KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 14 – It's beginning to smell a lot like Christmas with the ambrosial scent of Madagascar vanilla and candied orange peel from Twenty-Two Bakery's panettone.
Once you try this Italian bread with its pillow-soft texture studded with plump sultanas, it's hard to stop at just one piece.
An excellent panettone when pulled apart will yield delicate, fluffy strands, explained Ang Bo Ling who runs Twenty-Two Bakery with his partner, Yap Yee Teng.
The home-based bakery is devoted to all things sourdough, incorporating that long fermentation process to produce loaves, croissants, rolls and the list goes on. For this festive season, they're offering their Panettone Classico.
Panettone is a tricky mistress. This makes it a showpiece item for experienced bakers who are obsessed with perfecting the panettone. "It shows off the skills of the baker as it is difficult to bake," said Ang.
Maybe that is why it was once referred to as "the Mount Everest of baking" by Roy Shvartzapel, a San Francisco-based baker who devotes all his time to producing the Italian bread.
During the run-up to Christmas, there will be a multitude of panettones sold at the supermarkets. These commercial ones use instant yeast to produce a dry version of the Italian bread.
The traditional way of making panettone, Ang explained, uses pasta madre or a natural sourdough starter. This takes up to three days to proof the dough to develop the lactic and citric acids.
As it can be affected by temperature, Ang proofs his dough in an air-conditioned room.
One wrong move and it can quickly go downhill for panettone. Ang explained, "It's unlike sourdough which is very forgiving. If you miss a step, you don't get anything!"
It's hard to even pinpoint which part can go wrong. It could be when you proof it or during fermentation. Even after it is baked to its domed brown crust, there's still a danger it'll collapse as you need to hang it for at least 24 hours before it is ready. Tension!
In the beginning, Ang took the challenge to make panettone himself. After he failed for the third time, he decided to seek out an Italian master who taught him how to perfect it.
His master has been making panettone from a 70-year-old sourdough starter. "Why spend so much energy on it? But once you eat it, it is worth it," said Ang.
Previously Ang worked as a barista with Three Little Birds before he became an owner of a cafe. The self-taught baker started to dabble earnestly into baking while he was running that cafe.
Nowadays he devotes all his time to baking after selling his share in the business. His interest in baking can be traced back to Tommy Lee of Tommy Le Baker who taught him the concept of sourdough and real food.
"Sourdough is just the way of baking with long fermentation. You can use it for bread, cookies and pasta," he explained.
Ang may have a psychology degree under his belt but instead of patients, he is listening to sourdough! He explained, "When you're making sourdough, it's like having a relationship but this partner doesn't talk... yet you need to listen to it."
He is definitely a good listener as the sourdough he produces makes you crave for more. Think a nutty but not overly hard crust. As you slowly chew the sourdough, there's a slight sweet flavour.
Contrary to people's belief, sourdough doesn't taste sour. Ang explains that the flavour has a spectrum ranging from sweet to sour.
His work involves constant experiments to perfect his bread. Using feedback from people who try his bread, he tweaks the recipe.
For instance, some tasters didn't enjoy the bread with 80 per cent whole wheat as it was too dense and the wheat taste was too strong.
Ang went back to rework the fermentation process, producing a lighter, softer crumb without adjusting the amount of whole wheat used.
Different grains like spelt are also used giving a variation of taste and different textures to the bread. He also dabbles with ancient grains like Emmer.
Using these grains also means less gluten than what is usually found in commercial breads, making them easier to digest and more tolerable to sensitive stomachs.
Do also try Ang's sourdough croissants that are excellent with a flaky crust. You also get defined swirls from the laminated dough when you cut into the croissant.
He also makes another version with buckwheat. You can also get a very good raisin roll from him that doesn't have a cloyingly sweet taste. Unlike the usual cinnamon flavour, he prefers to use allspice as his version is based on hot cross buns.
Sometimes, Ang's experiments include a local twist. Like his sourdough Hainanese white bread.
Eaten on its own, it is moist and chewy with a slight sweetness from the organic cane sugar and a hint of richness from French butter. "It has a soft texture that won't stick to the back of your teeth," explained Ang.
Those who have tasted the bread remember it as the old taste of Hainanese bread before instant yeast took over baking. "Sourdough bread makes people stop and chew, savouring the moment as they enjoy the flavours from chewing on the crumb and crust," said Ang.
One can visualise savouring a toasted version of this Hainanese bread with that sweet-salty combination of half boiled eggs and kaya.
Part of Ang's work also includes educating others what sourdough is all about through a tasting journey. He shares with them various breads and even how to identify "fake" sourdough.
So what's next for the experimental baker? He relishes a challenge to expand the sourdough principles to other items including pau! It'll be an uphill battle since there's very little written about this but that's not stopping him.
Twenty-Two Bakery can be found on Facebook @twenty2bakery and Instagram @twenty2bakery. Their Panettone Classico is available by pre-order only with at least one week's notice.
You can also catch them at the monthly Farmers Market, The Waterfront, Desa Parkcity. Their croissants and rolls can be found at Three Little Birds at Desa Parkcity.