There's never been a better time to embrace your inner baker. Fragrant wafts of happy-making aromas filling the house and delivering a sense of comfort and calm, are just what we all need right now.
Even better, baking has the potential to create a sense of mindfulness. Cultivating this quality of being aware and engaged, that puts your consciousness in the present, is considered by many psychologists to be one of the best ways to combat anxiety and depression.
There's a rhythm to baking, a series of steps and processes, that - more than any other form of cooking - requires your undivided attention. You must embed yourself in every step of the process - the measuring, the mixing or folding, the rolling, the shaping and whatever else your recipe requires you to do. A failure to be completely present, aware and engaged during an activity that at its heart is about precise chemistry can easily lead to disaster. As I heard someone say recently, " When it seems like the world is ending, you don't want f***ed up cookies." The goal is to feel calmer AND end up with something yummy to eat.
There's also something magical about mixing together simple inert ingredients like flour, yeast, sugar and butter and watching them transform into bread, cake, or biscuits. Even though there's a precise formula you need to follow, you get to be creative by adding flavours – a pinch of cardamom or a teaspoon of orange blossom water, some lemon or orange zest - things that won't affect the chemistry of the formula. And you can also play with the way you shape the mixture in twists or rolls or buns or loaves.
Last year's lockdown saw everyone do a deep dive into sourdough, carrot cake, banana bread and chocolate brownies. Did anyone make brioche? The decadent buttery deliciousness of brioche is so versatile. You can bake it as a loaf, or as buns, roll it up with a sweet or savoury filling or use it as you would a pie crust. It can be prepared as either a sweet or savoury loaf and makes fabulous toast.
Like most yeasted doughs brioche uses high-grade flour, which is high in gluten. Gluten has taken a lot of flack in recent years and many people avoid eating it, thinking it's harmful. However, unless you suffer from coeliac disease or have an intolerance, gluten shouldn't cause you any bother.
This family of proteins, found in grains such as wheat, rye and spelt, is very useful in bread-baking. When flour is mixed with water or milk the gluten proteins form a sticky network that has a glue-like consistency that helps trap the gases created as the yeast activates. Gluten helps the rise in your dough and creates a light airy texture. Adding fat like butter weakens the strands of gluten so they can't join and create strong, elastic dough. Brioche uses a lot of butter and this is what gives it such a tender melt-in-the-mouth quality.
Overnight Buttery Brioche
Annabel says: Toast slices of this wonderful loaf and spread with creme fraiche or mascarpone and lashings of apricot jam or reduce the sugar for a savoury loaf. It is delicious toasted and cut into soldiers with boiled eggs. It can also be thinly sliced and toasted to serve as finger food topped with chicken liver paté or smoked seafood dip.
Ready in 1 hour + rising + chilling
Makes enough for 2 loaves
500g high-grade flour plus extra for dusting
¼ cup sugar (for savoury brioche use just 1 tsp sugar)
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp dry yeast or 15g fresh yeast
3 Tbsp warm milk
300g diced butter, at room temperature
Combine flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer or breadmaker (see below for instructions about mixing by hand). Dissolve yeast in warm milk, allow to stand for 5 minutes, then add to flour mixture.
Using a dough hook, beat in eggs one at a time on low power, then knead for a further 15 minutes.
Slowly add butter then knead for a further 10 minutes.
Transfer dough to a large, lightly floured bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in size (about 2 hours).
Punch the dough down, cover with a damp kitchen cloth then chill overnight before shaping and cooking (the dough keeps chilled for about 4 days and can also be frozen. Thaw before shaping and cooking).
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 180C/350F fan bake and line two medium (4-5 cup capacity) loaf tins with baking paper (or save half the dough to make something else such as the grape brioche or the olive and tomato brioche scroll featured below). Divide the dough between the tins and brush with egg. Bake in the oven until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (30 minutes). Cool on a wire rack.
*To mix brioche dough by hand, be prepared to get messy and have a scraping tool on hand. Mix the dough in a bowl and knead until it comes together. Once you have kneaded the dough, press it out on a clean worktop, then break the butter into lumps and drop them over the top. It's advisable to have a scraper ready, as this will get very messy. Work the butter into the dough energetically, squeezing with your fingers over and over, until you have a smooth mixture. It will take you about 4-5 minutes. At the start you can't imagine how getting the dough and the butter will ever combine but trust me, it does. Use the scraper to push the dough back together every so often, then when it is really smooth and slightly elastic, scrape it into a ball, scoop it up and return it to the bowl. Cover with a damp kitchen towel, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
You can make this without the fennel seeds but they really do take it to a whole new level of fragrant deliciousness. You could also top the loaf with a slather of jam and bottled or canned apricots or plums, or frozen blueberries.
Ready in 30 mins + rising
½ recipe overnight buttery brioche dough (see above)
Flour (for dusting)
200g red grapes, halved and deseeded
2 Tbsp raw sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
Line an oven tray with baking paper. Lightly dust paper with flour and press brioche dough out into an oval shape, about 25cm x 20cm.
Press grapes, cut-side down, into dough. Sprinkle with sugar and fennel seeds, if using. Leave to rise on the bench for 20 minutes, uncovered.
When ready to cook, preheat oven to 200C fan bake. Bake until brioche is golden and sounds hollow when tapped (about 20 minutes). Serve warm or toasted. Best eaten the day it is made, or freeze and reheat in a 180C/350F fan bake oven for 10 minutes.
Olive and Tomato Brioche Scroll
All kinds of fillings can be used in this simple rolled loaf. It's delicious as a giant sausage roll with a band of sausage meat down the middle of the dough.
Ready in 50 minutes + rising
½ recipe overnight buttery brioche dough (see above, made with just 1 tsp sugar)
Flour (for dusting)
½ cup pitted olives, chopped
½ cup finely chopped semi-dried tomatoes
100g feta, crumbled
2 tsp chopped rosemary leaves
1 egg, lightly beaten
Line an oven tray with baking paper for easy clean-up. Lightly dust baking paper with flour and press brioche dough out to form a rectangle, about 40cm x 30cm.
Scatter with olives, tomatoes, feta and half the rosemary and press into the dough. Roll up from one short edge and place, joined edge down, on the paper-lined tray. Cover loosely with a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 30-40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200C fan bake.
Brush brioche with egg and scatter with remaining rosemary.
Bake for 10 minutes at 200C then reduce heat to 180C and bake until it is golden and sounds hollow when tapped (a further 15-20 minutes).
Yvonne's picks ...
(Overnight Buttery Brioche)
Rock Ferry Central Otago Brut Rosé 2016 ($55)
Crafted by Allan McWilliams, this certified organic bottle of rose-gold gorgeousness is a beyond beautiful match with this fluffy, buttery brioche. With subtle aromas of berry bagel dough, crushed almonds and lemon pith and a lick of Shrewsbury biscuit and flavours leaning toward the deliciously dry, mineral-dusted, crunchy-crisp spectrum – it's taut and textural and if you're on Keto, then you'll probably be kicking yourself right now.
(Olive and feta brioche scroll)
Kererū Brewing One Fin Day Lemon Pepper Gose (330ml $60x12pk)
Pairing bread and beer is like love and marriage, horse and carriage stuff for me and, as soon as you sip the light, lemony, caper-edged One Fin Day (an unfiltered, kettle-soured wheat beer pronounced "gose-ah") with Annabel's olive and feta scrolls, the clouds will part, the sun will beam through, your tongue will tingle with saline and citrus and all will be well with the world.
(Sweet grape-studded brioche)
Morningcider Strawberry Rosé Cider (330ml $4)
If the thought of nibbling this buttery, gloriously grapey brioche makes you giddy, then washing it down with the superb Strawberry Rosé Cider will absolutely send you sideways. Beautifully balanced, it merges apples from their urban apple orchard and strawberries and blackcurrants together to deliver a smack of sweetness and crunchy crispness with every sip. A superb combo.