02 May 2010

Brioche... My Nemesis. Part I

Baking inspiration is all around me, and every where I look these days, I'm being inspired to make brioche.  Magazines, menus, blogs... I can take a hint - brioche is begging to be made!  So, after a less than spectacular day where anything and everything seemed to go awry, I came home and set about making some delicious, rich, buttery bread for hubby and I to enjoy in the morning.  I admit, it was an ambitious task for me to attempt when the universe was working against me.  BAH!  Mind over matter!  Suck it up, princess!  Get crackin' on that bread!!!

Did I mention that I've never made brioche before?  Not that it matters - I don't scare easily in the kitchen.  There's a first time for everything.

I thumbed through half a dozen different cookbooks, trying to decide which recipe was best.  I wanted a fairly large recipe, so that I would have something to share with the gang at work on Monday, and since they all looked pretty similar, I grabbed the recipe with the biggest yield and started gathering ingredients.  I made the yeast sponge, and set it aside to do it's fat & happy yeast dance and get all puffy, while I measured out flour and butter.  Flour, eggs and sponge all went into the mixer bowl and the dough hook began twirling around.  So far so good.  After a couple of minutes, I peeked into the bowl and saw a big heavy gob of dough was clinging for dear life to the dough hook and there was a *lot* of dry ingredients still sitting at the bottom.  Hmmm... that's weird.  I checked the recipe again - no mention of such a phenomenon.  I stuck my hand in the bowl and gave the stiff dough a couple of kneads by hand, making my best effort to incorporate the dry flour.  It seemed to improve a bit, so I turned the mixer back on and let it work the dough for another couple of minutes.  There wasn't a lot of improvement, but I decided that perhaps the next step would help: "cover the bowl with a moist towel and let it rest for 20 minutes".  That left me 20 minutes to try and problem solve.  That's when I noticed all of the other recipes called for milk, but the one I was working with did not.  I did think it slightly odd at first - in fact, when gathering ingredients to get started, I grabbed the carton of milk, expecting it would be needed - after all, I was making brioche, a bread well known for it's richness due to all the butter and eggs and milk involved.  But I saw it was nowhere in the ingredient list and put it back in the fridge.  Now, however, the absence of milk was making me suspicious... I re-read the entire recipe another three times, looking for something I had missed.  After all, this was a book written by a highly-respected chef and cooking instructor - *I* had obviously skipped a step or messed up somehow.  Nope, I had done everything the recipe had asked me to.  Something was just not right....... 

Twenty minutes were up, so I removed the damp towel, poked the still-stiff dough, shrugged my shoulders and turned the mixer back on.  Minutes passed but nothing changed.  Frustrated, I pulled the failed batch of dough from the mixer, threw it into a greased bowl and set it aside to do whatever it was going to do... magically become a soft, chewy "surprise bread", or a new stepping stone for the garden perhaps - who knew?

Still somewhat convinced that I had simply screwed up the recipe, I went back to square one and started on batch number two.  Batch two was going about as well as batch one.  Annoyed, I grabbed the computer and googled the cookbook title and "typo" to see if perhaps I was not the only person who had encountered problems with this particular recipe.  Bingo.  I was not alone.  Amazon even had a couple of reviews that mentioned typos in this book - not in the brioche recipe specifically, but a couple of others.  I was no longer simply frustrated - I was mad.  I felt betrayed.  This was a highly recommended cookbook!  It had quotes of praise on the sleeve from the likes of Flo Braker and Dorie Greenspan... how could this book have gone to print with what was turning out to be numerous error, typos and ingredient omissions?

We're all human, and we all make mistakes.  I am not immune, and neither are chefs or people in the publishing industry, but I imagine that cookbooks likely go through a number of edits, re-edits, recipe testing, another edit, more testing... all in the name of quality control for a product your are putting out there with your name (and reputation) on the line.  They're certainly not immune to typo's either - in fact there was recent chatter about a very expensive cookbook typo (like, I'm talking $20K expensive), because one of the recipes called for "salt and freshly ground black people" instead of pepper.  Ouch!  Anyway - still peeved, I quickly turned to the front of the book and read the acknowledgement page: "much appreciation goes to XX, my copy editor, for her amazing attention to detail, as well as to proofreader XX...."  All I could do was laugh and wonder to myself if Chef still felt this way - or was he even aware of the errors in his book?  Surely the publisher would be correcting these errors and re-printing soon.  I was also alarmed at web reviews of the book that said it would be "perfect for the beginner" - ya sure, if you want them to give up baking forever because of horrible failures that are not their fault!  Once corrected, however, it really will be a great book for beginners, but not in it's current state.

Anyway, 10 eggs and 6 cups of flour into my attempts for warm, rich brioche, all I could do was shake my head and started calculating.  I scanned the other recipes I had and compared the ratios of ingredients for each.  From what I could tell, 1/2 cup should be approximately how much milk should be in the recipe I had - though I knew I wasn't adding it at the right stage of the recipe.  Oh well, I had nothing left to lose at this point, and it was past 11 pm...I was clearly NOT going to be having brioche with my morning coffee. 

Milk went in, mixer on, and I started cleaning the kitchen.  Every minute or so, I checked on the dough, and eventually, it began to look the way a proper dough should look.  I accepted this small victory, transferred the dough from the mixer to a buttered bowl and put it in the fridge for the night.  Exhausted, I loaded the dishwasher, wiped the counters and went to bed.

Day 2
I awoke this morning, refreshed and optimistic.  It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and I had slept well.   I made a quick trip to the store for more eggs and yeast before hubby headed out for the day, then the pups and I set out for a nice long walk to Starbucks for some coffee & sunshine.  Returning home with two tired dogs meant I could bake in peace.  The first step was to select a different recipe to use - the last thing I wanted was a repeat of last night.  As extra insurance, I read through it twice before gathering my ingredients and getting started.  I also removed the two failed batches of dough from the fridge and let them rest on the counter - after all without baking them, I couldn't accurately judge how badly they turned out.  

For batch 3, I began by combining the flour and yeast, then adding the sugar, milk and eggs and set the dough hook into action.  As the dough came together, it was looking mildly better than either of my previous attempts, but it still would not come together as one cohesive mass.  I rested the dough under a damp towel before incorporating the butter.  The butter was the recommended temperature, but the it never seemed to actually incorporate with the dough so much as coat the outside of the dough and break the dough apart into smaller chunks.  I scraped down the dough hook and bowl and turned the mixer back on, but nothing changed.  At this point, I could see a dark cloud creeping into my sunshiny good day.  Three more times, I scraped everything down and put the mixer through it's paces, but the only progress being made was that the bowl on my mixer was gradually becoming wrenched tighter and tighter onto the base - to the point that when I wanted to remove the bowl I couldn't.  Nothing I did could wrench the bowl free from the stand - I finally had to call hubby in to help.  Even then, it took the pair of us to finally pry it loose!

I worked the dough by hand in attempt to get it into one cohesive mass again, but no luck.  I returned the bowl to the mixer one final time, turned the mixer on medium and let the darn thing run.  Minutes later, I turned to see that my mixer was shimmying its way to the edge of the counter.   I pulled the machine back into place and scraped the dough hook down once more - see, I can be a bit stubborn sometimes, and there was no way I was going to be defeated by brioche!  About 15 minutes later, my poor mixer whining away and in danger of over-heating, the dough was finally starting to come together... HA!  Take THAT brioche!  I grabbed the ball of dough and set it on the counter beside my now-baked Batch #1, and my hand-kneaded Batch #2 (which was looking pretty good actually).  I started to work Batch #3 a bit by hand, just enough to get it into a smooth mound ready for a nice snooze in a bowl.  Only it never became a smooth mound.  It was smooth-ish dough with hunks of un-buttered dough dispersed throughout.  It honestly looked like my dough had warts!  And they just peeled away from the smooth dough.  It was pretty clear to me at this point that brioche and I were clearly not meant to be in anything more than a one-sided relationship.  I could be in love with brioche, but brioche was only going to smile politely and keep it's distance from me.  I could picture the scene in my head; brioche giving me the old "it's not you, it's me" routine... ya, sure, Brioche.  Whatever, at least have the decency to be straight with me!

At this point I shot a short video and sent it out to my food blog friends in Twitter-land.  A baking 911 call for help.  Batch #1 was in fact going to make a great stepping stone for the garden - rock hard.  Batch #2 was looking somewhat promising, and the warty science experiment that Batch #3 had become.  Meanwhile, I took #2 and tucked it into various sized molds for baking, put it into the oven and headed for a shower.  It was beginning to look like I wasn't even going to have warm brioche tomorrow morning... grrrrrrrrr.

Much to my surprise, #2 came from the oven and looked quite promising.  It certainly looked like the real deal.  It wasn't even rock hard like #1, it may even be edible!  The only way to tell for sure was to rip open one of the small brioche à têtes and give it a taste.  hmmmm.... well, not surprisingly, it was obvioulsy not the deliciously sweet brioches I had tasted in France, but it *was* edible.  Maybe with a bit of strawberry jam or cinnamon butter, it could pass.  No one would be repulsed by it, but this was merely a consolation prize for all my hard work. 

I won't give up.  In fact, the fabulous Cecilia over at OneVanillaBean, who has a nice batch of brioche resting on her counter, is making some notes for those of us who are clearly not up to snuff in brioche's eyes.  Hopefully I learn the tricks I need from her, maybe then I can win brioche's heart.  Fingers crossed.

One thing I know for certain;  It ain't over, Brioche.  You may have won the battle, but you will not win the war!

Now I'm going to go put some cookies in the oven, just to prove to myself that I *can* bake....


Deeba PAB said...

Oh heavens Julia...what a tale! LOL about 'the book' and pepper! I still hv to check my copy of the 'Pasta Bible to make sure it isn't one of them! What a scream that was.
Hopefully I'll try a brioche one day too... am a bit wary though after reading this, but the ones you got there are pretty!!

Cecilia said...

Julia, how unfortunate! I had many failed recipes at the beginning. I am no expert, but will do my best to write a post about what has worked for me. Need to make it at least once more to work out some details. Will keep you posted! But your brioche look so beautiful, maybe make some french toast or bread pudding with them? :O)

Leave-Room-for-Dessert said...

Thanks Cecilia! ohhh... Bread pudding would be a great way to salvage them! They're just a tad dry and very very bland. That may be the perfect cure!

Any help and advice would be MUCH appreciated!

Emma @CakeMistress said...

That's a terrible omission! How can they possibly forget the MILK *facepalm*
Good on you for persevering!