“Bring me some brioche! Don’t tell me how much butter is in it!” is what everyone told me before my brioche-making class.
My third baking class at our esteemed food emporium began at 8 in the morning on a cold and rainy Saturday, and if that doesn’t show my commitment to the art of baked goods, nothing will.
The instructor began with “Brioche! How much fat can we get in a dough? Let’s get more fat in there.”
Brioche occupies its own comfy niche on the border between bread and pastry. It’s an enriched dough, like challah, which I’ve made before, but challah doesn’t use any butter, while brioche requires all the butter.
All. The. Butter.
Because of all that butter, it’s best to keep your water and eggs and butter in the fridge until right before you start to bake. This is an exception in bread baking, where room temperature ingredients are the norm, but using cold ingredients means all the butter won’t heat up as quickly and get all greasy as you’re working the dough.
Brioche dough is also best after being refrigerated overnight. So this class was generous enough to let us make our craquelin and têtes and en croutes with dough that had been made the day before, and then the dough we made in class would be for taking home and baking later.
So we started with a craquelin, which is the national bread of Belgium. You roll out the dough, add sugar cubes mixed with orange zest and Grand Marnier (a fancy liquer that only the fanciest of fancy people drink!) and roll it all up.
It’s like a burrito, but Belgian.
Next was the tête, which is very simple and relaxing when the dough is already made by a professional and all you have to do is wedge one little ball of dough into a bigger one, then place it in a cute little mold that makes it look like a metal and pastry flower.
According to the instructor, there is a whole trick to it that pastry chefs have to master so “the head doesn’t pop off” in the oven. The French take this very seriously.
For the en croutes, we were supposed to make four rolls with chocolate and four with sausage, but I welled up all my courage and asked if I could do a double chocolate batch and put the kibosh on the sausage—and they let me! What a generous enterprise.
Next, we made our own dough, which seemed simple enough—water, eggs, yeast, I can do that dance all day. Then it was butter time.
This is just over half a pound of butter. That’s so much butter.
The instructor prepared us to knead in the butter like she was sending us out to battle.
“There will be a moment where you think you can’t do it,” she said. “You’re going to fight the dough and you will win—eventually—but in the short term, the dough will win.”
Uh-oh. “Fight the dough?”
It was barely nine in the morning and I was about to be vanquished by dough?
“Get fortified and I’ll put on some upbeat music!” she said, and we got to work.
To knead an actual boulder of butter into dough, you have to chop up the butter into small chunks and then separate the chunks into four editions, and knead in one edition at a time.
We ended up kneading for a good forty-five minutes. It was quite the workout.
“We’re earning this bread!” was the rallying cry, but everyone knew that the amount of calories in our brioche could only be walked off by doing one of those 100K ultra marathons where people run through a desert for a week, and even then, it would be close.
One student asked the instructor if there was a risk of over-kneading our dough.
“It’s almost impossible to over-knead by hand,” she said. “If you were kneading dough in a mixer and you left it for too long, then you’d risk over-kneading it. But kneading by hand, you’ll be fine.”
She added, “In all the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only had two students over-knead bread by hand. It was a father-in-law and a son-in-law. In a pizza class. The whole family was taking it.”
She paused for a moment. “What they were working out, it was bigger than the dough.”
We kept kneading, and there were moments when I thought, “This is impossible. It’s just so much butter.” But I just kept kneading away and breaking up the butter chunks and losing all sense of time and space and then, I had a giant wad of buttery brioche dough.
At least my hands are really soft now.
The other upside to all that fat is that brioche dough is very forgiving—it was way easier to shape than rye dough—and that’s because all the fat blocks the gluten strands from getting too long. Butter! It’s just trying to help!
So I went home with a sack full of brioche and enough dough to make two—TWO—Bienenstich, or Bee Sting cakes, which the instructor demonstrated during class, and then generously allowed us to sample. I took one bite and said, “Oh, I’m making this.”
So I attempted the Bienenstich the very next day—it was another rainy day (this time with an ice storm component! Ah, spring), and since I already had my dough, all I had to do was make the almond topping (which is just sugar, almonds, honey and EVEN MORE butter), proof the dough, add the topping and bake!
I still managed to overthink proofing to the point that I practically threw the cakes into the oven, afraid that it was too late. I also miscalculated just how heavy sliced almonds can be, and since the almonds were mixed in with butter and honey, they stuck together and sunk into the dough, but hopefully in an aesthetically pleasing way. I sliced the cakes in half, added pastry filling, and put them back together with no problem.
Sure, now there are almonds stuck to every surface in my kitchen and the paws of all my pets, but maybe I’m getting the hang of this after all.