Poor Man’s Brioche
Brioche is the gold standard of bread. It’s incredibly tender crust and rich, buttery flavor purportedly lost Marie Antoinette her head when she callously prescribed it to her starving countrymen: It’s richness was so far out of their reach that their only possible reaction was revolution. I think they really just wanted the brioche.
I’ve avoided making it until recently because I’ve heard that in order to get that flaky, tender crumb, you have to stir and knead forever, and my little weakling arms just were not up for that. One of the first things I thought of as I unpacked the shiny new stand mixer was that I could finally give brioche a try. Good timing, too, because it was quickly approaching in my quest to bake every bread in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
Reinhart offers several versions of brioche, ranging from the very rich, with five eggs and two cups of butter, to the leaner version I tried, with only four eggs and half a cup of butter. To be honest, my choice had more to do with my math skills: All the recipes he offers make more than one loaf, and I wasn’t sure how much I really wanted to have around if this experiment didn’t go well. I chose the one that was easiest to divide.
Well, this experiment turned out so well I can’t wait to try all the other versions he offers, even if it does involve stocking my refrigerator to bursting with butter. And perhaps giving the extra loaves away will be a great way to gain the love of my fellow citizens (er, co-workers?)—if Marie Antoinette had shared, she might have lived a long and even happier life.
This dough is definitely different from others I’ve worked with: It’s much silkier and more pillow-y, with a delicate texture. And it was a bit stickier than my usual, but I think I’m starting to make peace with sticky doughs, so I didn’t lose my head over it. I can’t imagine trying to knead it by hand, though, so unless you’re a much braver soul than me, I’d stick with the mixer. An electric hand mixer might work well, if you don’t mind your arm getting tired holding the thing up. Or maybe not everyone is as wimpy as I am.
This version does not involve an overnight rise, so it’s a good one to try if you want rolls with dinner on a Sunday night. It takes about four hours from start to finish, but most of that is not active time.
Poor Man’s Brioche
Very slightly adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
For the sponge
- 1/4 cup (or 1.12 ounces) bread flour
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1/4 cup (or 2 ounces) whole milk, lukewarm
For the dough
- 2 large eggs
- a little more than 1 1/2 cups (or 7.25 ounces) bread flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- about 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup (or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, very slightly softened
Stir together the flour, yeast, and milk for the sponge. Stir very well, until the flour is well mixed, then cover with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place for 30 to 45 minutes. You want the sponge to start to rise and look frothy. Reinhart says it should fall when you tap the bowl, but mine never does, and it seems to cause no real problems.
To make the bread dough, gently whisk the eggs, then stir them into the sponge. Whisk the mixture until it’s smooth. In another bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, and salt. Mix the flour mixture into the egg mixture until it’s smooth, then let it rest for about five minutes. Then switch to your mixer (if you’re not already using it for the preliminary mixing), and mix in the butter, a bit at a time. Let each addition mix in fairly well before adding more. (I actually used butter that was still kind of cold and solid, and it worked just fine, just so you know.)
Now switch to the dough hook of your mixer (or transfer to a floured surface, if you have the stamina for hand kneading) and knead the dough for about 6 to 8 minutes (or 10, if kneading by hand). Add a little more flour if the dough seems too sticky: It should easily clear the sides of the bowl in the mixer. The dough should be very smooth and warm, and light when it’s done.
Lightly oil a bowl, and transfer the dough to it. Cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise for about an hour and a half to two hours, or until it’s doubled in size.
When it’s ready, shape it into either small rolls (a muffin pan is great for this) or into a rectangle for a loaf. I had a very hard time shaping this dough, and pretty much ended up just nudging it into shape in an oiled bread pan. I’m sure it didn’t develop the proper tension or whatever, but it turned out alright, so I’m not complaining. Let the dough rise again for another hour, or until it fills the pan.
Preheat the oven to 400F, and bake the bread for about 35 to 40 minutes. The internal temperature should measure 190F for a large loaf, and this is one of the few times I actually used my thermometer, because I wasn’t entirely sure how it should look when done. It took about 40 minutes in my oven.
Remove the bread from the mold or pan as soon as it comes out of the oven and let it cool on a rack. Try to hold off from cutting into it for as long as you possibly can, with the wonderful buttery smell tempting you all the while.
February’s been a rough month for me, what with all the travel, and what with it being February. I always blamed the badness of February on Boston’s foul weather, but we’ve actually had decent weather here in Walla Walla. So now I’m pretty much convinced it’s just February. Even with the holiday weekend to break it up, it’s never a great month for me. So it’s a good thing I have this brioche to comfort me. If February isn’t your up of tea, either, I strongly encourage you to brighten it up with this very indulgent bread.