Wednesday 25 July 2012

Battling My Sweet-Yeasted-Dough Demons: Paul Hollywood's Brioche

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For some reason, every time I decide to make something sweet that's yeast-based, whether it's challah or gooey butter cake, the elements contrive to work against me and the thing turns out to be a huge flop.  I end up nervously hovering over my dough, waiting for it to double while I curse the rain and wish I had ever seen what doubled dough should look like so I could be sure I'd recognize it when it happened.  And usually I give up and bung it in the oven after waiting an hour past the recommended time, and usually that ends up being a mistake and I can only guess that my dough was under-proved... I don't have this problem with savory breads (but maybe it's just that it's less noticeable when they're a bit under-proved, and they're just a bit denser which isn't such a big deal in my book), but the sweet doughs always seem to elude me.

So I'm not sure why, when Bloomsbury asked me to test a recipe from Paul Hollywood's new book, How to Bake, I chose brioche.  It's everything I'm crap at: a sweet dough, with more ingredients than your average bread, and a recipe that requires planning, patience, and 2 days to babysit your kitchen.  And yet, somehow, once I saw the photo of that fluffy, gorgeous, golden crown of deliciousness, I just couldn't get it out of my head.

The day I made the dough, the weather was crap and dark (as it has been all 'summer' this year), but it wasn't very cold – I held out hope that the humidity might actually lend me a hand in all this proofing, rather than just frizzing my hair and making my upper lip sweat.  But overnight, while my dough was sitting in the fridge, firming up, the temperature dropped.  It poured all morning the next day, and by the time I got home and pulled the dough out, ready to 'knock it back', the flat was chilly enough for me to be wearing a sweater and a scarf.  I was not feeling very positive.

Nonetheless, I pressed on.  The dough was sticky and messy and our lack of an appropriate work surface was very annoying, but I got it rolled into its little balls and set in the cake tin and all that jazz, and then... I waited.  And waited... And waited.  At the 3 hour mark, when the dough had risen but not by much, I started googling.  I found out how to test whether or not the dough had proved: poke it with a floury finger: if the dent bounces back halfway, it's ready – but my dent stayed down, so my dough was deemed under-proved.  I nearly lost it then.  Three hours and it's still not proved??

But I really wanted to give this one a good crack, so I kept on googling.  And lo, I found a potential solution: according to this grammatically imperfect but nonetheless helpful Examiner article, "Room temperature for yeast dough is around 28 to 31 degrees Celsius/ 82 to 87 degrees Fahrenheit".  I checked my oven: it goes down below 75C!  I turned it on, set it to what I hoped was around 30 (it has one of those useless dials with dots and about 3 numbers), and popped the dough in.  I held my breath for half an hour, then poked it again.  The dent bounced back!  I will so be using this trick with all yeasted recipes from here on out.  I re-set the oven dial to 190, and when it had heated up I popped the dough back in and waited.

The good news is, after all that waiting and angsting (which is probably more to do with my personality type than the poor dough itself), the brioche actually bakes pretty quickly. The book says it should take 20-30 minutes, but mine took 35 – still, compared to the two-days process of getting it in the oven, the time went by in a flash.  When it was finally done, I took a step back and assessed my creation: it smelled amazing, was beautifully risen and golden brown, but looked nothing like the photo in the book.  Just like with the challah, the shape had kind of melded into one.  I sighed, but tried not to lose hope – maybe it would taste good enough to make up for all the stress.

After five minutes of cooling, I sprang the pan and pulled off a steaming hunk of brioche.  The texture didn't look quite as fluffy as the photo, but it was still soft and light and oh my goodness so scrumptious!  I forgot all the angst as I stuffed a big, hot, slightly greasy bite into my mouth.  It was rich and eggy (in a good way) and sweet, just like brioche should be (or, just like I like it to be).  And then I went a step further, and slathered it with salted caramel sauce.

What?  I'm shameless like that.

As for my overall impression of the book?  Well, I read through the summary sections and I felt like it was very clear without being condescending, and the accompanying photos of things like correctly creamed butter and sugar and how to fold croissant dough are perfect.  Not to mention that the whole layout is beautiful – I especially like the flour print on the inside of the cover – and the recipes are relatively short but still informative.  And they look delicious!  When I was deciding what to make, I was torn between the brioche, the scones, and the soda bread.*  Doesn't that look amazing?

Obviously, the brioche won out (and I'm glad it did!), but once I get my life together and plan my ingredients ahead of time, I'm definitely making these:

How to Bake is really about technique: for breads (the most common type of recipe covered), different forms of pastry (extensively covered) and cakes/desserts (less extensively covered, but there are some good updated basics and some really helpful information).  It's not a massive collection of recipes, but rather more of a useful beginner's guide to using your oven – obviously I'm not a beginner, but I am a lazy sod and tend to cut corners, and How to Bake showed me where that approach is fine and where it will cause a massive flop.  I recommend it for anyone who's a bit hesitant about baking, especially if you're a nonce about using yeast, as I am (or was, before reading this book).  I certainly feel like I've learned some new things in the past couple days of brioche-making, and I have no doubt that I'll learn even more as I work my way through the book.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some buttermilk in the fridge that's just begging to be made into soda bread...

*I did make the soda bread, just a couple of days later, and it was delish and SO easy!  Highly recommended.

     from How to Bake, reprinted with permission

     500g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
     7g salt
     50g caster sugar
     10g instant yeast (I used active dry yeast, and didn't change any of the recipe steps, and my brioche eventually rose... but you may want to avoid cutting that corner if you're new to yeast or just not as lazy as I am!)
     140 ml warm full-fat milk (I used low fat and I didn't see any issues with that)
     5 medium eggs (I used large because that's what I had... wow, I really CAN'T leave well enough alone, can I??)
     250g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing


Put the flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  Add the salt and sugar to one side of the bowl and the yeast to the other.  Add the milk and eggs and mix on a slow speed for 2 minutes, then on a medium speed for a further 6-8 minutes, until you have a soft, glossy, elastic dough.  Add the softened butter and continue to mix for a further 4-5 minutes, scraping down the bowl periodically to ensure that the butter is thoroughly incorporated.  The dough will be very soft.

Tip the dough into a plastic bowl, cover and chill overnight or for at least 7 hours, until it is firmed up and you are able to shape it.  (I did wish the next day that I'd greased the bowl, as the dough was firmly stuck to the sides and difficult to get out.  But alter the recipe at your own risk!)

Grease a 25cm round cake tin (I used a springform pan and it worked beautifully).  

Take your brioche dough from the fridge.  Tip it onto a lightly floured surface and fold it in on itself a few times to knock out the air.  Divide it into 9 equal pieces.  Shape each piece into a smooth ball by placing it into a cage formed by your hand and the table and moving your hand around in a circular motion, rotating the ball rapidly.  Put 8 balls of dough around the outside of the tin and the final one in the middle.

Cover with a clean plastic bag and leave to prove for 2-3 hours, or until the dough has risen to just above the rim of the tin.

Heat your oven to 190C.

When the brioche is proved, bake for 20-30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean.  Bear in mind that the sugar and butter in the dough will make it take on color before it is actually fully baked.  Remove the brioche from the tin and cool on a wire rack.  Serve warm or at room temperature.


  1. Using dry yeast is generally considerd to be *more* effort than using instant yeast because you are supposed to hydrate the dry yeast first and you can just throw the instant yeast in. Certainly not a short cut as you suggest.

    This may have been the reason for your slow prove.

    I have made quite a few of the breads from Paul's book in a 21-22deg c kitchen, with instant yeast and the proveing times have been very quick.

  2. Hi Anon,

    The short cut I was referring to was avoiding those extra steps – and I definitely didn't recommend doing it that way! I think you're right that my yeast laziness had something to do with my slow prove, but I also suspect my kitchen, which I'm not sure has ever nearer 21C, was also too cold. Either way, now that I know the oven trick I'm hoping my yeast adventures will go much better in the future.


  3. I have the same problem. I ruin all yeast! My doughs rarely rise enough, so i end up with a cement block. Still, one must persevere and i will be baking this brioche recipe very soon in order to scare away my dough demons. Nice blog!

    1. Thanks, Sara! It's been a while since I tasted this brioche but I remember feeling very pleased with it at the time – I hope yours turns out even better!

  4. I really like the idea of using a spring form pan; I'm going to do that when I make this recipe. I have made a similar brioche, and when I turn it out of the bowl, (which I did grease, and it didn't alter the recipe, I don't think) I found the dough very sticky and quite hard to work with, even if I more than "lightly" flour my work surface; I have a strong temptation to add more flour, enough so that the dough is workable. What am I doing wrong, and what can I do to prevent this?


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