Matcha Cream Pan - 抹茶クリームパン

Finally an update! I just started a new full-time job this week, so I have been trying to figure out how to work baking into the schedule. The best I have come up with so far is to start bread in the morning, use my 8 hours at work as an "overnight" rise in the refrigerator, then bake in the evening. In practice, it's not quite so simple, with lots of breads needing to sit at room temperature for 3~4 hours before being refrigerated, but I should figure out something eventually.

I have been really enjoying baking from Peter Reinhart's books, and have learned a lot, but at the same time, it almost gets boring to make delicious, flawless bread every time. The instructions are clear and detailed, and though I've made his ciabatta and cinnamon raisin breads in the past few weeks, it seemed silly to take pictures and write up an entry that basically says "Yup. Baked it to instructions, came out great". Fortunately for me, what I baked yesterday was miles away from that sort of experience so I have lots of tips to share on how not to make this one.

In an effort to try out my newly improved baking skills and move away from Peter Reinhart a bit, I thought I might try translating some French or Japanese recipes and baking those. One of my friends has been pestering me about baking Asian breads, since I love Japanese and Taiwanese breads, and probably because that friend wants to eat them. The nearest Japanese bakery is about three hours away in Chicago, so I don't go often, but I had never heard of people making filled Japanese breads at home. My host-mother in Japan was an excellent cook, but only baked a few things (including an amazing tea chiffon cake I may try sometime). I suppose that's because Japanese filled breads are sort of tricky, and readily available at bakeries over there. Still, there are plenty of recipes to be found online, and it's definitely not impossible. Besides, flawed as they were, these ones I made tasted better than any I'd had in Japan. (Being fresh out of the oven helped a lot, I'd bet.)

For Christmas I received a tin of "raku-raku matcha" - freeze-dried green tea powder that's convenient for cooking -- and thought I'd try making something with it. (Green tea being one of my favourite flavours.) I found out Friday night that the Madison Japan Association was having its New Year's party on Saturday, and that my parents were going to a holiday party the same night and needed something to bring. I foolishly volunteered to quadruple a recipe I'd never tried to make about 60 Japanese sweet bread rolls filled with green tea custard. It seemed like a bad idea, but it takes a certain amount of conceit to be foppish, and I figured it'd all work out okay because I am amazing and can do anything.

I had a recipe I'd already translated for someone else, so I converted the metric into American measurements, quadrupled the amounts, and decided to just make green tea custard to simplify things, though the original recipe calls for the custard to be split into thirds to make trefoils of one vanilla custard-filled roll, one chocolate, and one green tea one all baked together. For some reason, either conciseness of language or greater expectation of skill in the cook, Japanese recipes seem a bit sparse on instruction to me. Translated directly, they seem over-simplified, with loads of room for error on the part of the cook. The version I post here will be more like 'my instructions' than a translation of the recipe (though the original deserves all the credit).

Making the custard filling completely cleaned us out of eggs. Lots of whites leftover though... but I used some for the egg wash and my sister is making angelfood cake tomorrow. We didn't have any caster sugar in the house, but I put granulated sugar in the blender to approximate it. We ended up with a couple cups of leftover custard, but that's probably because I was trying to make a greater number of smaller breads. Pieces of dough that were just a tiny bit bigger than the rest were much easier to fill and held a lot more. I'm sure that following the recipe's suggestion of making twelve rolls (in four groups of three) would be a very nice proportion of custard to dough.

The recipe called for the custard to be strained twice at various stages of its cooking, but I don't have a nice strainer, and the custard didn't come out lumpy. (If anyone happens to make this recipe and happens to really enjoy straining things, just pour it through a strainer each time you move it from sauce pan to bowl or back.) There are some places where the matcha powder clumped though. I have a tin of lower-grade matcha I use in cooking (which really ought to be sifted before using it in anything, but I'm far too lazy for that, and I sort of enjoy the little concentrated bursts of bitter green tea flavour) that I wanted to use up before opening my new tin. The 'raku-raku matcha' was wonderful for cooking though. It doesn't clump at all and stirred right into the custard. I'm told that, if you can't find matcha powder, you can substitute regular green tea leaves (even from an opened tea bag) crushed with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor, but I've never tried that.

Making the dough was pretty straightforward. I was glad I followed the recipe's instruction of putting the yeast in warm water before even starting the custard, because I am pretty sure this step is what gives Japanese bread its distinctive flavour. The ingredients aren't too far off from other enriched breads -- challah might be closest -- but Japanese breads have a strange, yeasty flavour I suspect is from letting the yeast sit in warm water and eat away at itself for a long time before mixing the other ingredients in. I considered skipping that step because the custard would take a lot more time than yeast would take to activate. The only change I made was to stir the ingredients with a spoon instead of using a fancy pastry card (I forget what these are called in English) to mix everything together. Everything seemed to work fine.

The tricky part was getting the custard inside the bread. This is where I messed up and what led to everything exploding later on. It seems to me, from the pictures with the original recipe, that my custard wasn't as thick as theirs. A thicker custard would have made things easier, so maybe I should have let mine boil a little longer, though this did have the same consistency as the other two times I've made custard, so maybe it's fine. I also think the more traditional red brean paste might have made a better first time for a filled bread. Still, it is possible to make nice filled breads with this custard, as long as you don't do it the way I did.

After I divided the dough into little balls (we had 73!), pressed them down and let them rest 15 minutes, I put three into a trefoil shape on a pan without filling for my sister, who can't eat it, (This is also delicious, by the way, if you want to try Japanese sweet bread without the hassle of a filling.) then had my mom help out rolling the remaining 70 into flat disks. If they're too thick, you won't get much custard in, but if they're too thin, the top will burst in the oven. I think that 1/4 inch thickness is about right.

I held the flattened dough in my hand and filled it with a heaping spoonful of custard. Then I pinched the edges together and pulled it tight to form a nice round shape. This was a terrible mistake. This is probably horribly obvious, but I wasn't thinking about it at the time. See, pulling the dough tight over the top makes a very nice roll when it's all bread, but when there's filling, it means the top is stretched thin over it and you've made a big lump of dough at the bottom that's going to rise in the oven. When it does, it pushes the filling into the top, which eventually breaks. Out of the 67 filled rolls I made (73 minus three for my sister, and three mistakes during filling) four came out perfect and beautiful, five or so had exploded horribly and had to be eaten immediately before anyone saw, and the rest had small holes on the side and just weren't very pretty.

So here is the right way to do it: Roll the dough into a disk about 1/4" thick and about 5" in diameter. Hold this in a cupped hand -- the more cupped the dough is, the easier it will be to close it. Spoon in custard, leaving between 1/2" and 1" room at the top. If you spill any custard around the edges, it'll get slimy and won't pinch shut, so be careful. Pinch the dough together tightly enough that no custard will leak, but without pulling the top too thin. The dough will spread out on the pan, but it bakes up quite a bit in the oven, so it won't look too horribly flat in the end. Put the dough, seam-side down, on a pan with a couple inches of room between the other rolls.

This is what one of the worst exploded ones looked like after we cleaned up the spilled custard around it and put it on a plate. They still taste really good, but look fairly awful. The dough on top was so thin the moisture from the custard kept it from browning. I tended to put the more floured side of the dough disks inside, hoping it would keep the dough from absorbing the custard much (or hoping the custard would keep the dry, floured part from being too dry), but I don't know how much that matters.

Inside, the prettiest ones looked like that, so you can still see where the dough rose up into the middle, they just somehow managed to avoid breaking. A perfect one would have a creamy custard centre surrounded by an even layer of bread (though I kind of wonder if the ones that look like that are made by machine).

So, at the end of the ordeal, we had 4 baking sheets of sweet rolls in various states of explosion. My sister picked out the 24 prettiest for our parents to take to their party (where they were a hit, once it was explained what the oozing green stuff was), and we ended up not going to the Madison Japan Association meeting because it tends to be horribly boring, though the food's good. Instead, we packed the rolls into plastic containers and drove around delivering them to friends, who seemed very appreciative.

Matcha Cream Pan - 抹茶クリームパン
[ Original Japanese Recipe ]
(I'd recommend taking a look at that recipe, even if you can't read Japanese, because it has a lot of nice pictures of every step of production.)

(makes 12 filled rolls)
(Original metric measurements are in parentheses. My conversions seem decently accurate, except for the egg wash, where I just tossed more-or-less equal amounts of egg white and water in a bowl.)

Milk – 1 1/4 cups (300ml)
Vanilla extract – 1/2 teaspoon (I used a vanilla bean)
Egg yolks – 3
Caster sugar – 1/2 cup (75g)
Flour – 1/4 cup (30g)
Cornstarch – 1 heaping tablespoon (10g)
Unsalted butter – 1/4 cup (60g)
Brandy – 1 tablespoon
Chocolate, bittersweet, broken into pieces – 20g
Green tea powder (matcha) – 1 t.

Instant dry yeast - about 2 teaspoons, just short of one package instant (5g)
Warm water – 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (195ml)
Bread flour – 2 3/4 cup (375g)
Sugar – 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (75g)
Salt – a heaping half-teaspoon (4g)
Skim milk – 2 teaspoons (12g)
Egg – one (38g)
Unsalted butter – 2 1/2 tablespoons (36g)

Egg wash:
egg whites – 1 tablespoon (20g)
water – 1 tablespoon (2 teaspoons)

Vegetable oil, as needed.
Flour for surfaces

Before starting:
- mix the instant dry yeast and warm water in a bowl and set aside
- warm the butter to room temperature

1. Making the custard: pour the milk and vanilla extract in a pot, and heat to near-boiling, stirring frequently.

2. Mix together the egg yolks and caster sugar in a large bowl, then sift in the flour and cornstarch.

3. Stir until all the dry ingredients have been absorbed, then gradually pour in the warm milk from step 1.

4. Return the mixture to the pot, and warm on a medium flame until just boiled. (If there are any lumps, stir them out with a whisk.) Remove from heat and use a whisk to melt the butter in. Pour back into a bowl.

5.Divide into three equal portions. To one, add the pieces of chocolate and stir until smooth. To another add the green tea powder. Once they have cooled, add one teaspoon of brandy to each and stir. Put them in the refrigerator. (The recipe suggests keeping them in pastry tubes - I say that's for fools, and left the custard in a bowl.)

6. Making the dough: Add the flour, skim milk, and salt to a bowl and mix with a whisk. Add the sugar, yeast-in-warm-water, and beaten egg, and stir with a wooden spoon. Once it is mixed together, turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and the gluten is beginning to develop.

7. Flatten the dough, then put the unsalted butter on top, and knead, massaging the butter into the dough. Once the butter has been fully worked in, continue to knead until the gluten has formed and the dough is smooth. (The dough should pass the windowpane test.)

8. Form a ball of the dough and place in a bowl coated in vegetable oil. Turn to coat, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 40 minutes in a warm place.

9. Punch the dough down gently to get the gas out, cover in plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

10. Divide the dough into twelve equally sized (60g) balls. Press into disks, cover, and let rest about 15 minutes.

11. Press the disks flat onto a lightly floured surface with the palm of your hand. Use a roller to flatten them into circles.

12. Put some custard on the centre of each circle and close the dough around the cream. Carefully seal up the opening.

13. Place the filled dough, sealed side down, on a baking sheet covered with parchment. Group one of each of the three flavours of filling together and join them in a trefoil. Cover gently with plastic wrap and let sit 30-40 minutes in a warm place to rise again.

14. Preheat the oven to 400*F (200*C), brush dough with egg wash, and cook at 400*F (200*C) for 10-15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. (Though they taste best fresh out of the oven.)