‘Mooncakes and Milk Bread’ Explores the Whimsy of Chinese Bakeries

Author Kristina Cho shares a recipe for matcha and black sesame milk bread.

kristina cho mooncakes and milk bread matcha black sesame loaf
Photos courtesy of Kristina Cho; Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

A Chinese bakery is a magical place. Full moons of golden egg tarts, or dan tat, twinkle behind pastry cases. Hot dog buns fashioned into flowers and sprinkled with green onions bloom on display shelves. The air is heavy with the scent of sugar, butter, and perhaps garlic—as both savory and sweet breads are available for purchase.

Kristina Cho, the author of Mooncakes and Milkbread, has always been drawn to them. “There's something about Chinese bakeries that are really whimsical,” she says. In Cleveland, where Cho grew up in a Chinese restaurant family, there wasn’t a standalone Chinese bakery. This meant the hunt for Chinese pastries crept up on every family road trip to Chinatowns in larger cities—Toronto, Chicago, and DC, to name a few. “My parents, especially my dad, have such strong memories growing up in Hong Kong where they have incredible bakeries all over the place—so there’s a magical [quality] of finding something that brings back a childhood memory that I think makes Chinese bakeries really special.”

But it’s not just nostalgia. As a former architect, Cho finds Chinese bakeries visually impressive. “They normally have cases full of all these different buns with so many different flavor options and shapes and shiny fruit,” she says. “It’s so beautiful and visually stimulating.”

Although architecture and baking don’t necessarily seem like they would overlap, Cho finds parallels. “There’s a process driven thing that ties them both,” she explains. “The way I created the book may be different from other cookbook authors because there’s only one way I really know how to continue a project. If I was designing a space, what are the emotions or vibes I want to create?” For Cho, that meant lots of step-by-step process photos for her recipes and subtle design details that she kept in mind for visual learners like herself.

Baking bread is not an easy feat, but Cho hopes her debut cookbook will instill confidence in her readers and bring them the ability to enjoy a nostalgic favorite and teach something new about an ingredient or technique. For example, her matcha and black sesame milk bread recipe explores the dimension and versatility of milk bread. “It’s such a great canvas to include different flavors,” Cho says. “Once you have the dough down, it’s a really nice dough to handle.”

With that in mind, Cho reminds her readers that making a perfect loaf of milk bread requires time and patience. “There are different components for milk bread, like the tangzhong, which is just a mixture of milk and flour that you cook in like a small, soft pan. For a lot of people this is like an extra step, but it really takes two minutes to cook down and is the secret ingredient to making your bread very, very soft.”

The result will be rewarding: a subtly sweet loaf with a pillowy soft center. Plus, the journey of making the bread is all part of the experience. “What draws me to baking is the process-oriented aspect—taking things slowly and in the right order,” Cho says. “It’s satisfying to figure out the best ways to put butter and sugar together. Just trust the process.”

Matcha and Black Sesame Marbled Milk Bread

Makes 1 loaf

Ingredients:

Tangzhong

  • 100g (¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons) milk
  • 20g (2 tablespoons) bread flour

Milk Bread Dough

  • 125g (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) warm (110°F) milk
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 50g (¼ cup) granulated sugar, plus a pinch
  • 335g (2⅔ cups) bread flour, plus more for work surface
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 55g (¼ cup) unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened
  • 3g (2 teaspoons) food grade matcha powder
  • 1 teaspoon canola or other neutral flavored oil, for bowl
  • 18g (1 tablespoon) Black Sesame Paste (see below)

Egg Wash

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Directions:
1. Make the tangzhong: In a small saucepan over low heat, combine the milk and flour and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened to a paste, 2-3 minutes. (The texture should resemble smooth mashed potatoes.) Immediately transfer the paste to a small bowl, scraping the sides of the saucepan with a flexible spatula; let cool until warm, 5-10 minutes.
2. Make the dough: In a small saucepan, scald the milk over medium heat, bringing it to a gentle simmer, about 1 minute (Watch carefully, as milk tends to boil over). Pour the milk into a small bowl and cool until warm to the touch (about 110°F). Stir in the yeast and a pinch of sugar, and set aside until the surface of the mixture is foamy, 5-10 minutes.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the sugar, flour, salt, and egg. Add the tangzhong and milk/yeast mixture and mix on low until shaggy. Add the softened butter, one piece at a time, mixing until fully incorporated before adding the next. Remove half of the dough (about 355g if using a digital scale) and transfer to a medium mixing bowl.
4. Add the matcha powder to the bowl of the electric mixer and continue to knead on medium-high speed until the dough is tacky and slightly sticky, 7-8 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface. Wet your hands to prevent the dough from sticking, and pinch and pull the ends of the dough to form a smooth ball. Coat a medium mixing bowl with 1/2 teaspoon oil. Add the dough to the bowl, gently turning it to cover with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm spot to proof until doubled in size, about 2 hours (or place in the refrigerator to proof for at least 8 hours or overnight).
5. In the bowl of the electric mixer (no need to clean), add the remaining dough and the black sesame paste. Repeat step 4 for the black sesame dough.
6. Once both the matcha and black sesame doughs have proofed, punch them down to deflate them, then transfer them to a lightly floured work surface. Pinch and pull the ends of the two doughs to form two smooth balls.
7. Line the bottom and long sides of a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. (If baking in a pullman pan, no need to line with parchment paper.) Divide each dough into three equal pieces. Form each piece into a smooth ball. Roll out a piece of matcha dough into a 5 x 8-inch oval. Top with black sesame dough and roll it out into a 5 x 8-inch rectangle. Fold the long edges of the dough over by ½ inch and then roll into a 4-inch log, starting at one of the short ends. Place the dough, seam-side down, in the loaf pan. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough (alternating the matcha and black sesame dough in one segment, for contrast), placing them side by side in the pan. Cover the pan loosely with a damp, clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and allow the dough to proof in a warm spot until it reaches just above the rim of the pan (just below the rim for a pullman pan), 60-90 minutes.
8. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
9. To make the egg wash, whisk together the egg and heavy cream in a small bowl. (Omit the egg wash if using a pullman pan.)
10. Brush the top of the dough with egg wash. Bake on the center rack of the oven until the top is golden brown, 30-33 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and allow the bread to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer the bread to the rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container (a resealable bag works great) for up to 4 days.

Black Sesame Paste

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients:

  • 120g (1 cup) roasted black sesame seeds
  • 20g (2 tablespoons) sugar
  • 45g (¼ cup) canola or other neutral flavored oil

Directions:
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the sesame seeds and sugar until the mixture is coarse and sandy. While the food processor is still running, add the oil and blend until smooth, 1-2 minutes. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn