Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

As anyone who reads this blog knows – and many who don’t – I love food. In particular, I love bread. Despite that fact, I’ve never made bread from scratch. When my parents had a bread machine, I tried using it a couple of times with my mom, but the loaves never turned out quite right. In fact, the bread from the gourmet bakery section of the grocery store was better. But since then, we’ve moved, our grocery store’s bakery is rather terrible, and Chris learned how to bake bread in culinary school. So I figured it was time to try again, this time from scratch.

Unfortunately, as a cook, not a baker, Chris’s bread repertoire is fairly limited. I eagerly asked him if he had any whole wheat or multi-grain recipes. Not so much. He went to a French cooking school, those lovers of baguettes and buttery melt-in-your-mouth slices. Delicious, yes; healthy, no. While his challah bread is glorious, especially with honey butter, I went with brioche instead, which can be used for sandwiches. However, checking out the Wikipedia entry, brioche is not officially considered bread, but instead a bread-like pastry. Tastes like bread to me – close enough. C’est la vie.

Instead of a normal cooking entry, where I write the recipe at the end, I’m going walk through the steps one by one because they just won’t make any sense otherwise. The italicized text is from the actual recipe. The recipe is from Chris’s recipe notebook from school, which means that 1) it’s not just copying it from a cookbook because he had to write the directions down as it was explained in class and 2) I know it is correct (unlike many home-written recipes) because they graded him on his notebook and he didn’t get marked down for it.

Ingredients:
– 1T Granulated yeast
– ¼ c Warm water
– 16oz all-purpose flour (this is different from bread flour, which has more gluten protein)
– 2oz Sugar
– 1 tsp Salt
– 5 Eggs
– 8oz Butter (unsalted)

Steps:

1) Proof yeast.
Yeast is sold in two different forms – granulated dry or fresh. In school, Chris used granulated, which has a longer shelf life and can be preserved for longer. At the grocery store, we could only find fresh yeast, which comes in a vaguely squishy block and doesn’t store well. However, it tends to be stronger than granulated yeast.

This is what the yeast looks like when it's proofed.

Because yeast is a living thing, you have to keep it alive and active to have it be useful. Proofing it ensures that the yeast is active before you put it in the bread mix. If you added the yeast right to the mix and it wasn’t active, the bread wouldn’t rise and you’d just have wasted a bunch of ingredients and time. Apparently, most people these days don’t proof it because yeast from the store is very likely to be fresh, but Chris’s teachers are very old-school, so it’s not surprising they include it. Plus, it’s a cool science experiment if you’ve never done it before.

To proof it, add the yeast to the warm water with a pinch of sugar. For powdered yeast, the water dissolves the solid coating around the individual granules, freeing it to chomp down on the sugar. For fresh yeast, it just provides a liquid medium for the sugar. After a couple minutes, the yeast will have eaten enough sugar and released enough carbon dioxide that it produces a foam. If you smell this concoction, as I did after Chris suggested it, it will smell like beer gone weirdly, horribly wrong.

2) Mix flour, salt and sugar. Add yeast mixture.
You can either mix these ingredients by hand or you can use a mixer. A word of caution on the mixer – if you aren’t very careful with the flour and sugar, they can splatter all over the place. Chris took a kitchen towel and placed it over the top of the bowl to prevent this from happening.

3) Mix with dough hook on low speed.
Although this recipe doesn’t require a bread machine, it does involve a bit of specialty equipment – a stand mixer with a bread hook. We have the classic Kitchenaid stand mixer, which is quite pricey, but definitely worth it if you ever do any baking. You can also get a variety of add-ons for it, like a pasta maker and meat grinder. Also, despite the fact that the recipe calls for a dough hook, we used the paddle. It came out fine, but it would have been easier to get the dough in a tight ball, like it’s supposed to be, if we used the hook.

4) Add eggs one at a time waiting for the previous egg to be completely mixed in, before adding a second.
It’s useful to get the eggs to room temperature before you add them if they’ve been in the fridge. As you add the eggs, the dough goes through a couple of transitions. As the first couple of eggs get mixed in, it just gets wet. Then, it gets almost spider-web like. Then it turns into that ball.

This is what the dough looked like after 5 minutes of mixing - nice and stretchy.

5) Increase mixing speed and mix until dough is elastic and tight. About 5 minutes.
From the ball, the dough spreads out again and becomes very stretchy. The different steps are happening because of the build-up of the gluten proteins from the wheat flour. Gluten is the very basis of traditional bread, which is why gluten-free bread has a different texture. As the dough is mixed, the proteins absorb water and are stretched, creating long, flexible strands. These flexible strands allow air bubbles to form as the yeast releases carbon dioxide, causing the bread to rise. If the gluten doesn’t form all of the way, it won’t rise enough and the bread will have a very hard texture.

6) Slowly add butter in small pieces softened by hand.
This part is fun, because it involves squishing butter between your fingers. You’re keeping the mixer going while you’re adding the butter, so be careful not to stick your hand in the bowl. I sort of threw the pieces in. We used salted butter because we forgot to look at the box until after we began adding it. On principle, I would advise against using salted butter because the salt in the butter can prematurely kill the yeast, limiting how much it rises. However, because we used fresh yeast, which is more active, it seemed to equal each other out and the bread was fine.

After the first rise.

7) Transfer to a clean bowl, cover and let rise at warm temperature until doubled in size.
Besides just being clean, the bowl should also be well-greased – it will make it a lot easier to get the dough out after it rises. We used a clean kitchen towel to cover it. You can also use saran wrap. In terms of “at a warm temperature,” we turned the oven on “warm” and left the bowl on top of it.

After the second rise.

8) Punch down dough and let rise again in the refrigerator over night.
Punching down dough means that you squish it with your hand to initially deflate it and then fold it over itself a number of times. This is different from kneading it, which, despite the name, is much more aggressive. Brioche doesn’t really involve kneading. Before putting it in the fridge, put it in a new, clean, well-greased bowl. If you don’t have time to leave it in the fridge overnight, eight hours should be enough time. It can’t be just a few hours though – it needs some serious time for the second rise.

9) Punch down dough, and shape.
You can shape it either by putting the dough in a bread pan or forming it into a ball.

10) Well grease molds and fill only half way.
Be sure not to fill them all of the way up, otherwise you’ll have overflowing bread! It needs one more chance to rise. At this point, I was at work, so Chris did the rest of the steps by himself.

11) Allow dough to double in size.
This takes about two hours and should be done somewhere warm (like on top of a pre-heated oven).

12) Egg wash twice, scoring if needed.
To create an egg wash, beat one egg and then use a pastry brush to brush it on the top of the dough.

13) Bake at 375º.
The time to bake will vary greatly by the size of the loaf. Ours was done in about a half-hour, with an average sized bread pan.

Ta da!

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2 Responses to Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

  1. EdinburghEye says:

    FWIW, Elizabeth David says in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery (my bread bible) that although salt kills yeast, in practice you have to add more salt than anyone normally would to a dough to affect the yeast working. M.F.K.Fischer, who experimented with saltless doughs for a family diet, confirms this, and I have certainly found no difference in about twenty years of breadmaking. (I used to use granulated yeast, and I now use sourdough. Of course there’s no salt in the sourdough starter, but I always add salt to the bread sponge when I add the main flour.)

    *waves* Hello! I think I may have got here via Ana Mardoll. I like making bread.

    • Good to know! Chris actually thought the bread turned out a bit better with the salted butter, as the bread from his original class was a teensy bit bland. We’ll have to remember that for the future next time we bake bread. I’d love to make sourdough, although it’s a bit more of a challenge than brioche.

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