Tender Milk Loaf Is Childhood Nostalgia
Roji Bakery | Mizuki Shin
Kneaded: L.A. Bread Stories, celebrates L.A. history, heritage, and communities through the lens of bread.
Mizuki Shin, the owner of Roji Bakery, shares with us the process of making the soft, fluffy Japanese shokupan (milk loaf). She pours her memories of eating shokupan as a child in Japan into her baking and still gets excited every time the oven door opens, sending the aroma of warm, freshly baked milk loaf into the room.
Milk loaf represents Japan; it has such emotional and cultural ties to Japan. So when I'm making it, I reflect on my time in Japan and eating the cafeteria food in Japan. I think, “I'm making the bread that I used to eat.” and it's a lot of nostalgia and happiness.
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR FAMILY TO SETTLE AND OPEN A BAKERY IN LOS ANGELES?
The closest place from Japan to America is either Hawaii or Los Angeles. I knew some people in Japan who would go to the southwestern [United States] and start a business or go to college. I saw a small Japanese community in L.A., so I decided that L.A. was the place I wanted to be.
We opened up the restaurant, which is located next to our bakery, twenty years ago, so we have been pretty familiar with this neighborhood. It made sense to open [Roji Bakery] here because we also know the bread community in the area– like La Brea Bakery and other places like that. I wanted to contribute to this bread community by bringing in a different and unique type of bread.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED MAKING MILK LOAF?
I’ve been in Los Angeles since I was 21, so I’ve eaten a lot of different types of bread and gone to different bakeries. But I still missed the Japanese loaf bread that I ate in Japan. I’ve eaten a lot of tasty and good bread, but it didn’t really fulfill the same amount of satisfaction as the typical Japanese bread. I wished that someday I would get to eat bread that I once knew in Japan, and then I wondered, “Why don’t I make the bread here?”
Before this idea, I was baking for fun—making bread just for my daughters. But once I got acquainted with a baker in Japan, we started the idea of opening a bakery in America, and I began working under the Japanese baker. I started studying Japanese bakeries, which is how I got started baking.
TELL US ABOUT THE COMMUNITIES YOU SERVE.
Many of our customers are from around the neighborhood. They stop by while on walks with their dogs or taking a stroll. We also have customers who travel from far away to Roji to get Japanese bread. There are mainly other Japanese Americans who heard about this new bakery with authentic Japanese bread and come here to buy milk loaf.
We also get a lot of Japanese restaurants that buy milk loaves from us. Some Japanese sandwich shops come here to buy milk loaf for their sandwiches.
Roji Bakery staff carefully remove freshly baked baguettes from the oven.
Roji Bakery makes various kinds of danishes with seasonal fruit toppings.
Roji bakers are meticulous about their craft. All pastries and breads are made fresh every morning.
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TELL US ABOUT the YUDANE (BAKING PROCESS) TECHNIQUE AND HOW IT MAKES MILK LOAF UNIQUE.
[To make yudane] you get regular bread flour, mix it with boiling water, and keep it overnight. The most important part of this technique is overnight proofing. The moisture gets trapped into the bread, which helps with fermentation, giving the flour this kind of umami, sweet flavor.
This process really helps with the taste of milk loaf, but it makes the dough a little bit weaker than normal dough, making it harder to handle. You have to be very delicate when placing it into the baking mold because it could flatten. You also have to be careful as it’s taken out of the mold since there may be a chance that it could deflate.
The yudane process yields a delicate dough that is gently handled to avoid flattening the dough.
The dough is carefully rolled and prepped for the baking molds.
Once placed in the molds, the milk loaf is ready for baking.
Once baked, the milk loaf is carefully removed from the baking molds.
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WHAT MEMORIES OR EMOTIONS ARISE WHILE MAKING MILK LOAF?
Milk loaf represents Japan; it has such emotional and cultural ties to Japan. So when I'm making it, I reflect on my time in Japan and eating the cafeteria food in Japan. I think, “I’m making the bread that I used to eat, too,” and it’s a lot of nostalgia and happiness.
Once the loaf is cooled, the milk loaf is lined up to this slicing guide.
The loaf is carefully sliced by Roji Bakery staff.
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The Japanese word for milk loaf is shokupan, and “pan” means “bread” in Japanese. In Japan, when you get a cafeteria meal at school, it always comes with a slice of milk loaf. So milk loaf is very nostalgic, and for many, it alludes to our childhood. But milk loaf is also unlike any other bread since you can just eat it on its own—you don't have to accompany it with butter, condiments, or anything. It’s bread that you can enjoy on its own, and I think its simplicity makes it special.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART ABOUT MAKING MILK LOAF?
My favorite moment is when I open up the proofing door. I look to see the bread has risen soft and fluffy, and then I divide it up and feel the dough texture with my hands. And I think, “Okay, this wasn’t a failure this time. This was a success.”
The other moment I don’t think I could ever get sick of is taking the bread out of the oven. The warm air brings in the smell of the bread, I see the really nice color of the bread, and it really makes me happy.
A fresh, just out-of-the-oven, milk loaf.
With the top of the baking mold removed, it reveals a beautifully brown milk loaf.
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HOW DOES MILK LOAF BRING PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER?
I really like the cozy feeling in our bakery, and our workers are super friendly. They love talking to everyone that comes in here. Most of our staff speak Japanese and are happy to see some Japanese families coming into the bakery. People are still coming from Japan, but our bakery is a safe place for them to transition into American culture.
We also have a lot of construction happening along La Brea Avenue as it’s a very busy street. The construction workers come in here every day to get sandwiches, eat, and relax. We have groups of moms who bring in their kids in strollers and settle down to chat and have tea while their kids play around them. We welcome that kind of energy; it’s very community-like and nice to see. This is more like a sit-down bakery than a grab-and-go—this is a very homey place where you can settle down in quiet or gather with others.
EXPLORE MORE FROM ROJI BAKERY
To see what baking at Roji Bakery, go to roji-bakery.business.site or visit them at 807 South La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
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