Cold winters bring nostalgia. Nostalgia demands hearty soups, scrumptious stews, and in my case, freshly baked bread. But it must be bread with substance and character; bread with a profound place in history.
Brioche is one such bread.
Invariably it takes me back to my first trip to France: the freshly baked croissants, the cheese, the wines, the walks along the Seine with friends and the prolonged visits to Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
Here I read the notes and messages left on the walls by Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Samuel Beckett, and dozed off in the comfort of their leather chairs.
I ate a lot of brioche then, usually for breakfast when I wanted to treat myself a little.
I had little money and lots of time and luxuries for breakfast had to compensate for deprivation later in the day. Those were good days, every single one of them.
For many, few things are as French as brioche. It is rich, soft, and decadent. It is neither bread, nor genuine cake. It is enriched pastry leavened with yeast. It requires nearly equal volumes of butter and flour, and half-a-dozen-or-so eggs.
It is oh-so-good.
When Marie Antoinette allegedly said: “let them eat cake”on the eve of the French Revolution, she meant brioche.
Brioche is different from ordinary breads. Its dough is enriched with substantive amounts of butter, eggs and a little sugar and milk or cream. It is different from ordinary pastries because it is leavened with yeast. No wonder the English translators of those infamous words got confused.
In the French culinary lexicon these yeast-leavened, enriched dough products are called Viennoiseries. Typical French examples of Viennoiseries include: croissants, pain Viennois, pain au chocolat, pain au lait, pain aux raisins, chouquettes, Danish pastries, bugnes, and chausson aux pommes. They are typically eaten at breakfast or as ‘snacks’.
Another famous French pastry based on brioche is Les Tartes Tropéziennes (The Tart of St. Tropez). This custard tart consists of two brioche disks and a filling of two different varieties of pastry cream (perhaps a crème mousseline and crème pâtissière) with some sugar grains sprinkled over the top brioche disk.
The creator, Alexandre Micka (who was Polish by the way), and a local St. Tropez pattisier served his crème brioche to the crew of the 1956 movie ‘And God Created Woman’. Legend has it that the movie’s star, Brigitte Bardot, loved these tarts so much that she suggested that their name be changed to Les Tartes Tropéziennes. Micka did not only accept her suggestion, but he also changed the name of his bakery. Its new name was … (yes, you guessed it) … Les Tartes Tropéziennes. The original recipe remains a secret to this day.
There is no manner in which to make a budget version of brioche. It requires real butter (no margarine, no vegetable shortening or cooking oil) and a lot of it. It also requires a load of eggs.
There is no quick manner in which to make brioche. It requires a lot of proofing time, even more than most common breads, because proofing is retarded by refrigeration. This does contribute to the overall flavour and allow the dense dough to be molded, so do not skip or reduce this step. On the upside, this is hands-free time and requires no input from the baker. But it does mean that brioche cannot be baked on the spur of the moment just before guests arrive for dinner. A bit of planning is required. It takes about 16 hours from start to finish, but most of it is proofing time.
It takes quite a lot of kneading to get the rich dough silky, coherent and smooth. You will spare yourself a whole lot of trouble and a few tears if you use an electric stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Trust me, it is better this way. Besides, technology that puts an end to kitchen slavery is a good thing.
Enriched dough products require an internal temperature of 80 to 85°C for the crumb to set. Thus, use a good; accurate thermometer to make sure your brioche is cooked. You do not want to go through all the trouble just to serve your guests undercooked brioche.
Lastly, protect the crust of your brioche. Use aluminum foil to prevent the egg-washed crust if your see it getting too dark.
In my view, brioche and cheese is match made in savory heaven. Instead of Camembert you could also use Brie. I had bought some Camembert from local cheese maker Daniela Kemp (of Dani’s Organic Farmproducts) and it proved a very special treat.
 Historians have debunked this myth. These were the words of Marie-Therese, wife of Louis XIV, spoken some 100 years before the time of Marie Antoinette.