Brioche bread is so delicate, light and buttery that is just one tiny step removed from being a pastry. Plain brioche bread is delicious on its own, toasted or with loads of jam. But brioche dough also makes an ideal casing for all kinds of fillings both savory and sweet. It's my favorite dough for making anything en croute, as well as for sweet filled breads that are so nice for a brunch party.
Here I would like to introduce you to two types of filled brioche. One is a party-sized pain au chocolat of sorts; brioche dough filled with dark chocolate and chopped hazelnuts, then shaped into any kind of shape that strikes your fancy. (A traditional pain au chocolate (which literally means 'chocolate bread' is a small bread, usually made of croissant dough though I've seen other buttery doughs used, and filled with chocolate.) It's really perfect for a brunch party, and makes a great alternative to a traditional cake at a childrens' party. Here's a slice that shows the still-meltingly soft chocolate inside. The dark chocolate marries so well with the golden tenderness of the brioche.
The other is a brioche loaf filled with a little mustard and one or two fat, garlicky sausages. The one in the photograph here is topped with a simple braid, but again you can make this into any shape you like. It's a great picnic bread or buffet-party item. For the one here, I put in two sausages since that's what I had on hand, and it unintentionally came out looking like a little car.
I made the brioche-house pictured here for Easter. I put two little bunny heads on the house (one is peeking from the door, the other around the side), but they ended up looking just like lumps. Nevertheless, the house was a huge hit. It's filled with a mixture of dark and light chocolate.
Unlike other kinds of bread, I've never had a problem making brioche. The one thing to remember about brioche dough is that it is loaded with butter, just like a pastry dough. Therefore, it is best handled cool. This means that you need to give it plenty of time, and to let the dough rise in the cool of the refigerator over several hours, preferably overnight. If you are planning to serve your brioche at a Sunday brunch, start the process on Saturday morning. If you're new to bread baking, this probably goes against just about everything you've read about raising bread at a warm temperature and so on, but yeast does it work at cool temperatures too - just at a slower pace. Proofing the dough in the refrigerator gives you a smooth, workable dough, with little pockets of butter all throughout.
I make brioche with a food processor; this has the advantage of keeping all the ingredients relatively cool, as opposed to hand-kneading which transfers your body heat to the dough. I just do the final kneading parts by hand. You can also use a dough mixer or mix by hand of course, and I have given instructions for both the food processor and hand methods. If at any point the dough gets too gooey-buttery and soft, just put it back in the fridge until it's cool enough to handle again.
The following recipe is adapted from one of my kitchen bibles, Julia Child's The Way To Cook . The one main change is that I use bread flour with a higher gluten content, to give the crumb more body than can be achieved with regular all-purpose flour. (In Switzerland, I use Zopfmehl.) This makes enough dough for one large loaf - or, 1 chocolate ring OR 1 sausage bread. If you want to make both at the same time, double the recipe. You may need to make a large amount of dough in two batches.
For the dough:
For the chocolate-nut ring:
For the braided sausage bread:
For the egg wash / glaze:
Preparation: Cut the butter into small dice, spread out onto a plate, and put in the freezer until it's very hard but not quite frozen.
Proof the yeast: Mix together the yeast, lukewarm water and pinch of sugar. Leave until the yeast gets foamy.
In a large bowl or in the bowl of your food processor, mix together the flour, 1/3 cup sugar and salt. Add the butter cubes, and if using a food processor pulse until the flour mixture becomes grainy. If mixing by hand, mix together with your hands by grabbing and rubbing until it becomes rather grainy. (You can also use a pastry blender for this, but I find that the hands work best.)
In a separate bowl, mix together the proofed yeast, beaten eggs, and milk or cream. Add in batches to the flour mixture while the food processor is running (or if by hand, mix vigorously with a wooden spoon.) When you're done you will have a rather shaggy looking ball of dough. Put the bowl in the refrigerator, and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
Take out the bowl, and turn out onto a floured surface. Knead it rapidly, pushing and turning, adding sprinkles of flour if needed, until you have a fairly smooth ball. Put this into a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a plate, and leave to rise for about an hour.
Punch down the dough ball, and put the ball into a plastic bag that's big enough to allow the ball to expand to at least 3 times its original size. Suck out as much air out of the bag as you can, seal tightly and then put the whole into another plastic bag, and place in the refrigerator. Leave it there for at least 4-5 hours, preferably overnight or more. Making the dough up to this point the day ahead of when you want to bake it makes the most sense. You can leave it a maximum of 3 days. During this time, you will find that the dough will rise and almost burst the bag open, so you will need to periodically take a look at it and punch it down. This is why double-bagging is a good idea, since you may accidentally puncture the bag while punching it too hard.
About 90 minutes before you want to bake the bread, take the dough out and shape and fill it as you wish. Here I have shown how to make the chocolate and hazelnut-filled ring. The dough is rolled out into a long flat sausage, filled with the chocolate and nuts, shaped into a ring, then cut all around with a pair of kitchen scissors, to form a sort of flower shape. (You could fill this with dried fruit, or a cinnamon-sugar mixture, or whatever strikes your fancy). For the sausage bread, roll out the dough into a rough rectangle (reserving about 1/3rd of the dough), spread with the mustard, place the sausage and roll up the dough, pinching the seam tightly to seal. Cut the remaining dough into three pieces, stretch out and braid to put on top. After you've shaped the dough to your liking, place it on a parchment or silicon pad lined baking sheet and cover with another piece of parchment paper (not plastic wrap, which tends to stick to the dough and tear it when you try to take it off). Leave in a warm place until about doubled in bulk. 20 minutes before you intend to start baking, switch on the oven to 180°C / 350°F.
Brush the top of the dough with an egg wash (a mixture of beaten egg and a little milk) and bake for about 45 to 50 minutes - a longer time if you are baking 2 at once, shorter if you have a convection oven. Start checking at around 40 minutes; it should look dark golden brown and a bit crispy.
Take out and let cool, and enjoy.