prefer dense European-style bread like rye, multi-grain, focaccia and even no-knead bread. Making this was a full-on experiment that spanned 30 days -- literally a month, and six variations, as there were several factors I had wanted to address in the quest for the perfect ratio (at least in my mind) of soft, fluffy, slightly sweet milk buns, with a golden browning that was not too dark nor too pale.
I know, it sounds so nerdy, making 6 versions while adding, subtracting and replacing a few key ingredients. The first version of the milk buns was so much denser and had an almost burnt top, as it had egg, butter and dark brown sugar, and I made the mistake of brushing egg wash on the buns right before baking them. At the second attempt, the top improved, by brushing the egg wash about 10 minutes before baking was completed, and layering aluminium foil on top to protect the surface from getting too browned.
Halfway through, I started to reduce the sugar from 1/3 cup to 1/4 cup, and increased the measurement of condensed milk from 2 tablespoons to 3. I brushed the bun tops with a mixture of melted butter and egg wash. But it still didn't have the softness I had envisioned. From the fourth variation onward, I took out the egg entirely, thinking the condensed milk could help bind the ingredients together during autolyse. Also, the egg wash made the buns look like dinner rolls. So I used a tablespoon of condensed milk, slightly diluted with a drop of olive oil, to brush the top and make it look like frosting.
By the time I reached my 6th attempt, I managed to eliminate egg, sugar and foil. Condensed milk measurement was increased to 1/4 cup, so there was no need for the sugar. The result is a hybrid of shokupan and mantou; however, instead of serving condensed milk on a small bowl to dip the fried mantou, these soft milk buns are already baked and brushed with condensed milk.
Baking time: 20 minutes
Yields: 12 buns
360 grams or 2 1/4 cups bread flour or mix in half with all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon instant yeast
1 cup or 240 ml warm milk
1/4 cup condensed milk + 1 tablespoon for frosting
1 tablespoon olive oil
25 grams softened butter (room temperature)
1. Mix warm milk with condensed milk. If you are using active dry yeast instead of instant yeast, mix the yeast in the warm milk mixture with a teaspoon of sugar or honey, and allow it to bubble for 5 to 10 minutes. In a separate bowl, combine flour and salt. If using instant yeast, put this in with the flour and salt. Make a well at the centre. Pour liquid in and mix with dry ingredients. Mix everything using a rubber spatula, until dough is thick, wet and sticky. Wrap in plastic and cover with tea towel. Autolyse for 1 hour or until dough doubles in size.
2. Sprinkle some more all-purpose flour on dough. Shape into a smooth ball using 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Add bits of softened butter into the dough while shaping. Using a dough cutter, evenly divide dough into 10 or 12 slices, depending on the shape of your baking container. Roll each slice on flour and shape into small individual balls using the palm of your hands.
3. Knead each ball gently using a rolling pin into a flat elongated semi-oblong shape. Fold into thirds, just allowing the ends to meet at the centre. Then carefully roll the other end on top of each other, tucking the ends like a dumpling, or overlapping them. Place in the baking container or loaf pan. Repeat for the rest of the balls. Allow the buns to rest for another hour, or until they grow larger and touch one another.
4. Preheat oven at 180 degrees Celsius. Bake the buns for 10 minutes. While buns are baking, mix a tablespoon of condensed milk with the remaining half of olive oil. Remove pan from oven, and brush surface of buns with the condensed milk and olive oil frosting. You can cover the baking pan with aluminium foil to prevent the surface from getting browned, if you want the buns to look milky white, but this is not necessary. Bake again at the same temperature for another 10 minutes.