Since the invention of cooking, an invisible, yet incredibly impactful war has been fought over the nature of the craft. And, whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably already taken a side in this particular culinary skirmish. I speak, of course, of the veritable tug-of-war that exists between the scientific and artistic viewpoints that so many of us take when regarding the preparation of our meals. In the scientific camp (the faction I once fought valiantly to defend), strict classifications, exact measures, and precise cooking times decide the quality of a recipe. For the artistic gourmands, seasoning by taste, not measurement; cooking until “it looks right;” and creative deviation from the cookbook are strong influences in the baking process. Since I’ve recently been relying on older recipes that hail from a time before standardized measurements (e.g. where the directive “add nutmeg, but not too much” is not uncommon), I’ve reluctantly pulled myself away from the scientific mentality and have begun artistically experimenting with my cooking. And, while this has resulted in mixed levels of success, I thought I’d take the time to celebrate the best of both camps with this week’s international bread recipe!
Hailing from the Norman civilization in the 15th century, brioche has spent much of its 600 year lifespan torn between science and art. Being a proudly French creation, a land which has long prized the exactness of its world-altering cuisine, brioche was born and raised in the scientific method. As France and brioche evolved, and the appreciation for butter grew, marketplace bakers gradually perfected their flour-to-butter ratios to fit their shoppers’ exact expectations. For the wealthy, flour and butter were measured at a 3:2 ratio, and for the average eater, a 4:1 ratio was implemented (For the curious, that measures out to between 1/2 – 3 pounds of butter per batch of brioche!). However, after the mathematics of brioche were complete, the artistry of the piece began to shine. Because of its leavening and lack of sugar, brioche appears to be a typical variant on bread; however, the high butter content, flakiness, and density pushes brioche towards pastry. Landing in the murky middle ground of the viennoiserie (a scientific classification for leavened baked goods that are nigh-impossible to classify) the creative decision of what to do with a brioche loaf is left up to the consumer. Because of its undefinable propensities, the brioche makes a beautifully rich canvas for the most artistic of eaters. A perfect companion to both to sweet preserves and savory spreads, brioche brings something to the table for everyone to enjoy!
For our recipe today, you’ll find a few modifications for the modern kitchen (mainly, we won’t be using pounds of butter). But, you should note that the process for making brioche still follows the recipes of old, meaning that the process is not complex, but it does take time. Brioche must sit overnight to be workable, so keep this in mind before you bake a loaf or two! Now, with our caveats out of the way, let’s dig in!
Brioche Loaf Recipe
Makes 1 9×5 inch loaf
- 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (about half of one packet)
- 1/4 cup warm water (100 F / 37 C)
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs and 1 egg yolk
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 1 teaspoon cold water
- In a small container, combine the yeast and warm water and let proof for 10 minutes, or until the yeast begins looking foamy.
- In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture and two whole eggs. Stir to form a rough dough.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 8 – 10 minutes.
- Flatten the dough and spread one third of the softened butter over the dough. Fold the dough and knead thoroughly for 2-3 minutes to fully incorporate the butter (this step will be messy, but so very worth it!). Let the dough rest for 5 – 7 minutes, and then repeat this process two more times to knead in all of the butter.
- Place the completed dough in a greased bowl, and roll the dough to coat it in oil. Cover with plastic wrap to hold in the dough’s moisture, and place in a warm location for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
- Punch down the risen dough, cover again with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 6 hours.
- After chilling overnight, turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 2-3 minutes to warm the dough slightly. Form the dough into a loaf and place in a greased 9×5 bread pan. Cover with greased plastic wrap, place in a warm spot, and let rise for 1 more hour.
- While your brioche is rising, preheat your oven to 400 F / 205 C. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and cold water to make an egg wash. Set aside.
- After the dough has risen in the pan, brush liberally with the egg wash and bake in your preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until the dough takes on a deep golden color.
- Once the brioche is finished cooking, remove from the oven and leave in the pan for 10 minutes to cool. Transfer the loaf to a wire rack and let cool completely before serving.
- Enjoy the buttery perfection that is brioche: an exquisite blend of history, science, and art!