And when I say “tiny creatures,” I don’t mean the kids. I mean Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also known as baker’s yeast.
“It’s been a while since we’ve baked anything with yeast. The last thing was…”
“This time we’ll be making a yeasted French bread called brioche. It’s a rich dough, meaning it has a lot of fat in it. Doughs that become sourdough, or baguette, or even pizza crust are called lean doughs because they are made with little to no fat in them. This brioche has quite a bit of butter in it, as well as fat from lots of egg yolks.”
We took a look at a very traditional baking and pastry book. They could see that brioche can come in many different forms: loaves, braids, baked in large molds or as little knots.
“This version even has a little head.”
We reviewed what yeast was and how it works.
“So these little guys, these simple organisms, they eat the sugars in the dough. They eat and eat and eat, and then they do what?”
I waited for the giggling to die down.
“Or burp. Yeah, they expel carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the dough and causes it to rise. The thing is, fat slows down the action of the yeast. So, in order to give them a head start on their work, we’ll make a sponge with some of the ingredients, then add the rest once we can see that the yeast are really active. Finally, we’ll beat in the butter.”
We heated some milk to about 110 degrees, warmer than body temperature, but not too warm for dunking fingers into.
They added the yeast, an egg, and some of the flour. We mixed this together to get a shaggy dough, then sprinkled more flour over the top. We covered the bowl with cling film and set it aside to ferment.
We were using fresh yeast for the first time, so while our sponge was rising, we took the opportunity to compare different kinds of yeast.
First up, the yeast we couldn’t see.
Though the yeast that had made the bubbles appear in my starter wasn’t visible, there were other signs that fermentation had taken place.
“It smells like sourdough.”
We talked about how the yeast in the jar, wild yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus), is always out there in nature. The only time we see evidence of its presence might be the funkiness on a piece of fruit left too long on the counter or on the tree in the backyard — after the yeast has already started the fermentation process, feasting on the fruit’s sugars, then excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Then we checked out the yeast we could see: fresh, active dry, and instant yeast.
“These forms of yeast are produced in big factories. They grow it in vats on sugars like molasses.”
“So kind of like yeast farmers?”
“Right! They end up with something like yeast soup. Then they remove the liquid and either compress the results to make cake (fresh) yeast, or dehydrate it to make either active dry or instant yeast.”
We examined the three piles.
“Can we taste it?”
“Sure?” I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat straight yeast, but I figured a tiny bit couldn’t hurt. “If anything, it might make you gassy.”
They inspected and sniffed and poked. And tasted. A little.
“This one is bigger and kind of round.” (Active-dry)
“This one is tinier, and sort of longish.” (Instant)
Fresh yeast resembled a crumbly eraser.
“Fresh yeast will work the fastest because it doesn’t need to be rehydrated. But fresh yeast doesn’t store well for very long and is harder to find in the market. You can substitute one for the other as long as you use the correct converted amount.”
There was some discussion about the need for rehydrating dried yeast. Yes, it is alive in the package, but dormant, kind of like the tree in my yard during the winter. Yes, it is alive in the bread dough. And yes, we kill it when we bake it. Poor yeast.
The yeast in our sponge was definitely alive and moving fast.
The kids agreed that it already smelled like bread.
They added the rest of the eggs and dry ingredients to the rising sponge.
“It doesn’t look very yummy.”
This dough requires a long mix, about 15 minutes on medium-high speed.
“Can you believe they used to mix this by hand?”
While the dough was mixing, I pulled out a batch of brioche I had made the night before.
“Because brioche contains so much butter, it is really impossible to work with unless it’s cold. I have dough ready and chilled so that you can see how to portion and shape it.”
We divided the dough into 3 ounce pieces.
I showed them how to cup their hands around the dough to shape and round it.
Ok, so it takes a bit of practice. We got mostly rounded dough pieces.
We set the pan of dough balls aside to rise again, and turned our attention back to our mixing brioche.
It was smooth and sticky and very well mixed. Time to beat in the butter.
“Here you guys, feel this butter. It should be somewhat soft, but not melty or oily.”
They pressed their fingertips into the butter.
“Now we’ll add it to the dough, a few tablespoons at a time.”
They were really eager to throw their pats of butter into the mixer, but they patiently waited until I gave each person the o.k.
Once all the butter was incorporated, we dumped the brioche dough out onto the lightly floured table and gathered it into a ball. We placed it into a buttered bowl so that it could rise.
Our brioche rounds were ready.
They pressed the spongy rounds flat, leaving a little raised rim around the edge.
We spooned some crème fraîche into the center.
Then we topped the crème fraîche with macerated strawberries and brushed the edge of the dough with a bit of egg wash.
A sprinkling of sugar topped the whole thing off.
The brioches went into the oven and emerged golden and puffy and smelling like butter and hot strawberries. And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.
But what of the first batch of dough? The one the kids actually mixed?
It was still happily rising on the counter.
I pressed that out into a sheet pan and dusted it with flour before placing it in the refrigerator to chill.
We had needed extra dough for demonstration purposes. This batch would become cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. The lengths I go to for the kids’ benefit. That’s the story I’m sticking with anyway.
Brioche from Pastries From The La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton
yield: 2 1/4 lbs of dough
Note: This recipes takes 2 days because it must be chilled for at least 6 hours, but my preference is overnight. Also, the dough requires a lengthy mixing time to properly develop — keep an eye on your mixer so that it doesn’t shimmy its way off the counter while it’s working, and don’t let it overheat.
3/4 ounce (1 T) packed fresh cake yeast or 2 1/2 t active dry
1/3 cup whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees
6 extra-large eggs
3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 t kosher salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, soft but not melting or oily
Place the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and pour the milk over, letting active dry yeast proof for 10 minutes. Add 1 of the eggs and 1 cup of the flour and stir to combine. Sprinkle 1 more cup of flour over the mixture without stirring. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside until the surface cracks, about 30 minutes.
Add the remaining eggs and dry ingredients to the sponge. Using the dough hook, mix on low for 1-2 minutes, until combined. Turn the mixer up to medium-high and continue to mix for about 15 minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook and is smooth, shiny, and slightly sticky. It may be necessary to add another tablespoon of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl.
Turn the mixer down to medium-low and add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time. After all of the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to medium-high and beat the dough for about 2-3 more minutes, until the dough wraps itself around the hook. If necessary, add a few pieces of flour to encourage the dough to leave the sides of the bowl. The dough will be smooth and shiny, but not oily.
Remove the dough from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Place the dough into a buttered bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 2 – 2 1/2 hours.
Spread the dough out onto a floured parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour, cover, and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.
For fruit-topped brioche:
Separate the chilled dough into twelve 3 ounce pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into balls. Flatten into discs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Set aside to proof until spongy to the touch, about an hour. Make a depression in the center of the discs and spoon way more crème fraîche than you feel is reasonable in the center, (trust me, we used about 1T per bun and it was not close to enough). Top with fruit, (we used strawberries macerated with sugar and orange zest), brush the edge with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes.