Brioche is an elegant yeasted dough, a cross between bread and pastry. It is rich with butter and eggs, just a little sweet, pullable – a gentle tug, and the bread stretches in long, lacy strands-and fine-textured, the result of being beaten for close to half an hour. There is nothing difficult about making this perfect brioche, but you do need time and a heavy-duty mixer.
In this version, the brioche is made with a sponge, which gives the yeast a leisurely proofing period and deep flavor. You'll notice that the sponge instructions call for adding the dry yeast without a presoak to dissolve it. This is an unusual technique, one more commonly associated with the use of fresh yeast.
For the Sponge:
For the Dough:
For the Egg Wash:
For the Sponge
Put the milk, yeast, egg, and 1 cup of the flour in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Mix the ingredients together with a rubber spatula, mixing just until everything is blended. Sprinkle over the remaining cup of flour to cover the sponge.
Rest: Set the sponge aside to rest uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes. After this resting time, the flour coating will crack, your indication that everything is moving along properly.
For the Dough
Add the sugar, salt, eggs, and 1 cup of the flour to the sponge. Set the bowl into the mixer, attach the dough hook, and mix on low speed for a minute or two, just until the ingredients look as if they're about to come together. Still mixing, sprinkle in 1/2 cup more flour. When the flour is incorporated, increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for about 15 minutes, stopping to scrape down the hook and bowl as needed. During this mixing period, the dough should come together, wrap itself around the hook, and slap the sides of the bowl. If, after 7 to 10 minutes, you don't have a cohesive, slapping dough, add up to 3 tablespoons more flour. Continue to beat, giving the dough a full 15 minutes in the mixer – don't skimp on the time; this is what will give the brioche its distinctive texture.
Warning: Be warned – your mixer will become extremely hot. Most heavy-duty mixers designed for making bread can handle this long beating, although if you plan to make successive batches of dough, you'll have to let your machine cool down completely between batches. If you have questions about your mixer's capacity in this regard, call the manufacturer before you start.
Incorporating the Butter: In order to incorporate the butter into the dough, you must work the butter until it is the same consistency as the dough. You can bash the butter into submission with a rolling pin or give it kinder and gentler handling by using a dough scraper to smear it bit by bit across a smooth work surface. When it's ready, the butter will be smooth, soft, and still cool – not warm, oily, or greasy.
With the mixer on medium-low, add the butter a few tablespoons at a time. This is the point at which you'll think you've made a huge mistake, because the dough that you worked so hard to make smooth will fall apart – carry on. When all of the butter has been added, raise the mixer speed to medium-high for a minute, then reduce the speed to medium and beat the dough for about 5 minutes, or until you once again hear the dough slapping against the sides of the bowl. Clean the sides of the bowl frequently as you work; if it looks as though the dough is not coming together after 2 to 3 minutes, add up to 1 tablespoon more flour. When you're finished, the dough should still feel somewhat cool. It will be soft and still sticky and may cling slightly to the sides and bottom of the bowl.
First Rise: Transfer the dough to a very large buttered bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let it rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 2 to 2-1/2 hours.
Second Rise and Chilling: Deflate the dough by placing your fingers under it, lifting a section of dough, and then letting it fall back into the bowl. Work your way around the circumference of the dough, lifting and releasing. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough overnight, or for at least 4 to 6 hours, during which time it will continue to rise and may double in size again. After this long chill, the dough is ready to use in any brioche recipe.
Storing: If you are not going to use the dough after the second rise, deflate it, wrap it airtight, and store it in the freezer. The dough can remain frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw the dough, still wrapped, in the refrigerator overnight and use it directly from the refrigerator.
Shaping the Têtes: Butter 3 large fluted brioche pans, using a pastry brush to make certain you get into the flutes; set aside.
Divide the dough into thirds. Keep the remaining dough covered in the refrigerator while you work with one piece at a time. Put one piece of the dough on a lightly floured work surface and, using your dough scraper, cut off a hunk of dough that is a scant one third of the piece. Work the larger piece of dough gently and quickly between your hands and against the work surface to form a smooth ball. Drop the ball into a buttered mold.
Roll the smaller piece of dough into a pear shape. Use your fingers to make a depression in the center of the dough that's in the mold and fit the narrow top of the pear-shaped piece of dough into the depression. Pinch and press the dough together as needed to make certain that the seam between the large and small pieces of dough is sealed. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Rise: Cover the pans with a piece of buttered plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at room temperature for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Baking the Têtes: Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
Lightly brush the brioche with the egg wash, taking care not to let the glaze dribble into the mold (it will impair the dough's rise in the oven). Working quickly, use the ends of a pair of sharp scissors to snip 2 or 3 slits in each larger ball of dough. Bake the brioche for about 30 minutes, or until they are deeply golden and an instant-read thermometer plunged into the center of the bread (plunge from the bottom) reads 200°F (93°C). If the breads appear to be browning too quickly, cover them loosely with an aluminum foil tent. Cool to room temperature on a rack.
The brioche are best the day they are made, but they can be kept nicely at room temperature for a day or two; wrap them in plastic. Wrapped airtight, they can be frozen for a month. Thaw, still wrapped, at room temperature.
Contributing Baker: Nancy Silverton