One day in the warren-like shopping arcades of Asakusa, on our first trip to Tokyo, we spotted an enormous queue of people slowly leading past the main Sensō-Ji temple and associated buildings to a wooden food counter set into a wall. Being of the inquisitive type, and knowing that if locals are willing to queue for something then it must be good, we joined the line and patiently waited between a group of school girls and a venerable elderly lady with a walking stick who steadfastly refused to take our place in line. The queue stopped and started. Twenty or thirty people would buy something wrapped in a paper bag and leave, then more waiting before another twenty or thirty people moved along, all the while the smell of freshly baked goods was building ever stronger and filling our minds with suspense. What were we queueing for? Was it savoury or sweet? Was there a choice? The possibility that the language barrier would prove too hard to break through and us end up with nothing flashed through my mind. As we approached the shop front we could make out that they were selling only one thing, large round bread buns which people were greedily eating from paper bags as roving gangs of hoodlum sparrows harassed them for stray crumbs. By now we had waited for around half an hour- a rich, sweet, vanilla scented thirty minutes; we got to the stall and found ourselves confronted by a wall of undecipherable Kanji, except for two romanized words- Melon Pan ¥200. That settled it, we awkwardly ordered two melon pan and shied away to the shade of a gingko tree to see what we had been waiting so long for.
Peeling back the paper wrapper we revealed a pair of relatively plain looking bread rolls, around twenty centimetres wide, light golden brown, attractively scored in a criss-cross, melon rind pattern, but pretty unremarkable- until we tore into them that is. A brittle, aromatic, sugary cookie crust shattered and gave way to a warm, delicate, butter enriched bread, lighter in texture than a brioche but without giving up any of its richness. This unassuming roll was one of the most ethereal breads I had ever eaten and within two minutes it was all gone and I found myself wanting to rejoin the queue for a second taste, realising only then why people were buying them in fives and sixes rather than individual buns.
- 350g bread flour
- 240ml whole milk
- 50g caster sugar
- 35g butter, softened
- 5g dried yeast
- 3g salt
- 40g butter, softened
- 75g caster sugar plus more for coating
- 85g plain flour
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 25g beaten egg
- Warm the milk in a small saucepan over a medium heat until it is almost at boiling point. Turn off the heat under the pan before the milk boils over, then leave it to cool to room temperature- scalding milk like this breaks down proteins present, and helps to the dough to rise further meaning that the finished bread will have a fluffier texture.
- Add the bread flour, sugar, salt and yeast to the bowl of a stand mixer. Start the mixer running at a low speed, then pour in the cooled milk in a slow trickle. Knead the mixture until the ingredients have formed an even, firm dough, then add in the butter a small piece at a time, mixing well between additions. Continue to knead until all the butter is incorporated and the dough is very stretchy and smooth, then leave the dough to rise until it has doubled in volume- this should be around one to two hours, depending on the room’s temperature.
- Whilst the dough is being left to rise, prepare the topping for the melon pan. Mix the flour, sugar and baking powder together, then add in the soft butter and stir well to combine- it should become a coarse sandy texture, with no large clumps of butter. Stir in the beaten egg making sure everything is fully incorporated, then squeeze the dough into a log, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate until firm.
- When the bread dough has risen, knock the air out of it and knead by hand for a minute or so until it forms a smooth piece once again. Divide the dough into six equal pieces and form them into round bun shapes, then remove the topping dough from the fridge and divide this into six also. Roll the topping into small balls, then place a portion between two pieces of clingfilm and flatten with a rolling pin into a twelve centimetre disc. Peel away the top layer of cling film then take a piece of bread dough and place it onto the centre of the topping dough, forming the cookie around the top of the bun evenly. Carefully remove the rest of the cling film and place the coated bun on a lined baking tray, repeating this process with the other five pieces of dough. When the buns are all topped with the crust, gently score diagonal lines on the cookie part of the bun then roll in caster sugar; loosely cover with clingfilm then leave to prove on the baking tray for thirty minutes to one hour until the dough has risen- making sure to leave enough room between the buns for them to expand.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, then -when the buns have increased in size by around two-thirds- bake them for fifteen to twenty minutes, until the crust has started to go a light golden brown at the edges. Remove the melon pan from the oven and allow to cool on a rack slightly before eating- for an authentic melon pan experience, wrap the hot bread in a paper bag or some greaseproof paper and eat it greedily with your hands.
Makes six melon pan.