I sometimes feel that we mis-sell homemade bread. All of these ‘best bread of your life’ articles and books sell a particular vision: a craggy, very dark brown loaf, with a thick crust, and chewy, irregular interior. Loaves that take long and patient work and probably require a starter or levain of some sort. And it’s true that these loaves are achievable at home and all that time develops lovely flavours. But not everyone really likes eating them.
When you want to make a sandwich, or some really good, golden toast, that isn’t what you need. Sometimes there is a place for a soft, fluffy bread, with a thin crust that will toast really well, and won’t take three days to make. When that is what you’re after, and if that is your definition of really good bread, then what you need is a milk loaf, or a pain de mie.
This bread comes together in a few hours (although you can leave it overnight if that’s more convenient). It’s a great choice for sandwiches, toast, and even toasted sandwiches. It’s likely to be popular with children. It is gently golden on the outside, with a soft texture inside, but not as spongy and squishy as a cheap sliced loaf. A little sugar helps it to brown nicely when toasted. Not too much liquid means a nice even interior, without jagged holes that let the filling through.
Behind the recipe
All those macho, craggy loaves are flour, water, salt and yeast (or sourdough starter). Milk bread contains a number of other things: milk, butter and sugar. All of them get in the way of the flour a bit, and turn the interior from chewy and stretchy to soft and fluffy. You can also use eggs, or even a roux of cooked flour and water to soften bread. But milk, and a little butter and sugar make a nice soft loaf, but without too much richness.
The fat in the milk, and in the small amount of butter help to interrupt the gluten structure, and stop it from becoming too coarse and chewy. Baking at a high temperature for a short time prevents the crust from drying out too much and getting too thick and crusty. You can also cover the bread with a tea towel when it comes out of the oven to keep the crust soft. Some say that scalding the milk briefly will help to deactivate an enzyme in the milk, and allow the bread to rise a little more and be fluffier. I tried this with and without scalding, and couldn’t tell the difference. I warm the milk up to give the dough a headstart, and to melt and dissolve the butter and sugar, making them easier to distribute, but there’s no need to simmer it.
Milk bread recipe
- 500g strong white bread flour
- 1 tsp fine salt
- 2 tsp instant dried yeast
- 150ml whole milk
- 1 scant teaspoon sugar
- knob of butter – 15g/1tbsp
- 160ml water
Mix the flour with the salt and yeast.
Add the milk, butter and sugar to a small saucepan and heat the milk just until the butter melts. Take off the heat and pour in the cold water, and wait until it has cooled down so it feels just warm to the touch. (Temperatures over about 50°C will kill the yeast – that feels very hot to touch).
Add the liquid to the flour and mix everything together with a wooden spoon until all the dry flour is gone. If you have time, leave it for 20 minutes for the liquid to be absorbed and to help develop the gluten (this is called an ‘autolyse’).
After that time, knead for about 5 minutes by hand, or with a dough hook on a mixer (or even in a food processor) until you have a smooth and springy dough. Put into a bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise for about 1.5 – 2 hours in the kitchen – no need for a warm place – or overnight in the fridge.
When the dough has roughly doubled in size, and seems very puffy, briefly knead it and pat into an approximate square. Shape into a loaf by rolling it up, and put into a greased 2lb loaf tin. Alternatively you can shape the dough into two or three balls of dough and tuck them into the tin together.
Dust the top with flour, cover again with cling film, and leave to rise for about half an hour. While it is proving, pre-heat the oven to 210°C/190°C fan for about 40 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool before slicing – the bread will be gummy if you slice it while it’s hot.
This dough can also be made into rolls, for burger buns or sandwiches.