A Chinese bakery is a magical place. Full moons of golden egg tarts, or dan tat, sparkle behind pastry crates. Hot dog buns shaped into flowers and sprinkled with green onions bloom on the displays. The air is loaded with the smells of sugar, butter, and maybe garlic, as both savory and sweet breads are available for purchase.
Kristina Cho, the author of Moon Cakes and Milk Bread, has always been attracted to them. “There is something about Chinese bakeries that are really fancy,” she says. In Cleveland, where Cho grew up in a family of Chinese restaurateurs, there was no stand-alone Chinese bakery. This meant that the hunt for Chinese pastries intensified with every family trip to Chinatowns in major cities – Toronto, Chicago, and DC, to name a few. “My parents, especially my dad, have such strong memories of growing up in Hong Kong, where they have amazing bakeries everywhere. [quality] to find something reminiscent of a childhood memory that I think makes Chinese bakeries really special.
But it’s not just nostalgia. As a former architect, Cho finds Chinese bakeries visually impressive. “They normally have crates full of all these different buns with so many different flavor and shape options and shiny fruit,” she says. “It’s so beautiful and visually stimulating.
Although the architecture and the pastry do not necessarily seem to overlap, Cho finds parallels. “There’s a process-oriented element that ties them both together,” she explains. “The way I created the book may be different from other cookbook authors because there is only one way for me to really know how to proceed with a project. If I designed a space, what emotions or vibrations do I want to create? For Cho, that meant lots of step-by-step process photos for her recipes and subtle design details she kept in mind for visual learners like her.
Baking bread isn’t an easy task, but Cho hopes her first cookbook will instill confidence in her readers and give them the chance to enjoy a nostalgic favorite. and teach something new about an ingredient or technique. For example, his black sesame matcha milk bread recipe explores the dimension and versatility of milk bread. “It’s a really good canvas to include different flavors,” Cho says. “Once you have the dough on the bottom, it’s a really nice dough to handle.”
With that in mind, Cho reminds her readers that making the perfect loaf of milk bread takes time and patience. “There are different components to pain au lait, like tangzhong, which is just a mixture of milk and flour in which you cook like a small, soft pan. For a lot of people, it’s like an extra step, but it really takes two minutes to bake and that’s the secret ingredient to making your bread really, really soft.
The result will be gratifying: a subtly sweet bread with a soft, chewy center. Plus, the bread-making trip is part of the experience. “What attracts me to baking is the process-oriented aspect of taking things slowly and in the right order,” Cho says. “It’s satisfying to find the best ways to mix butter and sugar. Just trust the process.