This year hasn't been much of a winter by Montreal standards. We haven't really had those extended periods of near-arctic -20˚ C weather that make wintering in Montreal so, well, exhilarating. We keep talking to the old-timers in our neighborhood, asking them if they've ever seen anything like it. They all seem to agree that the seasons are out of whack these days. Just how warm has it been? Well, it hasn't really been "warm", but we haven't really needed to put the heat into overdrive this year like we usually do. We've just been moving our portable space heater around the apartment when we need it, and sporadically at that. That being said, if you're feeling nostalgic, you could always bake yourself some bread. Sure, once the oven gets turned on you'll be able to benefit from the oven's ambient heat and you might even find your apartment overly warm, but up until you actually place that dough in the oven you're going to need to provide a nice, warm environment for you to be able to work the dough with ease and for the dough to rise properly. Anyone gives you guff, just tell them, "Step off. It's for the dough, man." The bill won't come for a while, your kitchen will get filled with an amazing aroma, and you'll be able to reminisce about those overheated winter days of yore.
There is nothing I like more than toasting a piece of brioche and eating it with butter and jam. The only thing that's better, perhaps, is a fresh brioche with butter, jam, coffee, and a couple of soft-boiled eggs. In either case, the problem is that I haven't found a brioche in Montreal that's to my liking. They're all too dry, too bready. When I want brioche, I don't want something with the flavor and consistency of white bread with a bit of butter in it. I want a croissant-like bread, something so decadent that when you butter it people might raise an eyebrow. I knew I'd have to make it myself. Probably a few times, just to be sure.
My first test is from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible. In her preamble she claimed that this brioche is "intensely buttery." She goes on to say that if you want even more butter, you can increase the amount from 4 oz. to 6 oz. I threw all caution into the wind and went for the 6 oz., blatantly breaking The First Rule of Recipe Testing--"Never do a variation if you haven't tried the standard."--in the process.
In most of her breads, Beranbaum uses a sponge, one that she ages anywhere from 1 1/2 to 24 hours. This ending up drawing out the process of making this loaf over three days, but not much time was spent actually working on it. While the dough was rising, you could smell the butteriness in the air, but that was nothing compared to when I actually baked it. The house was thick with the rich smell of butter. When I removed the loaf from the oven, it took all my willpower not to tear into it. Willpower, and the thought of burning my hands and mouth as I devoured it greedily in the kitchen alone. And the guilt and remorse that would inevitably follow. Beranbaum warns that you must let the loaf rest at least 2 hours after baking or you will somehow ruin it. Probably because it would collapse, or something. I didn't want to find out, so I left it to cool on a rack.
Rose Levy Beranbaum's Brioche
2 tbsp water, at room temperature
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg
Mix the above in a bowl with a whisk until smooth.
1 cup + 1 1/2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
1 1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, cold
4 oz. unsalted butter, very soft * (or 6 oz. for the butter-crazed)
Mix the flour, sugar, salt and yeast together, then sprinkle it over the sponge. Wrap with plastic wrap and let sit 1/2-2 hours. (Or 1 hours, then move it into the fridge for up to 24 hours. Remove it from the fridge 1 hour before you want to continue with the dough.)
Put the dough into the bowl of a mixer, add the 2 eggs and mix with the hook on low speed. When it is smooth, raise the speed to medium and beat 2 min. Scrape down the sides and beat for 5 min. more. Add the butter a spoonful at a time, letting it get mixed it before adding more. (This took a while for me since I have no microwave to soften my butter. See note *.) The dough will be shiny and sticky. Place it in an oiled bowl, oil the top, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours. Place it in the fridge and chill it 1 hour. Deflate the dough and return it to the fridge for another hour. Place the dough on a well-floured surface and press it into a rectangle. Fold it twice, as if it was a letter, then fold it again. Round the corners and dust it lightly. Wrap it in plastic wrap and place in a bag. Chill it in the fridge 6-24 hours. At this point, you might as well leave it overnight and finish it the next day.
Remove the dough from the fridge and shape it into a loaf. Place it in a greased brioche mold and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until the dough reaches the top of the pan, about 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F 30 min. before baking. Place a baking stone or a sheet on the lowest rack. Glaze the loaf with 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp. milk. Bake 35-40 min., or until the interior of the loaf reaches 190°F. Let it cool 10 min. in the mold, then place on a rack and cool 2 hours.
* I must be one of the only people in the world without a microwave. I left my butter out all night but it was still hard-ish in the morning. I ended up having to squeeze it in my hands to soften it. Not the best method, but it worked.
The result was a brioche better than any either of us had ever had--anywhere. Light, rich, sumptuous--buttering it was out of the question, even for me. It had a delicate crumb, and kept perfectly fine on the counter, cut side down, until the next morning when we finished it for breakfast. This will definitely be a hard act for brioche #2 to follow.
Oh, yeah. As I was preparing the brioche yesterday it was as if the cats could tell something really decadent was happening: they went into their signature "Could we be any happier?" pose (actually, I think this one was one of their "Could we be any happier?"/"Could you please get that camera out of here?" poses).
You should have seen the pose I struck after I had my first bite of that brioche.