There’s something about the way the Japanese do a lot of things that just different. They pay attention to the smallest details and there’s a lot of effort and care that goes into what they do. Think about simplicity and beauty of their Bonsai, Ikebana, Origami or Japanese gardens, for example and you know what I’m talking about.
It’s pretty much the same with their baking. Though Japan does not have a tradition of baking, they have adopted, adapted and improved upon so many of the baking recipes, whether cakes or breads, from the West and made them their own. Japanese Western style patisserie tends to be less sweeter than their Western counterparts but are often quite rich with lots of eggs, milk and butter.
“Pan” is the Japanese word for bread which is borrowed from Portuguese and they make quite a variety of “Pan” in Japan, some of them rather unusual. I have quite of a few of them on my to-bake list and I thought I’d start off by picking the “Melon Pan” (sometimes also called Meronpan or Melon Ban) to bake for this month’s We Knead To Bake bread.
Melon Pan are buns and basically a soft , rich and not so sweet bread covered by a layer of crunchy cookie. The contrast of the soft spongy inner bread and the crunchy outer cookie layer is what makes this bread special. It also helps that these buns look very attractive too.
There is some debate as to the origin of the “Melon” part of the name of this bread, because there’s definitely no melon or melon flavour of any sort in this bread. Though I now understand that there are some bakeries in Japan that do flavour this bread with melon extract, it is more unusual than the norm.
There are a couple of suggestions as to where the “Melon” in Melon Pan comes from. One suggestion is that the sugar cookie topping is usually scored in a crosshatch pattern similar to the way the Japanese cut melon wedges into a crosshatch pattern, and then bend them backwards before serving.
The other more popular suggestion is that appearance of the cracked surface of the cookie dough layer resembles a rock melon/ cantaloupe, and hence the name.
It seems that the pattern on these Melon Pan can differ in certain regions of Japan where they prefer to create a radiating pattern that represents the sunrise.While the crosshatch pattern is more common, an equally popular practice is to decorate the surface of the cookie dough by pressing into it with small teddy bear or star shaped cookie cutters.
Versions of the Melon Pan are also made in neighbouring Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and also as far as Latin America (the Mexican Conchas) which is possibly the origin of this Japanese bread. The Conchas are also bread rolls but covered with a coloured cinnamon flavoured cookie crust.
The bread dough for Melon Pan is mostly left plain, though some people add chocolate chips, while others fill the buns with cream cheese, custard/ pastry cream or even chopped chocolate. You can go whichever way you choose, plain or with some filling or flavour. You can also use your choice of flavouring for the cookie dough like chocolate, green tea, pineapple, etc if you like.
Both the bread and cookie doughs are made with egg as this gives the bread a better texture. If you don’t eat egg, you can leave them out, but substitute for it in the bread dough with a tablespoon of yogurt or milk for good texture. Melon Pan is not very difficult to make and you can even make the cookie part of the dough ahead, as it needs refrigeration.
Do take a look at this video which is an excellent tutorial on making Melon Pan. If you live in warmer climates like I do, you don’t need to proof the dough in the microwave as suggested in the video, and room temperature works just fine.
Melon Pan are best eaten the day they’re made. This recipe makes 8 burger bun sized (the ones we get in India) Melon Pan. You can bake a half batch or even make smaller Pan by dividing both the doughs into 10 or 12 instead of 8.
This recipe is adapted from A Bread A Day and other sources.