It’s always interesting to see what the Twelve Loaves baking group decides on as a January theme. This is a time of renewal, of fresh beginnings, of starting again or trying again or reestablishing. Last year they asked for simplicity, prompting me to try my hand at sourdough, made by weight rather than volume measurements. This year, they asked for something a little more poetic but just as abstract: bake a loaf inspired by a New Year’s resolution.
I knew immediately I would make brioche. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 is to be more patient. While this would be a good goal in any area of life (or perhaps all of them), for me, it’s very specific. I want to be more patient with Lucy when we take our daily walk. My dog-daughter will be twelve years old in the spring, and though she’s still very energetic and quite healthy, she has slowed down over the years. Some of this is age, but some is insistence on getting what she wants. For her, our outing is not a walk. It’s an extended sniff. She wants to stop at every bush, at every bench, at every blade of grass, it sometimes seems. This can easily push a two mile walk into an hour-long endeavor.
Like most of us, though, I’m a busy person. At least I feel like I am. When I get home from work, after a brief decompression (read: Facebook and a snack), I want to walk Lucy, do a final check of my email inbox, and get on with cooking dinner. Ultimately, I want to get these things done so I can changed into pajamas and deposit myself on the couch. Sniffing every blade of grass impinges on this plan, so over the past year or so I found myself getting frustrated, and even quite angry when Lucy stopped, and stopped, and stopped again.
In November I was getting ready to snap at her about such a stop, and instead I stopped. Chelsea, she’s a dog. This is her daily chance to get outside and experience the world. She doesn’t understand what I’m even asking, let alone why I’m asking, and all my impatience is doing is making us both feel bad. And really, what’s the damage to my schedule if I do let her have an extended nasal examination of the things she’s most interested in? All told, three, maybe five minutes.
So I am trying to be more patient with her, gently encouraging her to hustle along rather than snapping at her. I’m delivering commands in a calmer voice, and letting the sniff session go on an extra few seconds before delivering that command at all. I’m not at total karmic peace with the extra time spent yet, but I’m working on it.
Brioche is my bread project, then, because it’s a loaf that requires patience. Rich with eggs and loaded with butter, brioche is the “cake” from the famous quote misattributed to Marie Antoinette. To integrate the massive quantities of butter the loaf requires, most recipes detail a process of bringing the fat to just the right temperature and incorporating it into the dough a maddening single tablespoon at a time. Too cold, and the butter won’t mix in. Too warm, and it will collapse the dough into a soupy mess. Too much at once, and the dough will get greasy and separate unpleasantly. It takes, typically, a 20-30 minute knead time to get the gluten chains in the flour tangling nicely and then incorporate all of that butter. After this, a long, slow, cool rise time is required, in part to build flavor, in part to develop structure, and in part just to make it easier to handle – that butter has to chill down before the dough can be manipulated successfully.
By the time you are finally ready to bake the thing, a brioche has usually been under construction for the better part of a day, if not two (sponges and overnight refrigerated rises are common). But the result – a spongy tender, light-as-air crumb inside a deeply browned crunchy crust – is remarkable. It reminds me of challah, another egg-laden loaf requiring multiple rises, but is more finely textured and even a bit richer. If your gourmet burger arrives on a deeply, perfectly rounded bun so shiny it looks lacquered and leaves a sheen of fat on your fingertips when you set it back down on the plate with a sigh, you’ve had brioche. It’s a frequent choice for a truly decadent french toast, and I was prepared, with a cringe, to sink myself into making it.
When I looked around at recipes for points of comparison, I came back, as I often do, to Cooks Illustrated, which featured a practically fool-proof take on brioche. To combat the frequent problems associated with the quantity and temperature of the butter, recipe developer Andrew Janjigian opts for a no-knead approach, relying on a combination of gentle folding of the dough (see photo series above), and time, to stimulate gluten production. The very wet dough brioche requires works well for this method, because the moister the dough, the better the enzymes in there activate the gluten. Janjigian explains that this no-knead method leads to another benefit: since we aren’t kneading the dough, we can’t spend 20 minutes mixing in all the butter. Melting it and stirring it in all at once works just fine.
As I read his explanation of the changes he’d made from the original and recognized the ease involved compared to the traditional procedure, I was almost sold. A small part of me protested that this might be cheating – that if I was really making something to represent the resolve to be more patient, I should go with the typical long knead, slow-and-steady incorporation of butter, and force myself to avoid shortcuts. But in reading the recipe again, I realized this was still going to be a long process. Even before chilling the dough overnight, I would need to perform a series of folds on the sticky, wet mass I’d created to help activate the gluten. Using large chunks of my Friday and Saturday to put this together, attend to timers, coordinate myself through the rising and proofing process, and get through the agonizing final two hours of waiting for the baked loaves to cool enough for slicing, was going to take plenty of patience. I’m only human, and it’s only January. If I’m going to be successful in this resolution, baby steps might be the way to go.
The nail in the coffin, though, was when I checked Joe Pastry’s version of brioche. He suggests pumping up the flavor by using brown butter. Since I was already going to be melting the butter, this was clearly the right thing to do. Tiny speckles of toasted nuttiness running through my dough? Yes, thanks. Now, please.
Well, not now. Two long, patient days from now. But at the conclusion of those days, slicing through a softly shattering crust into a pillowy yellow interior laced with bits of brown butter, it was all I could do to eat each slice in more than one bite. Because, you know, patience.
Serving suggestions: there’s not much you shouldn’t do with brioche. It can be a bit soft for a sandwich, but makes glorious toast and french toast. My recipe is for one regular loaf and 8 small or 6 large buns, and we used the bun shape for veggie burgers. Because they are more compact, the buns hold up to rough handling a bit better than the slices, so feel free to load them with pulled pork, or crab cakes, or egg salad, or whatever moves your taste buds most deeply.
Trying-to-be-Patient Brown Butter Brioche
barely adapted from Cooks Illustrated
makes 1 loaf and 8 small or 6 large buns
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
½ cup room temperature or slightly warm water
⅓ cup sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
7 large eggs, divided (but not separated!)
3 ¼ cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons salt + a pinch
- Day one: melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan, preferably not with a dark bottom (it makes it easier to see the butter browning). As it melts, it will sputter and foam up. The foam will eventually subside, but shortly thereafter it will get foamy again. At this point, tilt the pan a little bit (carefully) to see the bottom – little specks of solids should be getting golden-brown. Let them get golden and then chestnut brown, then turn off the heat and set the pan aside to cool. These little dark bits are what makes it brown butter.
- While the brown butter cools (pop it in the fridge for a few minutes if you are nervous about the temperature), combine the water, sugar, and yeast in a large glass measuring cup or a medium bowl. Stir well, then set aside for 10 minutes to allow the yeast to activate.
- Meanwhile, whisk together the flour and salt in one bowl (a large one), and 6 of the eggs in another (a small one will do). When the yeast mixture is bubbly and smells like warm bread, add the whisked eggs and stir to combine. Whisk in the cooled brown butter, then dump the whole wet mess into the bowl with the flour and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon until no flour streaks remain. It will be a damp lump that looks more like thick cake batter than like dough.
- Cover the bowl of dubious dough with plastic wrap and let it sit for 10 minutes.
- Uncover the dough and pull up one edge with your fingertips (sprayed with non-stick spray or lightly coated with oil, if you’re concerned about stickiness), then fold that edge over the middle of the dough ball (see photo series above). Turn the bowl 45 degree and fold again. Repeat the process until you have made 8 folds.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat this folding and rising process every 30 minutes for 3 more times (so you’ll do this folding process 4 times over the course of 2 hours). This helps activate the gluten without the labor intensive kneading process. After the fourth and final folding circuit, replace the plastic wrap and stow the bowl in the refrigerator overnight.
- Day two: remove the dough from the refrigerator and relocate it to a well-floured board. Divide it into four pieces. Working one at a time, pat two of the pieces of dough into about a 4-inch round. Around the circumference of the dough, fold in the edges toward the center to form a clumpy ball (see photo series above). Turn the dough ball over and form your hand around it like a cage, then roll gently with very little pressure in light circles on the board to form a smooth, taut round (see Joe Pastry’s excellent tutorial if you need help with this). Repeat with the second piece of dough.
- The remaining two pieces are for the buns. Divide each of them into equal thirds or quarters, depending upon whether you want 6 or 8 buns. Repeat the flattening, folding, and shaping process with each of these smaller dough pieces, then cover all dough rounds with plastic wrap and let them rest for 5 minutes.
- Grease one loaf pan and one baking tray (or line it with parchment paper). After the dough balls have rested for 5 minutes, flip them to expose the seam side and repeat the flattening, folding, and shaping process with each one. This creates a finer, more uniform texture in the final product – a step worth doing.
- Place the two larger balls into the loaf pan, pressing them gently into the corners. They will rise and merge into each other while baking. Place the 6 or 8 smaller rounds on the prepared cookie sheet. Cover both loosely with plastic wrap and leave to rise until almost doubled in size – this should take 1½ – 2 hours. Even after this rise, the loaf may look a bit puny. Don’t worry; it rises quite impressively in the oven.
- Half an hour before baking, be sure your oven rack is in the middle position and preheat the oven to 350F. Cooks Illustrated suggests placing a baking stone on the rack to preheat along with the oven, perhaps to create a more even shot of heat.
- When the loaf and the buns have nearly doubled, beat the final egg with the pinch of salt. Remove the plastic wrap and brush the loaves with the egg mixture. Set the pans in the oven (on the stone, if you’re using one), and bake until the tops are golden brown and the internal temperature registers 190F. This will take 18-20 minutes for the buns, and 35-45 minutes for the loaf. If you can remember, rotate the pans halfway through baking.
- Once cooked through and shiny golden on top, transfer pans to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes. Then remove from pans, return to wire rack, and cool at least 2 hours before slicing and serving.