This richest of breads, and cornerstone of the art of French bakery has held an allure for non-French bread eaters for nearly a century. In its homeland however, it has been a beloved staple for much longer - certainly before the Fifteenth Century. A good brioche has the capacity to charm the pants off the fussiest of bread eaters. It is rich - oh-so-rich, and irresistibly buttery, yet at the same time has a lightness of crumb that belies the cholesterol inviting ingredients. It has a golden and crispy crust, and at the same time a smooth, beguiling and melt in the mouth centre. Regular bread consists simply of flour, water, salt and yeast - while brioche includes eggs, milk, a little sugar - for sweetness and yeast assisting characteristics, and lashings of butter. It could almost be a cake - but it isn't - it is brioche, the most decadent of breads.
The first recorded reference to the word "brioche" dates to 1404, and etymological debate has been hotter than a bakers oven ever since. As the velvety amethyst drape mentions above, a possibility could be that the town of Brie is the origin - or as the French author, and known gourmand, Alexandre Dumas put it, that Brie cheese was incorporated into the dough. Both these have been pretty well dismissed as eligible candidates. Larousse Gastronomique puts it thus;
"It is now considered that brioche is derived from the verb brier, an old Norman form of the verb broyer meaning "to pound"… This explanation is all the more likely since the brioches from Gournay and Gisors in Normandy have always been highly regarded."
A keen cook here on E2 recently asked me for a recipe for brioche - and this request hit home. I hadn't made this stuff for many years. It used to be on one of my menus, and we made it daily, yet I remember that I was never totally satisfied with the result. I am no pastry chef, and I am certainly no baker - but I know a good brioche when I sink my teeth into one, so for heyoka's sake, I polished off the old cookbooks, rang some sharp pastry chef friends of mine, rolled up my sleeves and got a little floury.
This is what I came up with.
In the main, the ingredients for brioche are fairly standard. With the exception of a 60-year-old French recipe that I came across, which had enough butter to clog the Channel Tunnel forever, the raw materials were comfortingly uniform. Where the recipes diverged however, was in the methodology. Some stipulated proving the dough for one hour - some for 2. Some required you baked the brioche at 180° C, others at 200° C. I made a batch of brioche for the first time in years the other day - formulating my own methodology, and it was delicious. The problem was with the air - it just didn't have any puff. It was bread sorely in need of Cialis. Don't get me wrong; it tasted delicious - rich, buttery and light of crumb - yet it was disappointingly flat. I needed to call in the big guns - someone who knows flour and yeast like the back of his hand - someone I haven't spoken to in many years. I called the finest baker I have ever met.
The solution (when you think about it) was disarmingly simple. Yeast is a living organism - just as we are. It eats just like we do (simple sugars), it excretes just like we do (CO2), and it gets over excited just like we do (hmm - I'll leave that to your imagination). You see, when conditions get too perfect for yeast, warm temperatures, and abundant sugars, the poor buggers just go crazy, and literally eat themselves to death. Meaning they produce no more CO2, and your bread gets no more rise. The yeasts in brioche have not only the simple sugars in the flour set before them - they have a veritable smörgåsbord - lactose in the milk and butter, and sucrose in the sugar. Basically they go hog-wild and kill themselves in a spectacular orgy of glutton. How to get around this? Simply take away one of their most desirable conditions. They love the sugars, sure - but they also love warmth - and one of the most common commands in yeast cookery is "set aside in a warm spot until the dough doubles in size". Take away the warmth, and you allow the yeast to convert more of the sugars - or in biologists parlance - attenuate. Not too cold mind, but just cold enough - the domestic fridge. At these temperatures, the yeast will convert the sugars more slowly - more importantly - more completely, resulting in a lighter, puffier brioche, and a more complexly flavoured one at the same time.
Wanna make some? I know you do. Here is the low down.
- 250gm (1/2 lb) flour
- 60 ml (1/4 cup) warm milk - blood temperature
- 1 tsp dry active yeast
- 1 Tbs sugar
- Pinch of sea salt
- 2 eggs, whisked
- 125 gm (1/4 lb) butter, softened to room temperature
Dissolve the sugar in the blood temperature milk - then add the yeast. Stir well, and set aside at room temperature (26° C (80° F), or so) for 10 minutes - until it begins to foam. If it doesn't froth, your yeast could be old or bad, so buy some more and start again. Don't let the yeast sit in the sweet milk for any longer than this - or all of the over-exciting factors I outlined above will begin to occur.
Place the flour into the bowl of a Mixmaster and add the salt. Most recipes will ask you to use the "J" shaped dough hook attachment. I say phooey. Use the attachment that looks like the letter "K" with an oval surrounding it. This is called surprisingly enough - a "K" beater. Mix the flour and salt together, then add the milk mixture. Mix until the dough comes together, but still looks a little dry. Add the eggs and mix well - beating for 5 minutes or so. The dough should look more solid - but not yet silky. Add one quarter of the butter. Turn the beaters up to high and allow the butter to fully incorporate. It should take a few minutes. This is where the "K" beaters come to the fore - a "J" hook will never get the butter fully incorporated. Continue like this - adding another quarter of the butter, and allowing it to fully incorporate before adding any more, until all the butter is used, then keep beating the dough for another 10 minutes.
If you wish to do this by hand (or don't own a Mixmaster) I say two things. Good luck, and get a Mixmaster. More prosaically, you can roughly follow the method above - following the ingredient additions, but remember to use a little extra flour when kneading, and double the times given for beating in the Mixmaster. So when I say beat with the "K" attachment for 10 minutes, you will have to knead for 20 minutes at least - and knead hard.
At this stage the dough should look glossy and shiny, if a little dimply. It should be slightly greasy, yet non-stick at the same time. Most importantly - it should be springy and pliable.
Now for the all-important first rise (or as bakers call it, "prove") of the dough. As I mentioned above - temperature is the key here. Most recipes will ask that you set the dough aside for an hour or so, in a warm spot. Don't. Here is what to do. Place the dough in an oiled bowl - or even in a clean plastic shopping bag, cover well, but leave plenty of room for expansion, and place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, or overnight.
Next day, the dough should be really puffy - at least double the original volume, if not more. Choose the shape you wish to cook the brioche in. Either a regular bread loaf tin, traditional fluted brioche cases, or even free-form loves on a baking tray. Remove the dough from the bowl or bag and punch the hell out of it. Remove all the air that the yeast has left behind, then knead the dough for 5 or so minutes. Place the dough in your tin, case or on the baking tray, then set aside in a warm - but not too hot place (26° C (80° F)is good) to at least double in size. It could take up to 2 hours or so, depending on the ambient temperature in your kitchen. Don't skimp here, really let the dough puff up, as it will only puff a little more in the oven.
In the mean time, heat your oven to 180° C (360° F). Brush the brioche with some milk, and if you have a garden spray bottle, spray a little plain water into the oven just before you bake, to get the moisture level of the oven up. This will result in nice and crisp loaves.
Bake the brioche for 30 minutes (less for the traditional double-ball shaped brioche à tête, which are just larger than a big dinner rolls in size), then check if they are cooked. The loaf should be golden on the exterior, firm, yet springy to the touch and sound hollow when tapped. Bake for a few minutes more if they are not quite done. Transfer the brioche to a wire rack and allow it to cool completely before you attack it, if you can wait.
Brioche toasts beautifully for a few days after it has been made - and as the curtain states above - there is no finer bread and butter pudding than that made from brioche.