Searching for Perfection and finding a cooking friend.

October 26, 2011

Baking, Random Thoughts

It was an innocent question, honest it was.  All I did was ask what types of things a select group of people wanted to learn how create when we finally get together to cook.  Well one of the items listed by K.F.C was Brioche.  My comment to H.N. the beginning of summer when we had this conversation was “Ya’ll really don’t want to start simple do you…” but being one to not shirk from a challenge I ploughed right in.  I have baked a wide variety of bread over the last 20+ years but had not made Brioche, I didn’t think much about it you just grab a recipe and go to town. Ummm yeah not so much.  The first few recipes were total flops but I kept pushing on as I was on a mission…and those of you who know me in person know how bad that can be.

My third attempt turned out a loaf that felt light and fluffy as Brioche is supposed to be, little did I know there was a fatal flaw in this recipe as well.  When the loaf was sliced open the entire center was uncooked and left this huge empty hole in the middle of the loaf which I think is why I got the hollow sound when I checked it before removing it from the oven.  I got a look at this loaf the weekend I went to cook at H.N. & K.F.C. and I did not like what I saw.  I am really glad KFC kept the loaf so we could talk about it and what she was looking for in a loaf of Brioche…let’s just say I had a lot to work on.  Thus began a few weeks of research, learning, baking, revamping, changing, adjusting, hair pulling, almost countless loaves of Brioche and finally success…sweet success (cue the Hallelujah chorus and spot light from the heavens!).

I am so glad have had KFC right there in the middle of all of the testing, adjusting, tweaking, dissecting and eating with me.  KFC was a fantastic sounding board to bounce ideas off of when my mental wanderings looked like they were heading out into the weeds.  I can’t tell you the number of times when we were in the middle of trying to work this recipe out that I would shoot her an email on the current incarnation only to have her pass one back with the almost same thoughts and ideas…it was kind of freaky at times.  KFC knew exactly what she was looking for in a loaf of Brioche and ability to communicate it to me was key in making this a success.

So what were we aiming for in this humble loaf?  Well it had to have a nice open crumb like a baguette, high moisture content like an éclair, a nicely browned crisp thin crust.  Sounds easy doesn’t it…again not so much.   I would get one facet perfect only to have the others knocked out of whack.  So I decided to attack from that line of thought.  I worked from the following key points-lightness of the loaf, moisture content, open crumb, rich brown thin crust, perfect egg-y flavor. As a base recipe I used Julia Child’s Brioche recipe, it was a “cannot fail” recipe, which lent itself to adjustment for what I needed very easily.

So let’s take a look at what KFC and I collaborated on…

The Basic recipe~ Once I stumbled upon Julia Child’s recipe and made it a few times, got to know the recipe as well as the dough and how it should look and react I knew I would be able to adjust and tweak as I needed knowing I would not throw off the basic integrity of the recipe.  It was a great foundation to build upon.  The recipe was a pleasure to work with; there were no surprises or lacking in direction so much so that any 10 y.o. could make this bread.

Lightness of the loaf~ I would have to say this was the easiest aspect of this bread, as long as I had good active yeast I was golden.  I really liked the loaf that came right from the original Julia Child’s recipe but I wanted it a bit lighter so the first thing I turned to was the amount of yeast. At this point I didn’t change things much just bumped up the yeast by about ½ ts. then went from measuring the flour by volume to weighing it out to be more accurate.  This did lighten up the loaf a fair amount. By using flour by weight I got an accurate consistent amount of flour. In the end I stopped upping the yeast at total of4 teaspoons which seemed enough to stand up to the long rise time and repeated deflating.

Open Crumb~ This was the MOST difficult part of the whole process.  I think I spent a good 3/4ths of the remakes working on just this aspect of the Brioche.  Both KFC and I did research on this characteristic; we went back and forth bouncing ideas off each other. In my reading I found a few things that ended up being key to the final product; the use of steam in the oven as the loaf cooked, the manner of how the dough was allowed to rise and the type of flour used.

By using a pan of hot water in the oven as the loaf baked it allowed the crust to not draw out to much moisture from the dough as the loaf cooked.  The steam also effected the formation of the crust allowing for a very thin crust that when sliced flaked like a good pie crust.  One thing I did learn was to NOT put the loaf pan over the pan of water I did this by mistake for one loaf and while the loaf cooked very well with a perfect brown on the crust the bottom of the loaf where it was over the pan of water did not brown at all.

When raising the dough I went about it a number of different ways to find which one best suited the creation of large cells in the loaf.  I started out by using the original recipe directions of allowing the completed dough to raise on the counter for an hour, gently deflate around the edges then allow to rise for 4-6 hours in the fridge doing this yielded a close crumb that was very fine and delicate.  Not what I was looking for.  I then changed up the game plan and allowed the dough to rise directly in the pan which was hit and miss usually. My thought by doing it in the pan was that the gas bubbles which form as the yeast converted the sugars would not be lost when transferring the dough into the pan.  I found this dough is on the fragile side when it came to deflating so much so that just jiggling the pan would cause it to deflate.  I then tried doing the first rising in the pan, then for the remaining rising it was in the fridge…again “so so” results.  KFC found a recipe over on Cooks that cut out one of the risings with the dough going right in the pan and then was allowed to rise once in the pan then off to the oven.  Again “so so” results, but I did co-opt part of the rising method for a later incarnation.

So how did I overcome this hurdle?  I changed the flour.  All this time I had been using AP Flour and it worked well for the recipe as written for a fine crumb but I was looking for something more along the lines of a crumb like a baguette.  So while driving to work one morning while mulling over this puzzle it dawned on me that bread flour has a higher protein level and it also produces a greater amount of gluten which in turn supports the more open cell structure I was looking for so it was back to the drawing board yet again to see if my thoughts on this adjustment would work.

I was a bit concerned that going to bread flour would alter the lightness of the loaf and I would have to go back and play with the yeast amounts yet again.  Thankfully due to the higher yeast amount going it (remember I upped it to 4Ts) I was covered on that side of the problem.  By using bread flour the yeast was able to grab a better toe hold as it were due to the extra gluten from the bread four.  This was a major key part in obtaining that open crumb that was so elusive to me.  The first time I cracked open a loaf from the bread flour dough I was super excited.  Normally I would just slice the loaf in the middle to take a peek then pass it along to KFC for her assessment but this time when I opened the loaf when I saw the larger open crumb I got so excited that I kept slicing 1” slices to see if the open crumb carried though the whole loaf.  I am sure KFC was laughing at me as I sent email after email with photos of the various parts which came together in this loaf.

Brown Thin Crust~ OK this part really was mostly likely the easiest puzzle piece to work out.  The original recipe tells you to use an egg wash on the top surface of the loaf once it has risen right before it goes in the oven, but it also tells you to not get any of the egg wash on the pan where the dough touches the pan as it will cause the dough to stick and not allow for a correct rise in the loaf as it cooks.  I finally ditched the egg wash as I could not seem to keep the wash from dripping down the sides and puddle at the edges of the pan, when it would drip I would get this alien looking loaf where it had stuck and the other side didn’t which caused cracked loaves that looked bloated on one side. Once I forgot about the egg wash things clipped right along.  I found the loaf really didn’t need the egg wash for it to form that lovely brown crust.  Granted it did not have that glossy look the egg washed one did but I am willing to sacrifice that for a non alien looking loaf.

I did find with the change to bread flour that I would have to slash the tops of the loaves to allow for some of the gas to escape.  The first few loaves would crack and bulge but using a trick from the making of baguettes by slashing the loaf I was able to minimize the cracking and bulging. Because there is so much butter in the dough you get a really nice brown on the crust but going back to the yeast issue I did up the sugar to ½ cup from a 1/3 cup which fed the yeast better again allowing the formation of larger cells in the loaf.

Eggy Flavor~ One of the key things K.F.C. mentioned about the Brioche she was looking for was a good “eggy” flavor. I didn’t think too much as there are so many eggs in the recipe until I tried to make the loaf more moist.  I could not add more liquid as that would throw the recipe off too much so I started looking at the fluids already present and it dawned on me how to kill two birds with one stone.  I was using a normal large egg for this recipe which in my understanding it the normal size egg most recipes are written for but I got to thinking what would happen if I started using Jumbo eggs.  So back to the drawing board I went, thankfully there was little that changed, I did end up adding a tablespoon more of bread flour just to tighten things up again as the loaf was slightly to loose. I found the larger eggs really made a difference in the flavor of this bread, it was fantastic.

Moisture Content~ Like the open crumb this was one of the more daunting parts to make consistent in each loaf. I had more ups and downs with the moisture content than there are on an EKG, it was SO frustrating trying to get this part right.  When I hit upon the larger sized eggs and the steam bath things started hitting an all cylinders for me. I am not sure which one had the most affect on the moisture content or if it was a combination of the two to reach critical mass concerning a moist interior. All I know is it works…very well. In searching for the right moisture content I started looking at the pan I was using to bake the Brioche loaf, I had been using a traditional Brioche pan which is fluted, when thinking about the loss of moisture I started thinking that the fluted pan just might be part of the issue in that where the fluted side is the dough is thinner which means it over cooks in terms of moisture content.  I transitioned to a regular loaf pan and found the moisture within the loaf was greatly improved.  Sadly you lose the cool look of the Brioche baked in the fluted pan.  So you can chose a slightly dryer loaf and use the fluted pan or sacrifice the cool look and have more moisture.

So what did I take away from all this bread making, a number of things…

~First find a GOOD sounding board one who has no problem telling you are off track or need to look in a different direction for answers and who has the willingness to jump in the middle of everything with you. Once you find them take what they are telling you and apply it.

~Second don’t fall for the first recipe that comes up in a search engine, there are some really bad recipes out there that will not work the way they are written. I guess you could say don’t settle for “kissing your brother” when it comes to a recipe.

~Third trust your gut and move on when you see it is not going to work.  Don’t invest your time in a lackluster recipe if you can see the interplay of ingredients will not pan out.

~Fourth don’t be afraid of constructive criticism…it is for your own good and it will help you grow.  Even I have to have what I guess we can call “an accountability partner” when working on projects like this.  Someone who will call me out and tell me I need to take a step back and re-look at some aspect of a project.

~Fifth and finally have fun with the process.  If you are not having fun walk away, move on to something else.  Thankfully while I was totally engrossed with this project with all the setbacks and frustrations I enjoyed every part of this project.  Granted The Work Peeps, I think, got tired of me talking about Brioche and what I was doing but I think they kind of forgave me my obsession when I would bring in the excess loaves.

I cannot express my thanks enough to K.F.C. for all her help in bring to life a food memory.  She was a trouper extraordinaire going above and beyond. Her ability to verbalize what I needed to do to change Julia Child’s brioche recipe to what she was looking for in Brioche was perfect.  She and H.N. suffered though many a loaf of brioche as I pummeled this recipe into submission, a lot of which were NOT good loaves of Brioche I don’t think I can count the number of times I told H.N. that the loaf I was passing off did not have to be eaten that I just needed some feed back on aspect “X”.  I am thankful she was so honest on what needed to change or what needed to be kept, she was the perfect “steel” for me to “hone” my Brioche making skills.

I cannot wait for our next collaboration!

Now go play with your food.



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