Baking used to terrify me. Granted it was before I had a KitchenAid standing mixer, which can make a newbie baker feel like a professional, but there were just too many rules and it freaked me out. A pinch of this, an extra cup of that, “knead for approximately two minutes but no more than two minutes,” blah blah blah….way too much pressure for a twelve year old and I was raised as a delicate flour. [puns and misspelling intended!]
Suffice it to say I only baked a little when I was little. I remember making mini challahs for Shabbat at day camp one summer. I was about six at the time so they made the dough and just gave it to us to braid. I remember it tasting super yeasty, which, come to think of it, is probably when my aversion to vaginas started to ferment.
Cut to half a decade later and I was preparing for my bar-mitzvah. At the synagogue my family belonged to, every bar and bat-mitzvah had to complete 13 mitzvot, or good deeds, in preparation for becoming an adult. I remember getting a list of suggestions for inspiration from the cantor: feed the homeless, volunteer to pick up trash at a park, plant a tree, tutor someone younger than you, visit the elderly, bake a challah, etc. I didn’t really want to get anywhere near the homeless (though I did), manual labor seemed like something someone else would be good at (I ended up doing that too), and old people used to freak me out; but baking bread….that seemed right up my alley.
This was before Google so I had to look up a recipe in one of my stepmother’s old cookbooks, and I followed it to a T…until we got to the part where I had to knead it. The recipe called for ‘five minutes of kneading before letting it rest and then bake.’ I definitely kneaded it for five minutes—and then some. It was so much fun to have the dough between my fingers, and to be wearing an apron. And who doesn’t like making a mess in the kitchen? Besides, it was a good deed and I had to do it.
So I braided the challah, gave it an egg wash—my first—and baked it until a golden brown crust formed. Impatiently I let it rest and cool for the requisite 60 minutes before I grabbed a serrated knife and started hacking away.
Thanks to my intense kneading it was as hard as a rock. We’re talking dense, chewy (not Jewy) and it didn’t taste to good either.
I remember being depressed at my failed attempt and wondered if that counted towards my 13 mitzvot or if I’d have to do it all over again?
And just when I’d about given up on a life full of fun in the kitchen, I learned a very important lesson about silver linings.
“Think of it this way,” my stepmother said, “you essentially made a bagel challah!”
And I couldn’t have been happier. Just think. I thought I’d failed at making a traditional Jewish bread we eat on the Sabbath…..and by changing my perspective, I ended up making a braided version of one of the hole-iest and most Jewish breads in the world—a bagel.
Brioche Bread: Plain or Pecan Maple Cinnamon
I went on a baking hiatus for the next 20 years and left making bread to the experts. Until I started watching Cook’s Country every night before bedtime and watched them make soda breads, and brioche breads and more. They made it look so easy that I figured I could give it a go once more.
And that inspired the following recipes for plain brioche bread, which can be easily modified to be a delicious sweet brioche with pecans, maple sugar, and cinnamon.
- 1 tblsp active dry yeast
- 3 cups bread flour (I use King Arthur) and another ¼ cup for kneading
- 1 tblsp salt
- 4 large eggs
- 1 stick of unsalted butter melted and at room temperature
- 2 tbslp granulated sugar
- 1 cup of warm water (around 110° because if the water is at 140° the yeast will die)
- 1 tblsp heavy cream
- 1 tblsp honey
- non-stick spray for proofing bowl
- extra butter for loaf pans
For the Pecan Maple Cinnamon Bread
- ⅔ cups light brown sugar
- 1 tblsp granulated maple sugar
- 1 tblsp ground cinnamon
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 4 tblsp softened butter
For an Egg Wash
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp water
*This recipe is the same for either the regular brioche loaf or the pecan maple cinnamon bread aside from two bolded sections below.
Add the 1 tblsp active dry yeast to the cup of warm water and gently mix it around with your finger and then let it sit for a minimum of 5 minutes until it foams and becomes cloudy.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the 4 eggs, 1 tblsp heavy cream, 1 tblsp honey and set aside.
Whisk the dry ingredients (2 cups and 8 tblsp of bread flour, 2 tblsp granulated sugar, and 1 tblsp salt until well combined. [Yes, I know it’s strange the sugar is in with the flour and not the butter and eggs…..trust me it all turns out in the end.]
Once the yeast and warm water are frothy, add that mixture to the egg mixture and whisk until combined.
Add the egg and yeast mixture to the dry ingredients all at once and then start stirring with a wooden spoon, until well combined.
Pour the melted butter over the top and continue to stir the dough until the butter is absorbed and you have wet dough that’s more like a thick pancake mix than anything else, but that’s what we’re going for.
Spray the inside of a large mixing bowl liberally with non-stick spray and then pour the dough into the bowl. Don’t worry, the dough will be sticky and too wet to really handle with your hands.
Cover with plastic wrap (spray some of the plastic wrap with non-stick spray too) and then place the bowl in the refrigerator.
After 30 mins in the fridge, with your fingers, pull the dough from the edges up and over towards the center of the bowl going around the entire circumference twice. Then return the plastic wrap and put it back in the fridge for another 30 mins.
Repeat the process every 30 mins for the next 2 hours. The dough will get less and less sticky each time, but it will still be too sticky to handle. It should be getting a little bigger each time and feel soft and light, but still very sticky.
After 2 hours of your dough proofing, separate the dough in two and turn half of the dough out onto a heavily floured (use ¼ cup bread flour) work surface.
With another palm full of bread flour dust your hands and the top of the dough and start kneading the dough, incorporating more and more flour into the dough as needed with each push from the heel of your hand, fold and turn. Knead the dough for about 3 mins, adding more flour if needed, but the dough should be just barely dry enough for you to handle it briefly. It’s meant to stay moist and buttery and it’s okay if you have a bunch of it on your hands when you get to this part of the process.
Now you have choices…
Regular Brioche Loaf: If you’re making the regular brioche loaf, then you can roll the dough out into a log, fold the sides in on itself, and place it into one of the buttered and floured loaf pans with the seem side of the log down.
Pecan Maple Cinnamon Brioche: If you’re making the pecan cinnamon maple brioche bread, then you want to repeat the process of incorporating flour into the dough as above, but instead of rolling it into a log, you roll it out (a rolling pin works best) into a 12 x 16 inch rectangle (don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be perfect) with the short 12 inch side facing your stomach. Make sure there’s plenty of flour on the rolling pin and surface before you start otherwise the dough will stick.
Working quickly, spread as much of the pecan, sugar and spice mixture out in a single layer on top of the dough, leaving a ¾ inch boarder. This is where you can use less or more pecan filling depending on how sweet you want your final product to be.
Then fold up each of the long sides and finish gently lifting the short end furthest away from you and rolling the dough over the pecan-sugar mixture until it forms a log.
Then place it seem-side down in your loaf pan.
Continuing with either recipe from this point on, let the dough rise for 30 mins in the loaf pans covered with plastic wrap
While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 375° and when they’ve finished resting, lightly brush them with an egg wash (whisk the egg and 1 tsp water together), and bake the brioche loaves on the middle rack with a spritz of some water in the oven before closing the door.
Bake the brioche breads for 50-60 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the dough is puffed up. Spritz the inside of the oven with a few sprays of water once more about half way through the baking process (at minute 30).
When done, take the dough out of the oven and let them cool (in the loaf pans) on a cooling rack for 15 minutes, before turning them out of the pans to let them finish cooling on the rack, covered with a towel, for a few hours or over night if you’re baking the bread in the evening.
The plain brioche bread is amazing toasted with a sprinkle of salt or your favorite jam.