Yes, I'm talking about TARO-TARO's Panda Bread. It gave me a serious case of the warm-n-fuzzies the first time I saw it. Admittedly, the panda is my favourite animal in the whole world, but any bread that slices open to reveal a surprise within will win my instant admiration. Provided it's not an explosive, of course.
What lay beneath such ugly exteriors?!
I've been wanting to make this ever since I saw it on Not Quite Nigella, and then again at Florence's Do What I Like (my go-to site for all Asian baked goods!). Trouble was, I would invariably be struck down with a sense of panic as soon as I even contemplated attempting it. My mind would be assailed by a cacophony of banshee voices dissuading me:
"It'll end up one misshapen lump - think of the waste!"
"The skills required to pull off something like this...stop kidding yourself!"
"Why is your room so messy all the time?!"
(Oh wait, that last one's from my mum.)
Anyway, yesterday I put my foot down and decided then and there that I was going to confront my demons, and try my hand at this Panda Bread. I'm okay with baking bread in general - I've made quite a few different types in the past: cotton-soft polo buns made using the tangzhong method, cinnamon scrolls involving ample amounts of butter and sugar, gluten-free varieties incorporating rice flours and almond meal, and...er, damper (back in primary school). My main concern regarding the Panda bread was the actual assembling of the different-coloured doughs. And, as you can see from my photographs, my panda face didn't come out symmetrical like TARO-TARO's.
I used the recipe and method from Florence's blog. In case I didn't make it clear before - her website is amazing. It's full of recipes for those desserts you see only in Asian bakeries or Cantonese restaurants. Well, for me at least. People of a Cantonese background probably have their own versions passed down through generations, but since I am from the northern part of China, I am reliant on people like Florence and Ju from The Little Teochew for ethnic recipes originating in other parts of China.
Since I don't own a bread machine, I did all my kneading by hand. It took about twenty minutes of non-stop kneading to get the dough to feel 'right'; my bi- and triceps were pretty much quaking by then. It was also very difficult to work with the dough right after mixing all the ingredients together, since it was very, very sticky. Do not be tempted to add more flour. As you work the dough, gluten will begin to form and the dough will become much less sticky, to the point where you can knead it without it sticking to your hand or the bowl/work surface. If you add more flour than what is specified (as I have done before), it will ruin the texture of your bread, making it tough and all clumped together!
Another piece of advice: do not slice the bread as soon as it comes out of the oven. I'm sure there are experienced bread bakers out there face-palming as they read this, but I committed the crime of attempting to slice open my loaf while it was still piping hot, a mere minute after I took it out of the oven. I was just so excited that it had actually risen and was so eager to see if the pattern was intact that I hacked away at the tough crust with my non-serrated knife. This was what met my horrified eyes:
The voices started their recriminations anew.
What had happened was that the inside of the bread had collapsed under the pressure of my knife, as the crumb is super delicate when still hot. Once bread cools, the gluten sort of "sets", allowing for bread to be sliced without tearing the fluffy insides.
I quickly did a search on google about the proper time to wait before slicing into freshly baked bread, and apparently the recommended time is 30-60 minutes, or until the loaf has cooled completely. Some bakers apparently wait 3 days before slicing. I resisted the urge to chuck the whole thing away, and threw a kitchen towel over it instead. The next morning, I cut the bread at a point that appeared to have intact insides with my very sharp (but un-serrated) knife, and hey, guess my efforts weren't wasted after all!
Moral(s) of the story: Yes, there are the usual ones of "follow instructions!" and "listen to those who are more experienced!", but also: hope for the best despite overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise. Had I chucked the bread away upon discovering the collapsed insides the night before, this post would never have been written, I would have thought myself a failure for the next few days, and my 20 minutes of manual kneading would indeed have been in vain. Hope for the best, and hopefully you'll be pleasantly surprised :D
Recipe for Panda Bread
Makes 1 loaf weighing approximately 600g
230g bread flour
70g cake flour
1 egg yolk + milk = 210g
20g melted butter (salted or unsalted)
4.5g salt (omit if using salted butter)
4g instant yeast
8g green tea powder dissolved in 10g boiling hot water
8g cocoa powder dissolved in 8g boiling water
1. Whisk together milk and egg yolk and heat mixture to 38℃, either over a gentle flame or by microwaving it on HIGH in short bursts of 10 seconds, stirring between.
2. Combine flours, sugar, milk + yolk mixture, melted butter, yeast and salt (if using unsalted butter) and knead until dough is no longer sticky. This will take approximately 20 minutes. To help develop the gluten, throw down the dough and slap it onto your work surface from a height ever two minutes or so.
3. Divide dough (which should weigh in around 560g) into three parts: 75g for the chocolate, 210g for the plain, and whatever is left for the green tea (less than 280g).
4. Add the cocoa powder dissolved in water to the 75g dough, kneading to incorporate and until uniform in colour. Do the same with the green tea powder and water to the 280g dough.
5. Place three doughs in separate greased containers and cover loosely with greased cling wrap. Allow doughs to rise for 30-40 minutes.
The doughs after the first rising.
6. After doughs have risen, punch them down to get rid of the air, and allow them to rise a second time, for another 20-30 minutes.
7. Assemble the doughs into the panda pattern in the following method (refer to TARO-TARO's site for an illustrated, step-by-step guide): First portion out 90g of the white dough. Roll it into a strip of the same length as that of your loaf pan. Next, portion out 2 pieces of 27g each of the chocolate dough, rolling into strips of the same length. These will form the eyes of the panda. Fill the hollow between the eyes with 30g of plain dough. Roll the remaining plain dough into a rectangle that will wrap all the way around the eyes and face. Next, divide the remaining chocolate dough into two pieces (around 17.5g each). Roll into strips. These will form the ears. Attach ears, then use 70g of the green tea dough to fill the hollow between the ears. Wrap the rest of the green tea dough around the whole thing.
This is what it should look like after assembling:
8. Place the assembled dough into a well-greased loaf pan and cover loosely with cling-wrap. Allow to rise for a final time for 50-60 minutes, in a warm area.
The dough before the final rising
The dough after the final rising
9. Bake in oven which has been preheated to 200℃ for 25-30 minutes. Bread is baked thoroughly when the crust is a dark, brown colour (but not burnt black!) and sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.
10. IMPORTANT: Do not slice the bread as soon as you remove it from the oven!!! Allow to cool in tin for 5 minutes, then transfer to rack and allow to cool for a further 10 minutes. After that, drape a tea towel over it and let it sit under there for at least another 30-60 minutes (I waited overnight, around 5-6 hours). Only slice (using a serrated knife is best) after loaf has completely cooled.