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Brioche à l'ancienne

"An idea is like a chocolate brioche. You have to let it cool to see if it is really good"

I take my inspiration from anywhere I can get it these days, and today it's the above tea towel - the one I am using this week. But I'm not pausing long enough to see if it's a really good idea. As usual I'm just diving in to see where the idea leads. Anyway it prompted me to dive into brioche.

And looking at that quote at the top of the page I wonder about having to let it cool because surely one of the things you do with brioche is French toast? And I do think it would make rather nice French toast, as it is already a bit sweet and rich. In fact I think one day when we're in Port Douglas I might try this. It would be a fun thing to do with the kids. And when I think about it maybe this is why French toast is French toast and not another nationality. Though I'm not sure why it's French name is 'Pain perdu' - lost bread. Why lost?

And let's get that quote out of the way - "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" "Let them eat cake" As you can see it's a slight mistranslation - brioche is not cake - it's a sweet bread, or as somebody said - somewhere between bread and pastry. And it is usually found in patisseries not boulangeries - although, of course, more often than not bakers do pastries and pastry makers do bread. And no they don't think it was Marie Antoinette who said it and if she did she might only have been about eleven. Mostly though educated opinion seems to be that it was some other French aristocrat.


"One thing that is certain is that the first French brioche was likely originally modelled on the sweet, rich ceremonial breads of ancient Rome." Matt Preston

I'm not actually certain that this is true - I didn't see it anywhere else but it sounds convincing. Mostly they seem to think that it originated in Normandy - the first mention being in 1404. The name comes from 'brier' and Old French word for to work dough with a 'broke' or 'brie' which was a kind of wooden roller for kneading the dough. But there's always another opinion - and this time it's that its birthplace is Romania.

"it developed from the blessed bread [pain bénit] of the church which gradually became of better quality, more and more costly, less and less bread; until becoming savory brioche" Toussaint-Samat

Pain bénit was bread distributed to the poor by the church. But as more and more butter and more and more eggs were added to the dough it became a food of the rich. Indeed - to pun slightly - that's what brioche is - an enriched bread. Enriched being the addition of eggs - lots - and butter - also lots - to the dough. This is what it would have looked like in the eighteenth century - the painting, dated 1763 is by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

I have to confess, that before I started on this, I was not really sure what brioche was but I was also aware that it seems to be a thing these days. I have noticed brioche buns in the supermarket bread aisles and was also dimly aware of them being a hamburger thing. In fact I just discovered that one woman started a bit of an argument on, I think, Twitter by raving:

"restaurateurs.... Please, please STOP selling us burgers in brioche buns. STOP. Nobody likes them. I mean nobody. I've never met anyone who said, "oh I love a good brioche" Just give us a good roll/bap/barm whatever your region calls it"

Rachel Khoo, however, seems to think they are ideal for burgers

"For me, the best burger buns are made from an enriched dough, soft and absorbent enough to soak up all the juices." Rachel Khoo

Although I must admit I would think they would be too soft. You need something that's not going to disintegrate under the burden of all that juice. But as you can see it has even filtered down to McDonald's - although it's pricier - of course - than their normal burgers. And would you want a sweet bun for a burger? I think that has been a common complaint about McDonald's anyway - that the buns are too sweet.

Like one commenter I found on Quora, I do not ever remember eating one in France, but maybe that's because they were a patisserie treat and they didn't look all that tempting to me. I preferred eclairs and fruit tarts.

Bill Granger - King of breakfast - uses them in his classic Breakfast brioche buns, which as he says, you can fill with whatever you like. And I'm sure that just about every other Australian breakfast café has a version of this too.

So what is it? Well it's a bread in that it has yeast and flour but the dough seems to be stickier from all that butter and egg and it has to be left to prove - twice - for much longer. Indeed most of the recipes I saw seemed to think overnight would be a good thing. Anyway if you are indeed looking to give brioche a go start with either Dan Lepard - the British guru on all things bread, or our own Recipe Tin Eats where Nagi gives a very detailed account and recipe of how to make it, including a video and lots of pictures. She maintains that what sucks her in is the "distinct cotton candy-like strands of the interior that peel away when you tug at them"

And here's the thing - it doesn't look that exciting does it for all that effort? To me it looks a bit like a dense sponge cake in bread form. I found a couple of other pictures but am not bothering with passing on the recipes - on the left is an authentic French version from Cuisine az, and on the right Spoon University. They both demonstrate how it's often made in a plait format, but the standard loaf thing is also common and a ring version - not to mention those hamburger buns.

A bit too shiny and not crusty enough for me too, so why would you go through all the agony of the process?:

"The butter isn't mixed in until the dough has been made, and though this makes the whole thing a right pain, it also gets the best result. I tried it in the food processor, but the motor began to smoke, so you're just going to have to get down and dirty mixing it on the work surface. It's easy, but make sure you've got a sink full of warm soapy water ready to wash your hands in at the end. And take the phone off the hook." Dan Lepard

Mind you it might just be him because everybody else seemed to use an electric mixer. Nagi did try it with a food processor and found that it did not rise as much, but nevertheless thought that it was Ok to go with the processor.

Before I began all this I checked all my French gurus and found that the did not feature them hugely. Elizabeth David however has a long recipe for Saucisson en brioche à la Lyonnaise - a version of which is shown on the left. Fundamentally it is a cooked sausage a bit like cotechino with a brioche dough wrapped around it. She writes of it:

"in many ways it makes the almost perfect hot first course dish, the majority of the work being done well in advance and the timing of the final cooking such that it can but put in the oven a few moments before your guests are expected and, in half an hour, is ready to emerge, a beautiful, golden roll of brioche enclosing the delicious savoury sausage."

Hmm. Not sure I'm enraptured. I could not find her recipe online but I did find one from the Roux Brothers: Saucisson brioché Lyonnais.

There is certainly no denying its trendiness though, although mostly it seems to be a burger or French toast thing. However I did find a couple more interesting variations - the first being from, of course, Ottolenghi. It's called Chicken supremes with roast garlic and tarragon brioche pudding. It's from his posh Nopi cookbook written in conjunction with the Nopi chef Ramael Scully who may actually be the originator. It's posh and it's long - but it's interesting and pretty. The picture beside the finished dish is of the brioche loaf that you cook and is from another foodie website. I have to say it looks considerably more interesting but his version of a brioche French toast later in the book just looks burnt to me.

And finally in the instagram kind of world there is Salted caramel and Nutella brioche French toast malted vanilla freakshake which actually comes from delicious.' Warren Mendes. I mean - nutella, salted caramel, malted ...

Now whilst I found it supremely satisfying to spend my time on Ottolenghi's butternut galette the other day I'm not so sure that I would find it as satisfying to spend the time on anything brioche related. If you want brioche then you are probably better off finding a high quality version in a shop somewhere. Probably not in a supermarket, although you never know these days.

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