This one is very exciting to me because it mixes elements from two of my favorite baked treats: anpan and babkas! These buns have the taste and elements of anpan but use the same shaping technique as a babka, which give them that beautiful braided look, with ribbons of red bean paste throughout. I used Japanese milk bread for the base, which provides a soft and pillowy texture, and a milky and slightly sweet taste that goes so well with the sweet red bean paste.
What is anpan?
Anpan is a Japanese sweet roll, most commonly filled with red bean paste. It was actually created in 1875, by a samurai who had recently lost his job and decided to become a baker. Red bean paste was usually found in the center of mochi because bread (especially the sweet and soft variation that is now popular in Japan) was an uncommon thing at the time. Anpan caught on fast, due to its novelty, and has been popular ever since.
I grew up on anpan, so my first taste of these was pure nostalgia. My family and I especially loved the anpan at Nene Goose Bakery, a mom and pop bakery in Kailua, Hawaii, because they would come with a soft mochi ball in the middle! You really can’t go wrong with the combination of soft bread and sweet red bean paste.
What is a babka?
A babka is a Jewish Eastern European bread, made from a yeast dough, and usually filled with chocolate or cinnamon. They’re rolled up, twisted, and baked in a loaf pan. Traditionally, they use a Brioche base but, as stated earlier, this version has swapped the brioche out for milk bread!
Really the only babka element that is used for this recipe is the shaping technique. If you prefer to make a more traditional anpan, feel free to skip the complicated shaping. Just flatten out your dough, place a scoop of red bean paste, and then seal and roll into a ball. You could also sub out the filling for anything you prefer (cookie butter, chocolate, cinnamon… the list goes on!).
One thing to note: I made these buns by hand so I’ve written the instructions to reflect that. I do not own a stand mixer here in DC, so I’ve had to adapt to hand mixing and kneading. If you have a stand mixer, don’t worry! It’d actually be so much faster, just follow the recipe and use the dough hook to knead instead.
These turned out so cute and so delicious. You’ll want to snack on them all day but, in my opinion, they’re especially good for breakfast. Bring these to your next brunch picnic and (I promise) your guests will be impressed.
These can be prepped over the span of a couple of days if needed. I’ve included instructions for that in the notes section of the recipe. Store any leftovers in an airtight container, at room temperature or in the fridge, for up to 5 days.
Anpan Babka Buns (Red Bean Milk Bread)
For the bread starter:*
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/3 cup all-purpose or bread flour**
For the bread:
- 1/2 cup starter
- 1/2 cup lukewarm milk
- 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 2/3 cup all-purpose or bread flour
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 stick unslated butter (4 tbsp), melted and cooled
For the filling:
- 1 14oz packet red bean paste***
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (or any type of milk)
Make the tangzhong starter:
- Pour the water and milk into a small saucepan. Add the flour and whisk until there are no lumps.
- Place onto medium heat and whisk constantly until the mixture thickens, about 5-10 minutes. It should have a pudding-like consistency, pourable but thick.
- Pour mixture into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Make the plastic wrap touch the surface of the mixture. This will prevent a skin from forming.
- Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.
Make the dough:
- In a medium-large mixing bowl, place the lukewarm milk. Add 1 tsp of your sugar and mix to dissolve. Sprinkle your yeast on the surface of the milk and gently stir. Let sit for 10-20 minutes, until bubbly and frothy.
- Add the rest of the sugar, 1/2 cup of tangzhong, egg, flour, and salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until a scraggly dough forms.
- Let dough rest for 20-30 minutes. After 30 minutes, it should be slightly sticky but stretchy. (If you are using a stand mixer, you can skip this step)
- Add your melted butter to the dough and coat your hands with it. Stretch and knead the dough in the bowl to incorporate the butter. It'll take some time but be patient with it. Keep kneading for about 10-15 minutes, or until the butter is well incorporated and you have a smooth, satiny, and workable dough.
- Form the dough into a ball and place back into the mixing bowl. Cover with a dish towel or plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in size (about 1-2 hours).****
Assemble your babka buns:
- Turn your dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Press all excess air out of dough.
- Using a dough cutter, evenly portion out 12 pieces of dough. Roll each into a ball.
- Roll out each ball of dough into rectangular discs. You'll want to get them to about 1/8" thickness.
- Squeeze about 1 – 1 1/2 tbsp of red bean paste onto the surface of the dough. Using a butter knife, spread the paste evenly, leaving a 1/4" border.
- Starting from a long side, roll into a tight log. At the end, pinch to form a seam.
- Using the dough cutter or a sharp knife, slice the log down the middle vertically. Move both strands so the filling is facing upward. Twist both strands under and over the other until you've gotten to the end. Curl the braid into itself so it forms a spiral. Tuck the ends under.
- Repeat for each dough portion. Place on a baking sheet prepared with parchment paper or a silpat. Give them about 2" of space, as they will expand in the over (you'll probably need two baking sheets).
- Cover with a dishtowel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size (another 1-2 hours). *****
- Toward the end of the second rise, preheat your oven to 350°F.
- Once oven is preheated and buns have doubled in size, brush with a milk wash. I used heavy whipping cream, but you can use whatever type of milk you have on hand.
- Place buns in the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until golden brown.
- Remove from oven and let cool for 5-10 minutes on the baking sheet. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Enjoy warm!