For most of the Western world, thinking about Japanese delicacies would evoke images of sushi, fugu, and… Bread? No, scratch that last one off the list, you must be thinking. Even I have to pause for a moment and consider that statement, but for me, this one might as well top the list.
It was on my second trip to Japan when I was a freshman in high school, joining in on the annual school trip, that I really got to explore the city of Tokyo. After a week of home-stay and at times when we didn’t have tours scheduled, friends would bound about in clusters of four or five, free from adult supervision and free to do as we pleased (within reason, of course.)
[Bet you can't guess which one's me?]
A daily allowance of 1,500 yen (a little less than $15) was provided for food and we had to eat on the cheap. The first and last stop of the day would always be at one of the numerous conbini in the area, and the aisles of cheap snack foods were always the highlight of the expeditions. Ramen and pocky were bought in such vast quantities, it’s a miracle that no one returned home with indigestion. One day, however, I was lingering around the miniature pastries all wrapped up so nicely in transparent plastic when I saw my friend scooping up a loaf of bread and adding it to her basket.
What was she wasting her money on that for? I wondered with just a tinge of fear. No way was I going to share my own precious junk food when she got hungry that night. It was only later when she unwrapped that golden brown parcel and offered one of those thick slices that I understood. Tender, dense and yet light, the perfectly rectangular bread was unlike anything I had seen or tasted in the US. Often sweetened with honey and enriched with eggs and butter, it was one of my last times eating animal products, and how delicious it was still haunts me today. Later on I learned the name of my long lost love: pain de mie, otherwise known as a pullman loaf.
For years the thought to veganize it never crossed my mind, as I quickly discovered that it required special pans, and quite frankly, a $40 loaf pan just sounds like an absurd waste of money, especially considering how much I’ve already spent on my exhaustive collection of bakeware. That’s not to say I wasn’t tempted, or really gave up… It was only a matter of time before the solution hit me, and that huge selection of pans already in my kitchen proved to be more multipurpose than perhaps even the manufacturers intended.
Emerging from the oven as an almost perfect square with straight sides and sharp corners, the struggle to make it happen immediately seemed insignificant. All it really took was two bricks, two sheet pans, and one standard loaf pan; standard equipment that most any baker should have on hand. The procedure might be a bit unorthodox, sure, but you wouldn’t care either if you had tasted this soft, golden-hued loaf.
A tight, orderly crumb surrounded on all sides by a delicate but chewy crust, just one slice sent me back to that time in Japan. While it isn’t exactly the same- What ever truly is?- This bread is such a delicious treat in it’s own right, any dissimilarities or flaws are easy to overlook. Although I was so smitten that I couldn’t take the time to do more than just toast slices and slather them with a buttery spread, I can only imagine what a delight they would be in bread pudding, or fried up as french toast. Anyone want to be so adventurous as to try it out and let me know? … … Okay, in that case, here’s the recipe!
Pan De Mie
1 Cup Plain Soymilk
3 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
2 Teaspoons Active Dry Yeast
3 – 4 Cups Bread Flour (Or White Whole Wheat, if you just can’t stand white flour)
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
3 Tablespoons Margarine, Melted
In a small saucepan, combine the soymilk and agave, and heat gently over medium. Easy does it here, because you don’t want the temperature to be any hotter than 110; exceed that, and you poor little yeast beasts will be dead instantly. Once the agave is dissolved into the mixture and it’s around 100 degrees, turn off the heat and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it sit and become frothy, about 5 minutes.
Pour the liquids into your stand mixer with the dough hook installed, and add in 3 cups of the flour, plus all the salt and melted margarine. Start it off slow just to combine, and let it work for a good couple of minutes to come together. If the dough seems excessively wet, go ahead and add more flour in, 1/3 cup at a time, until it mostly pulls off the sides of the bowl and feels tacky but not sticky. Let the dough hook knead it for about 10 minutes before scraping it out, kneading it briefly by hand, and shaping it into a smooth, elastic ball. Drop the ball of dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover, and let it rise for about two hours in a warm place.
The dough should more than double in volume, at which point you’re ready to punch it down and shape it. Lightly flour a clean surface and pour the dough out onto it. Either use your hands or a rolling pin to press it out into a square of about 8 – 8 1/2 inches on all sides. Roll it up as if you were making cinnamon buns and pinch the finishing edge closed. Lightly grease an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 loaf pan, and drop the rolled dough into it, seam side down. Cover and let rise again, for about an hour, or until the loaf is almost peeking out above the rim of the pan.
In the mean time, preheat your oven to 375 degrees, and grab two bricks. Wash them off thoroughly if they have been outside, and then wrap them in aluminum foil. When the dough is ready, take one sheet pan, grease it thoroughly, and place it on top of the loaf. Scoot a second sheet pan underneath the loaf pan so that it’s easier to maneuver. Now, take your wrapped bricks and situate them on the top sheet pan so that they’re solidly balanced and the sheet is completely sealing the top of the loaf pan beneath. Warning: This will be heavy! You might want someone to help if you have miserable upper body strength like me. Carefully scoop up this whole assembly and move it into the oven. Let it bake for approximately 45 minutes. When you remove your bread, be even more cautious because those bricks are burning hot, and they stay hot for hours. Uncover the loaf, and if it seems a bit pale for you, return it to the oven for just 5 or 10 minutes longer. Let it cool on a wire rack completely before you even think about slicing it, no matter how incredible it smells. Trust me, your patience will be rewarded!