Despite heat, brioche beckons

It’s 95 degrees. The humidity makes it feel like 100. The last thing you want to think about is baking bread, right? Let me change your mind with one word: brioche. It certainly changed mine.

A recent visit to Sweet Cakes Bakery in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, where I was wowed by a spectacular brioche almond bear claw and a chocolate brioche muffin, and a morning stop at Flour Bakery in Boston’s South End, where I swooned over brioche au chocolat, sticky buns, and sugar brioche rolls, made me wonder why we should postpone until the cooler days of autumn the pleasure that comes from baking this buttery, feather-light bread known as brioche.

For those of you unfamiliar with brioche, pick up a loaf or a pastry at Companion Bakery. Brioche is a rich cake-like bread that originated in France. In its classic preparation, Brioche en Tete, the bread is baked in a fluted pan and capped with a knot of dough. Close relatives of brioche include challah, the Greek Easter bread called tsoureki, and the Filipino sweet bread called ensaymada. All are enriched with eggs and butter.

And like brioche, all of these bread doughs benefit from an overnight rise in the refrigerator. Chilling the dough overnight hardens the butter creating tiny pockets of butter throughout. As the dough bakes the pockets of butter melt and give off steam, creating layers and a light, lovely crumb. The cooler temperature also slows fermentation thus improving the flavor and texture of the bread. As an added bonus the overnight rise reduces hands-on time.

Brioche is easier to make in a standing electric mixer or food processor than by hand. The heat from our hands softens the butter making the dough more difficult to work with. If you would like to make the dough by hand just plan to refrigerate it intermittently throughout the process to harden the butter.

A baked loaf of brioche can be used for sandwiches and to make bread pudding, French toast, and croutons. The unbaked brioche dough can encase savory fillings such as mushrooms, onions, meats or cheeses. You can also sweeten the dough to create delicious pastries filled with chocolate, dried fruits, or nuts and topped by a shiny glaze or dusted with powdered sugar.

“Brioche is a good transitional bread,” says Emily Smith, owner and baker at Sweet Cakes Bakery in Chicago. “If you are used to making muffins and cakes but want to try making bread, brioche isn’t a bad place to start.”

According to Emily, “The best things about brioche are its flavor and how easy it is to form. I often form rolls and freeze them until I need them. They will hold for a month in a cold freezer. I take them out the night before and put them in the refrigerator overnight to thaw and begin proofing.” The next morning she takes them out of the refrigerator, lets them reach room temperature, and pops them into the oven.

Mitch Pollock, Pastry Chef at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, offers the following tips: “Brioche dough should be cool to the touch when fully mixed; otherwise, the butter begins to melt and the dough falls apart. Ingredients need to be fairly cold before mixing.”

Although Mitch recommends storing brioche in a plastic bag and Emily recommends storing it in a paper bag, both pastry chefs agree that baked brioche should never be refrigerated. As it does with other breads, refrigeration will cause the brioche to go stale faster.

My son, Zack, an avid baker, adapted this recipe by cookbook author, Paula Wolfert to make a great loaf of brioche.

Basic Brioche

3 tbsp. milk, scalded then left at room temperature to cool until warm to the touch

1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast (approximately 1/2 of a package)

Pinch of sugar

1 2/3 cup bread flour

3 large eggs

3 tbsp. granulated sugar

3/4 tsp. salt

10 tbsp. unsalted, good quality butter, grated or cut into small pieces on a sheet of waxed paper and then refrigerated

Place milk, yeast and a pinch of sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer (you may also use a food processor or make the dough by hand.) Stir and allow mixture to sit 5-10 minutes until foamy. Add 1/3 cup flour and 1 egg and mix. Scrape down sides of bowl. Sprinkle remaining flour over the mixture; do not mix in. Remove bowl from stand and cover with plastic wrap. Allow mixture to rest for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at room temperature. (This step is called the sponge method.)

Add sugar, salt, and the 2 remaining eggs to the bowl. Place bowl on mixer stand and mix for 15 seconds. Turn machine to medium speed and gradually add refrigerated butter. Continue mixing until butter is incorporated, 5-8 minutes (the mixture may not appear entirely smooth at this point.)

Remove bowl from stand and sprinkle the top lightly with flour to prevent a crust from forming. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature about 3 hours and then place it in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes without deflating.

Using a rubber spatula, deflate the dough by stirring it down. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board. With floured hands, gently press the dough into a rectangle and gently fold it into thirds. Place dough in a plastic or glass bowl twice the size of the dough, dust it with flour, and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Place bowl in the refrigerator overnight.

Lightly butter or spray a standard bread pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Turn refrigerated dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Cut dough into 3 pieces and place these pieces side by side in prepared pan.

Cover pan with plastic wrap and allow bread dough to rise at room temperature for 1 hour.

Remove plastic wrap and bake bread in preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bread is golden brown. Immediately remove bread from pan and tap lightly on bottom. If bread sounds hollow when tapped, it is completely baked. If not, return loaf to the oven, directly on oven rack, and continue to bake 5 minutes more.

Allow bread to cool on a cooling rack at room temperature for at least 20 minutes before slicing.

Makes 1 loaf.

Sweet Cakes Bakery, 935 Damen Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622, 773-772-5771

Flour Bakery, 1595 Washington Street, Boston, MA 02118, (617) 267-4300

Mitch Pollock is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. At Bellerive Country Club he is responsible for a la carte desserts, banquet desserts, ice creams and sorbets, breads, breakfast pastries, truffles and candies.

Margi Lenga Kahn, mother of five and grandmother of one, is the Community Relations Coordinator for the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in University City. She also teaches cooking at the Kitchen Conservatory and in private homes. Cooking is a labor of love for Margi, who enjoys creating culinary delights for family and friends. Please send comments and suggestions to [email protected].