If it’s named for a melon and looks like a melon, then obviously, it should taste like… Not a melon.
Such is the curious case of melon pan. Captivating the imaginations and cravings of Japanese bakers since the early 1900’s, right around the time that Western influences made bread the trendy starch of those in the know, it gave traditional rice flour a run for its money. Simple, sweet buns wrapped in a buttery cookie exterior, the name has more to do with its deeply grooved, crackled exterior than flavor. Said to evoke the appearance of the delicate skin of a muskmelon, covering the fruit like natural lace, it’s one of many theories, though it strikes me as the most plausible explanation.
Some are round, others are more like ovoid footballs. Most are plain, but some are filled with cream or jam. A few intrepid bakers try to make sense of the misnomer by adding artificial melon flavoring to the dough itself. For years, that was my impulse as well, but I could never fully connect the dots. Melon extract is not exactly the most common ingredient in the pantry, and even as a special order, few genuinely tasteful options exist.
What I’m proposing instead might seem like a stretch, but it’s the most sensible extension of the concept I’ve devised yet. The melon family, cucurbitaceae, is a classification that includes a diverse array of plants both sweet and savory, starting of course with melons like cantaloupe and honey dew, but also squashes such as pumpkins. That connection was the catalyst I needed to finally make a melon pan I could better justify.