B2 and I spontaneously decided to work from home together yesterday. As mundane as it sounds, I think it was the best decision we’ve made in weeks — instead of the usual Monday malaise, feeling sluggish amid a flurry of phone calls and emails, we spent a quiet, pajama-clad day at our sun-warmed dining table, with home-brewed coffee and baked oatmeal, getting more done than we — or at least I — ever would have in the office. (Except when B2 farted in the middle of my conference call and I spent the rest of it laughing instead of listening to my co-worker.)
I think I’m still getting used to the idea that, in this workaday world, taking the time to relax is something you have to actually try to do, even if it’s something as simple as working from home. Vacation days aren’t scheduled for you, they expire if you don’t take them; secret work-from-home days won’t land in your lap unless you decide you’re playing hooky. But maybe the force behind it makes it feel more rewarding, in the end.
In some ways, it reminds me of why I love baking. Working with yeast, taking the time to knead and coax the dough from something messy, tacky and frustrating into something smooth and pliable, then leaving it alone and letting the hours go by while it relaxes and rises, means taking a conscious, sometimes forced break from the hectic every-day. And it eventually means a final product that’s infinitely more satisfying for the slower, more intentional process it required.
With the cooling weather outside and the acceleration of work that seems to come with it, these rolls seemed like the perfect thing to stop and bake. I am an eternal fan of cinnamon rolls — I’m pretty sure I spend most of my time in any airport thinking about where the Cinnabon is hiding. But while there’s definitely a time and place for a butter-sugar-cinnamon punch in the gut, I thought I’d try something a little gentler for this iteration. So, taking my cues from Grace, I used black sesame paste instead, and rolled it up in a simplified version of this Hokkaido milk bread dough I made a few weeks back. I’m actually shocked that it’s taken me this long to post a black sesame treat, since it’s one of my absolute favorite flavors — to me, it epitomizes comfort, with a nuttiness that’s reminiscent of peanut butter, but an earthy warmth that’s all its own.
As for the glaze, yuanyang is a coffee and milk tea hybrid with the best story behind its name. I first had it a few years ago in Hong Kong and have been missing it ever since, until the lovely folks at Season with Spice were kind enough to send me a sample of their magical yuanyang mix. It’s every bit as delicious as I remember the real thing being, so much so that I spared a little to pair with these rolls, too. If you don’t have the yuanyang mix on hand, you can use instant milk tea powder instead to make a milk tea glaze (!) or infuse the milk with a mix of instant espresso and black tea — or you could omit it altogether and opt for the traditional sweetened condensed milk, like Grace does.
Hope you’re all having wonderful Tuesdays!
- for the tangzhong:
- 6 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp flour
- for the dough:
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
- 2 3/4 cups (about 350 grams) flour
- scant 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp butter
- for the black sesame filling:
- 1 cup black sesame seeds
- 1/4-1/3 cup honey (or more to taste)
- for the glaze:
- 2 tbsp yuanyang powder from Season with Spice (*see Notes for alternatives below)
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 tbsp melted butter
- 1-2 tbsp milk
- In a small saucepan, whisk together 6 tbsp water and 2 tbsp bread flour until no lumps remain. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. It should thicken to a gel-like consistency in just a few minutes. As soon as lines appear in the mixture when stirred, remove from heat and transfer to a small, clean bowl. Let cool to room temperature.
- Next, heat the milk briefly to just above room temperature, about 110° F or lukewarm to the touch. I do this simply by microwaving it for 10-15 seconds. Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and set aside for 5-10 minutes for the yeast to activate. The milk should foam.
- In the meantime, sift together the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. When the yeast is ready, add the tangzhong and egg into the yeast mixture, then whisk to combine. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a loose, shaggy dough, then switch to using your hands. Knead for 4-5 minutes, or until the dough forms a semi-smooth ball. The dough should be sticky and moist -- sprinkle flour over your hands and the dough as needed to keep kneading, but try to avoid overflouring. One tablespoon should be enough.
- Add the butter to the dough, one tablespoon at a time, kneading after each addition. Add the second tablespoon of butter only after the first has been evenly incorporated. The kneading will be slippery and messy at this point, but just keep kneading (actually, it’s oddly satisfying) and it should eventually form a soft and pliable dough that’s easy to work with. Knead for an additional 4-5 minutes, or until dough becomes smooth and elastic.
- Place the dough in a large bowl (greased, if you prefer, though it doesn't really matter) with plenty of room and cover loosely with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise for 1-2 hours in a warm, draft-free area, or until well-doubled. Alternatively, let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator. I prefer the latter -- it gives extra time for the gluten to develop, and yields a better flavor, in my opinion. Plus, dividing the labor over two days makes the process much more manageable. The dough should be fine for up to 24 hours.
- While the dough is proofing, make the black sesame filling. First, toast the seeds by heating them in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring with a spatula, until the seeds pop, smell fragrant, and turn brittle. Alternatively, you can roast them in the oven, like Mandy does here. Once the seeds are toasted, grind the black sesame seeds using a food processor or a mortar and pestle. The seeds will first form a coarse powder, then begin to form a paste as the oil releases. I had to scrape the sides of the food processor down 4 or 5 times before it reached that point. When the seeds form a moist paste, add the honey and grind again until the mixture turns smooth and glossy.
- Once the dough is doubled, turn it out and roll it into a large rectangle. I rolled mine about 11x14 inches, but it doesn't have to be exact -- just at least the size of a normal piece of paper. Spread an even layer of filling over the dough, as thick as you’d like, leaving a border around the edges. I found that homemade sesame paste doesn't take very well to spreading, so you may need to use your fingers to press it in an even layer across the dough instead.
- Starting with the long edge, roll the dough into tight log. Pinch the seam closed and turn the log so that the seam-side is down. Using a serrated knife or dental floss, cut the log into 8 to 10 equal pieces.
- Line a 10-inch cast-iron pan or 8x8 inch baking dish with parchment paper, then place the rolls in the pan, cut-side down and as evenly spaced as possible. If you run out of room, you can bake the extras free-form on a baking sheet or in individual porcelain ramekins. Let the rolls rise a second time in the pan until nearly doubled, another hour or so. About halfway through the proofing, preheat your oven to 350° F. When the rolls are proofed, bake for about 20 minutes, or until just golden in some parts.
- To make the glaze, sift together the yuanyang powder and confectioner's sugar. Add the melted butter and 1 tbsp of milk, and whisk until blended. If the glaze is too thick to pour, add more milk, a few teaspoons at a time, until it reaches your desired consistency. Pour over the rolls while they're still warm and serve immediately.
Feel free to use storebought black sesame paste if you'd prefer to skip the hassle of making your own.
If you don't have yuanyang mix, you can use instant milk tea mix instead, or make your own yuanyang by combining instant espresso powder with black tea powder. If you only have tea bags or tea leaves, you can infuse the milk by steeping the tea in it before using it in the glaze.
The rolls can be frozen at various points. You can freeze the unbaked rolls just after shaping and before the second rise; when ready to bake, let the rolls thaw overnight in the refrigerator and then let them proof at room temperature before baking as normal. Alternatively, you can place the still-frozen rolls in a cold oven while it preheats and bake as normal after it reaches the preheated temperature, keeping an eye on the browning. It may take a little less time to bake (and will expand less than if allowed to come to room temperature more slowly). You can also freeze the baked rolls, unglazed, by wrapping tightly in foil once cool. To reheat, just microwave from frozen for 30 seconds, or bake from frozen in a preheated oven at 350° F for 10-15 minutes.