Labor of Love

To me, there is nothing more divine than the smell of bread baking in the oven.  Okay, well, actually, the smell of yeast mixed with warm milk and sugar sends me into an almost coma-like state of joy, but for this post, I’ll settle for bread right out of the oven. 

I really enjoy baking bread.  Yes, there are quick breads out there that one can put together in an afternoon.  But the breads I enjoy making take at least two days out of my life.  Brioche is one of those breads – if you do it right.  And trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.

When I was living in France (almost 8 years ago – wow!) I was an Au Pair for a family with three young girls.  I was absolutely terrified when I first arrived and became a part of their daily lives, but soon enough, I was settled in and not a day passed when I didn’t learn something about them and myself.  Fiona, Amandine, and Aurelie were easily some of the most influential people in my life and I miss them all the time. 

Among my daily responsibilities was the task of meeting the girls at their school (usually with snacks in my bag) and walking them back home.  If, for any reason, I didn’t have a snack with me, I knew there would still be a loaf of brioche and a container of Nutella waiting for them at the apartment.

Now, I’d never eaten brioche before and I had no idea it could be purchased at the store, pre-sliced, in a plastic bag, like Wonder Bread.  Magnifique!  So began my love for brioche.  Clearly, the bagged brioche couldn’t hold a candle to the real deal, and I understood that as soon as I stepped into a Pâtisserie and saw one on the shelf. Ooo, la la!  So buttery, so light, and with just the right amount of sweetness.  I was in heaven! 

Making brioche at home is an activity that requires a great deal of patience, attention to detail, as well as a love for the process of baking bread.  Carefully adding yeast to warm milk and sugar and watching it bubble is one of the simple joys in life, if you ask me.  The hard part is waiting for the lovely dough to rise, only to be deflated in order to rise, yet again.  After a night chilling in the refrigerator, the gorgeous, golden, and buttery dough is ready to be rolled carefully into balls, situated in a pan, and what? – more rising?!  Yes, once it’s in the loaf pan, one must continue to wait for a final rise.  Then and only then can it be brushed lightly with egg wash and spend some quality time in the oven.  Thirty (or so) minutes later…bread!

My experience with those three girls in France changed me in a profound way.  They were a labor of love, and every time I bake brioche, I think of them and what they added to my life. 

Brioche
Adapted from Gourmet, May 2000

Yield: 1 standard 8 1/2 X 4 1/2 X 2 1/2-inch loaf

Special equipment:  a stand mixer with dough-hook attachment

For starter:

1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup warm milk (at least 105ºF)
1 (1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)

For dough:

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon hot milk
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch dice, well softened
1 egg, mixed with 1 tablespoon milk and 1 teaspoon sugar, for egg wash

Make starter:

Stir together sugar and milk in a small bowl.  Sprinkle yeast over the top and let it stand until foamy, at least 10 minutes.  Stir flour into yeast mixture, forming a soft dough.  Let starter rise, covered with cling film, at room temperature for 1 hour.

Make dough:

Combine salt, sugar, and hot milk in a small bowl and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.

Fit your stand mixer with the whisk attachment and beat 2 eggs at medium-low speed until frothy.  Add the sugar mixture and beat until combined well.  With the motor running, add in order, beating after each addition: 1/2 cup flour, remaining egg, 1/2 cup flour, about one fourth of softened butter, and remaining 1/2 cup flour.  Beat mixture 1 minute.

Remove bowl from mixer and fit mixture with dough-hook attachment.  With a rubber spatula, spread the starter over the dough and return the bowl to mixer.  Beat the dough at medium-high speed for at least 6 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Add remaining butter and beat for 1 minute, or until butter is incorporated.

Lightly butter large bowl and scrape dough into the bowl.  Lightly dust with flour to prevent a crust from forming.

Cover bowl with cling film and let it rise at room temperature until more than doubled in size, at least 2-3 hours. 

Punch down the dough and lightly dust with flour.

Cover bowl with cling film and chill dough, punching down after the first hour, at least 12 hours.

Bake brioche:

The next day, remove dough from refrigerator, gently punch down and turn out onto a lightly-floured surface. 

Work the dough gently into a disk and divide into 8 equal portions.  Roll each portion into a ball and place side by side in a greased loaf pan.  Cover with a damp kitchen towel and allow to rise at room temperature until the dough has doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.  When the dough has risen, brush with egg wash mixture and bake for 35-40 minutes until the top is golden brown and it sounds hollow when tapped.  If, for any reason, the top begins to brown too quickly, cover gently with foil.

Turn loaf out onto a wire rack to cool.

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