This week the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge brings us a concoction that I had really been looking forward to trying out. Brioche has a decadent reputation: it’s known as the butteriest of breads, more similar to pastry than even, say, challah. Be it due to its reputation or its availability, to the best of my knowledge, this bread had never passed my lips.
The book offers three variations: the rich man’s (in which the butter is a whopping 87 percent of the flour’s weight), a poor man’s (the butter is a scant 25% of the flour), and the middle class brioche (where the butter only matches half of the flour’s weight). Having heard about the utter decadence of the rich man’s version – and knowing/fearing my self-control around freshly baked bread – I opted not to go that route. That said, I still wanted a real brioche experience, so treating this as a special occasion, I settled on the middle class bread. Plus, I figured, since I made this on my birthday, if I happened to over-indulge I could just skip dessert after dinner. Awfully fitting, since Marie Antoinette is rumored to have actually said “Let them eat brioche” instead of “let them eat (birthday) cake!” I’d rather have bread than cake any day anyway.
So last night I mixed up the sponge and this little guy turned out to be my favorite sponge so far. I think it made a huge difference that I mixed it mechanically (because – brace for how much of a loser I am – I actually mixed another sponge today while the light was good so I could get a photo, but mixed it by hand, to far less spectacular results) because it was smooth, bubbly, gluten-y, and collapsed when tapped on the counter right on schedule.
I mixed up the dough, thoroughly lamenting the loss of my scraping paddle attachment, and though the dough didn’t look so nice where it was sticking to the bowl, when I stopped to scrape it down it was satiny smooth. Declaring the dough done (sadly, no pictures – the sun sets early in Tucson in the winter) I spread it on the baking sheet and popped it in the fridge.
Today I pulled it out and found it to be the consistency of semi-hard Play Doh. Shaping it into something uniform and symmetrical just wasn’t going to happen – the only thing that would accomplish was getting my hands buttery – so I pulled out the rolling pin, which worked like a charm. I used half the dough to make a brioche a tete (using the first shaping method) and the other half went to eight petites brioches a tete, using the second shaping method. I didn’t have the traditional fluted brioche pans and I didn’t want to buy them because I didn’t know if I would ever make this again, so I just decided to go free-form.
The shaped dough proofed beautifully and right on schedule, so they got a gentle egg wash and were popped into the oven.
They smelled intoxicating while they were baking and had great oven spring, growing even more than they had during proofing and actually melding with some of their neighbors to become pull-apart rolls. Once the time was up, I was satisfied with their color and the instant-read thermometer was satisfied with their internal temperature, so out of the oven they came!
And here’s where I share one of my baker’s secrets with you: bread really is better when it’s been completely cooled before being cut into, but really, and I mean this super seriously, where’s the fun in that??? The bread has been mocking you by proofing beautifully and by smelling so fabulous while baking: do you have any idea how much willpower it takes to resist the stuff? So rather than cutting into a loaf that’s been out of the oven for 45 seconds and ruining the whole thing, I opt to make some rolls and some large loaves. You can bet that Cory and I were chomping on some of that brioche right out of the oven, leaving the rest of the bread intact to cool so that the flavor could finish maturing.
Meanwhile, the large loaf had finished proofing so it went in the oven next. Here’s where I learned a lesson: you can get away with doing the little guys free-form, but the big guys, uh, not so much. The dough was so soft that it couldn’t support its own weight and had actually started to sink and spread out a little during proofing, but once it got into the oven and the butter heated up there was nothing to hold it up and it slumped over like a narcoleptic pile of dough.
On the plus side, you could see that the dough had fantastic gluten development and it tried really hard to prevent the slumpiness. Besides, I’m sure it still tastes fine and it is actually easier to store in the freezer until the Appointed Time Of The Making Of The French Toast.
But here’s what really counts: the flavor. No joke, the bread is decadent. It reminded me very forcefully of a croissant (flavor-wise, not texture-wise). It does pull apart the way a pastry does, with a light, airy crumb that really melts in your mouth. Will I make this again? Most definitely, but even though it is a Special Occasion bread, I’ll be sticking to the poor man’s brioche in the future, unless the bread is strictly being used as a gift. I’ve also heard that this bread makes superb cinnamon rolls, which may make an appearance this year at Thanksgiving, as the in-laws are huge fans. However, I’ll probably make an effort to use a premium butter (wooo! Even more fat!) instead of a common brand so that the flavor will be even better. But for now, I’ll just gaze longingly at the petites brioches a tete on my counter and dream about the day that I finally get to have my brioche French toast!