The Ayako & Family stand at the University District Farmers Market is a modern business, built on memories.
YEARS FROM NOW, I think my children will remember the bliss of biting into a pillowy, thick-cut slice of Japanese milk bread spread with jewel-toned jam. I’ve been known to make both at home, but the bread’s inspiration — and the better version — came from Alessandra Gordon at the Ayako & Family stand at the University District Farmers Market.
The business is modern, but built on memories: It began in 2009, when Gordon’s mother, Ayako, began working at Katsumi Taki’s stand at the Saturday market. Taki’s organic farm in Yakima is known for regionally rare produce that includes heirloom plums the size of a jumbo marble.
Taki, who had worked as a biologist in his native Japan, wanted “to start cultivating what he used to eat as a child,” Alessandra says. And her mother found that “Taki-San’s” crops reminded her of her own grandfather’s farm outside Tokyo.
Ayako Gordon began making the jams one day from a batch of Taki’s slightly blemished apricots. “My mother, being Japanese and having a no-waste policy about her, was like, ‘Absolutely not; you cannot throw these away. These are perfectly beautiful apricots,’ ” Alessandra says.
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The jam company now is Taki’s largest customer, and Alessandra cooks the fruit in shallow copper pots in a small commissary kitchen rather than over a home stove. Food critics include the hexagonal jars on their lists of America’s best preserves, talking about the silken texture, gleaming color and nuanced flavors. Market customers say the jam makes them think of bygone summers, picking damson plums from backyard trees or greengage plums from the orchard.
“All of the fruit behaves so differently in the pot, even from season to season,” Alessandra says. “Just like grapes for wine, the jams turn out differently. But in that way it’s so rewarding.”
Alessandra, one of Ayako’s three children and a professional photographer, had been helping with the business since the start, building the website and handling correspondence. She took over jam production last year while her mother dealt with health issues — and found she had memories of her own to explore. Alessandra lived with her grandparents in Japan when she was 3, and never forgot the fluffy milk bread her grandmother would toast for her each morning and spread with butter and sugar.
In an age of crusty, hearty, whole-grain loaves, Alessandra wasn’t sure there would be a market for soft, white bread made from a delicate dough. But she wanted to give market customers a way to sample the jam on slices of toast without committing to an entire $14 jar. Also, “I grew up eating this; it has huge cultural significance to me …” she says. “I think I wanted to find my own place in the business.”
Alessandra studied architecture in college. In addition to her photography work, she has years of restaurant experience, working her way up from her teenage job as a busser at Café Lago, where she learned “core values around hospitality and food.” But she’d never been a baker, and milk bread isn’t a common bread in Seattle.
Developing a reliable recipe took months, including enlisting her mother to translate Japanese baking books and working with a family friend to glean crucial tips (one essential one: Keep all ingredients at 86 degrees F). She brought an eight-loaf proofer back from Japan in a giant suitcase.
Her final rich, fine-grained loaf relies on high-protein flour from Smalls Family Farm in Walla Walla and European-style Plugra butter. Milk bread, or shokupan, is traditionally made with the tangzhong method — cooking a small amount of flour and water or milk together into a roux before adding it to other ingredients. Alessandra actually doesn’t use that method; she thinks the way she blooms her yeast provides the same texture. (It sounds like heresy, but researchers for Modernist Bread, the recently published bible of bread, also found the tangzhong keeps the bread soft over time rather than making it soft in the first place.)
Preparing a recent batch, Alessandra used a hollow, knobby rolling pin to press out discs of proofed dough onto a canvas mat. She stretched them into rectangles and flattened recalcitrant air bubbles, adjusting each movement to the quirks of the day’s dough.
“Bread is just — it really talks to you; it changes,” she says.
She rolled each rectangle into a cylinder and pressed the seams closed, then bent each one into a fat “U” shape, nestling three at opposite angles in a Pullman loaf pan so they would rise into each other like a cloverleaf roll.
After a half-hour in the proofer and another in the oven, she slid back the lids on the pans. The neatly bent pipes of dough had baked into a level, straight-edged, symmetric loaf. The room filled with the unmistakable, irresistible fragrance of fresh-baked bread, as elusive and unforgettable as childhood.
“It’s amazing what food can do,” she says.
Ayako & Family’s bread and jams are at the University District Farmers Market and selected other outlets. Loaves of bread often sell out early.
At home, I’ve had good luck baking Japanese milk bread using a recipe from Food52.com.