Those of you who know me, know I always want to know why. Why is “milk” bread so different? Why is it so incredibly soft? Why does have so much “oven spring”? Why does it “fight back” when I try to shape it? What on earth makes this bread so special!
Since it’s called “Milk Bread” I assumed it was the cooked gruel made with milk and flour. So I went back to the original recipes. None of those called for Barley Malt, so I eliminated that. Only some called for an egg, so I eliminated that. I’ve always known that bread can be made with almost any liquid, as long as the proportions remain about 5 parts flour to 3 parts liquid, one ends up with bread — a little salt, some kind of yeast, and some type of fat or oil as preservative and the rest is just technique…
The other night I had a craving for my favorite dessert: Serbian Plum Dumplings, though I make mine with apricots, since plums often bother my bowel. At this time of year I can’t get fresh apricots, so I used apricots canned in light syrup. I had two apricots left over (actually 4 half apricots, since my husband hadn’t found any whole ones,) along with some of the syrup in which they came. I like apricots… Even light syrup has some sugar in it. Fruit has some sugar in it. Sugar “feeds” yeast so, being the thrifty sort (mostly out of necessity) I decided to make some “milk bread” using my leftover apricots instead of milk. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to work, so I didn’t take pictures. I expected to end up with bread — just bread that didn’t have the feel or the texture of “milk bread.” I also expected my bread would have a slight taste of apricots. I was wrong on all counts. This is definitely “milk bread” – the crust and texture are unmistakable. The only difference I noticed was how fast the bread dough rose (I would guess due to the sugar in the fruit and syrup.) The dough “fought back” just as hard, making it difficult to push, pull, and pat it into an oblong. The dough was just as dry, not in the least bit sticky. So it’s not the milk that makes “Milk Bread” unique…
Apricot “Milk” Bread (makes 1 large loaf)
In a small saucepan, combine:
2 small canned apricots with syrup well pureed,enough water so you have a total of 110 grams liquid and 45 grams bread flour. (Hard flour if you’re European)
Stir this until it is very smooth – no lumps allowed! Then heat it over very low heat until it’s the consistency halfway between soup and very light gravy. (It will thicken a bit as it cools.) This time I didn’t overcook it! It was definitely the color of apricots and only slightly thicker than the apricot puree. When you can comfortably put your finger into the mixture without thinking “ouch!” add:
135 grams of very active sourdough starter and again, stir until smooth and completely combined. (It was barely orange colored after adding the sourdough) Set this mixture aside while you measure and mix the dry ingredients.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, or bread maker, measure 300 grams of flour and 1 teaspoon of salt into your mixing bowl, then cut in 2 Tablespoons of butter – just as you would if you were making pie dough. If your butter is cold enough you can also “pinch” it to combine the butter with the flour to make a mixture that looks like cornmeal. It should not stick to your hands, or feel sticky. (If it does, put it into the refrigerator and let it cool., then lightly pinch it with your fingers until it’s not sticky.)
Combine the liquid yeast mixture with the dry ingredients until you can form a breakable ball. At first this seems like an utterly impossible task. There seems to be far too much flour. The dough gets too flakey, even once you start using your fingers instead of a spoon, but do not use your power mixer yet! Knead it, press it, rub the sides of the bowl until every speck of flour is attached to the ball of dough. (Remember, technique is everything when making bread!) If you can pick up the ball of dough yet a flake or two of dough still falls off, add 1 tablespoon of water and mix well. This dough is not sticky. It’s dry. Nothing should be sticking to the sides of the bowl, nothing sticks to your hands, yet you should be able to break the ball of dough in half, and knead it back together if you use a lot of pressure.
Now but the bowl into the power mixer with a bread hook, or your bread machine. Start at the lowest speed for 5 minutes. Let it rest for 5 minutes. (Or you’ll probably overheat your power mixer, but it also gives the dough a “rest.”) Then let the machine knead the dough at least another 5 minutes, or until a small amount of the kneaded dough stretches easily without breaking. Meanwhile, very lightly oil a bowl large enough for the dough to almost double in size.
Form a ball of the kneaded dough. It still isn’t at all sticky, and there should be no trace of loose flour anywhere. Put it in your lightly oiled bowl, in a warm place, and allow it to rise for at least two hours. I was very surprised that this time it did almost double in size, though it’s still a very compact ball of dough, impossible to “punch down” the way I usually literally punch my fist into the middle of the risen dough. Instead I pressed it down into the bowl, then took it out of the bowl and, holding one end, slammed it down as hard as I could on the counter. This dough is not sticky at all! I couldn’t even get it to stick to the dry, unfloured, unoiled countertop! Eventually I was able to pound it, press it, and stretch it into an oblong shape, where the short end was the same length as my bread pan. I kept stretch, pressing, pounding, and pulling until I had an oblong about 5 cm thick, in an oblong that was three or four times as long as it was wide. (The original recipes all said to use a rolling pin to roll it into this shape – but that would have required my husband’s help, and he wasn’t available.) Then, starting at one of the short ends, one rolls it up pressing it together as tightly as possible. This is easier said than done, since this dough doesn’t even stick to itself! Plus one has to keep pressing in the edge so it stays as wide as the bread pan…
Lightly oil the bread pan, and place the roll, seam side down, in the pan. Cover it tightly, and let it rise until the dough is marginally higher than the bread pan. Preheat the oven to 350°F . Slash the top deeply with a sharp knife, and bake for 25- 35 minutes or until the bread tests done. I didn’t use any egg wash on top this time, which made the crust a lot lighter.
Even though it’s made with pureed apricots, there’s absolutely no taste of apricot (though I thought I could smell a slight apricot oder, no one else could.) And one of the nice things about “milk” bread is cutting it right away, and smother it with real butter to eat it hot out of the oven. So that’s what we did.