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The Pillowy Magic of Milk Bread

The beauty here isn’t just that the loaf tastes wonderful, existing within some notional territory between a sweet bread and a yeasted cake; it’s that the process of making it invites me to shut off my brain, to stop tinkering. I’ve found that when I make time for this bread, with its two rises, each an hour or more, I’m also making time to take a bath, time to read a book, time to pour myself a glass of wine (usually all three). It feels as if I’m lengthening the day beyond its 24 hours. The process results in a sense of peace and a loaf that’s almost pancake-sweet, with a feathery texture like cotton candy, as Cho described her ideal milk bread. You should be able to peel back layer after wispy layer.

“Not every one of my loaves gets that exceptional cotton candy texture,” Cho said. “It’s the combination of kneading time and humidity in the air that makes the perfect loaf.” At first this was a source of great frustration for me, and I felt like a bad baker whenever I didn’t achieve that wispy, wheaten dream. But later, I realized that the mercurial nature of bread baking is in itself where the magic lies — the magic of letting go.

On my most recent visit back home to Atlanta, my mother asked me just before I left if I could bake her a loaf — maybe two, so she could give one to my brother and his wife. I said sure, but this time I would teach her how to make it herself so she could have it whenever she wanted, and not just when I’m home. Family recipes, even ones that come from sons and not mothers, should be shared, not held hostage. So we each took a pot out of her cupboard. We would bake two loaves side by side and compare crumbs later.

We started with the roux, or the tangzhong, a mixture of bread flour and, in this case, whole milk that gets cooked on the stovetop and whisked vigorously into a texture not unlike mashed potatoes. Milk bread bakers will be familiar with this preliminary step — or at least until the maple syrup, a glossy river of it, is pooled in. Jean was a natural at kneading, which wasn’t a surprise. She was a potter in a past life. I loved imagining her as a ceramics major back in Seoul, decades ago, learning to turn a ball of clay into a vase that would someday sit in our living room in Georgia, in our very first house, a two-story brick single-family at the top of a hill, the one with the peach tree in the front yard.

I can’t promise that this bread will change your life. But what I do know is that it can slow down time, maybe when you need it most.

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