Steam-baked Black Sesame Milk Rolls

I’m a total carbivore. When my family goes out for dim sum, our must order items are the usual ones– har gow, sew mai, beef cheung fun, egg tarts. We’ve had our fair share of super soft, melt-in-your mouth baked (not steamed) BBQ buns. Soft enough for me to examine its texture and wonder how it was achieved. These rolls were made in pursuit of that melt-in-your mouth quality.
I started off with the hokkaido milk recipe buns, but made a few notable changes to both the ingredients and method. And guys. The results were brilliant.

To be honest, despite the whole “baking-is-a-science” spiel, most of the time when I’m baking for my family/for myself, I freehand and eyeball things to a certain degree. Admittedly, some of the recipes I post may not 100% reflect exactly how much salt I put in, or vanilla extract, or whatever.
But this recipe is different– I measure out the ingredients every time. I have made, tested and adjusted parts of this recipe over and over again, mostly because I can’t get over the brilliance that is HOKKAIDO MILK BREAD. And dare I say, it is a foolproof recipe for soft, asian bread that is ‘customizable’ to a degree– you can choose how much butter you want to add to the dough. Of course, the more butter you add, the softer, more melt-in-your-mouth this bread gets. But the thing is, it’s not brioche. You can add as little as 3 tablespoons of butter and the results are almost as satisfying– or, it means you can afford to be a little more indulgent in your choice of fillings.
The key for success in this recipe is as follows:
  • all liquid ingredients should be warm, or at least at room temperature (the milk will be ~110°F)
  • keep the dough moist
  • keep the dough warm
  • allow adequate time for the dough to rise
  • watch it carefully when it’s baking to avoid undercooking/overcooking

I used to be part of the undercooked fan club, because I love chewy gooey things to no end, but I realize that undercooked bread is just gummy and all-around unpleasant. It’s an insult to the yeast, really, and all the time that was invested in the bread’s rise.

So give it a try, and if black sesame doesn’t float your boat– think cinnamon sugar, peanut butter and jelly, almond frangipane, chocolate hazelnut, white chocolate and cranberry, red bean, etc. etc. etc. The recipe looks very long but don’t be intimidated! It takes me about 20 minutes to prep everything, including making the tangzhong. Alternatively, you can make the dough and allow the first rise to happen overnight in the fridge. The next morning, you would bring to room temperature, and continue with the filling and rolling, and letting it rise again. Voila, the perfect brunch treat!

Steam-baked Black Sesame Milk Rolls

  • Servings: 10 rolls
  • Difficulty: intermediate
  • Print

adapted from Kirby’s Craving among other blogs; the tangzhong method was developed by Yvonne Chen, who wrote “65 degrees tangzhong”
For the tangzhong
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 cup water

For the bread

  • 2½ cups all purpose flour
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ cup milk (I always use a little more)
  • 130g tangzhong, cooled
  • 2.25 tsp or 1 packet of active dry yeast
  • 3-7 tbsp butter, depending on your preference (cut into small pieces, softened at room temperature)

For the filling

  • 3-4 cups black sesame seeds, toasted and cooled
  • good-quality honey, to taste
  • pinch of salt

For the egg wash

  • 1 large egg
  • optional splash of heavy cream
  • optional sprinkling of demerara sugar
Make the tangzhong
  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, mix flour and water together and whisk until homogenous and no lumps remain.
  2. Stir constantly as the pot heats up. It will thicken, and as soon as your whisk leaves a visible trail in the tangzhong, it’s done. Make sure to not cook the tangzhong long past this point.
  3. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Make the black sesame filling

  1. Pulse the black sesame seeds in a food processor (or Vitamix/Blendtec, if you’re so lucky) for about 15-20 minutes, until a smooth black sesame paste has formed, and all its oils have been released.
  2. With the motor running, stream in your honey to taste, and add a pinch of salt.
  3. This can be kept in the fridge overnight, or just kept at room temperature if using soon.

Make the milk bread

  1. Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and active dry yeast in a mixing bowl.
  2. In a large glass measuring cup, warm up 1/2 cup milk (I always use a little more milk) in the microwave until it reaches 110°F.  Whisk in your room temperature egg, and 130g tangzhong.
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry in the mixing bowl. Using the dough hook attachment, knead the dough until a ball forms.
  4. Add the butter, one tablespoon at a time, while the machine is kneading.
  5. Knead the dough for 20-30 minutes (depending on your mixer), until the dough is elastic and makes a slapping noise. On a Kitchenaid, this would be speed 2 for 20 minutes.
  6. Lightly oil a large bowl, and toss your dough around to lightly coat all sides with oil. Cover with a damp kitchen towel, and allow to proof in a draft-free, warm spot. Some ovens have a “proof” setting, otherwise, leave it on top of your refrigerator.
  7. After your dough has doubled in size (allow 1-2.5 hours for this, mine usually takes 2 hours), roll out the dough to an approximately 15′ by 11′ rectangle on a clean cutting board. I find it is unnecessary to use flour, because the dough is usually elastic enough to easily peel away from any surface.
  8. Generously spread your black sesame filling onto the dough. With the long side horizontal to you, roll the dough into a tight log. Cut with dental floss or a sharp knife.
  9. Arrange rolls in two 9′ cake pans, lined with parchment paper. I was able to fit 5 rolls in each pan. Allow to rise for another hour.
  10. Place a large pan (that you’re okay with potentially being warped) on the lowest rack in your oven. Preheat oven to 350°F about 15 minutes before the rolls are finished rising. When the hour is up, brush the rolls with egg wash and sprinkle with demerara sugar, if using.
  11. Carefully pour cold water onto the pan (or use a water gun, à la Thomas Keller), being careful of the steam burning your face/hands. Quickly place the 2 pans of rolls in the oven.
  12. Bake for 23-30 minutes, checking at the 20 minute mark to ensure rolls are not over baked.
  13. Best enjoyed warm!


  • about creating steam in your oven– I’ve read many ways bakers have done this, from throwing ice cubes into the ovens, to loading a large hotel pan with river rocks and metal chains and spraying water on them with a water gun, to starting off with water in the pan while the oven is preheating. I am no expert and have not tried all these different ways to document all the differences, but I do know you sort of wreck your pans if you bake them in high heat without any water on it. Just a word of caution.

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