I have rarely seen students so enthused and bursting with pride as when their airy brioche puffs to grandeur in the oven, arriving shiny and golden to the table just moments later. There is great triumph in baking perfection, and after a class, e-mails, photos, tweets, and Facebook notations attest to the students’ prowess in the kitchen. In my kitchens, I use honey rather than sugar as a sweetener. The reasons are simple: honey just makes food taste better, and for us it’s a homegrown product, produced from the bees that call Chanteduc and Provence home. When preparing this brioche, don’t omit the saffron; infusing it in the warm milk dramatizes the intensity of these golden threads and adds an exotic flavor and aroma to the final product, not to mention the touch of color.
Note that you’ll need to start the brioche several hours before you plan to bake it.
Equipment: A heavy-duty mixer fitted with a flat paddle; a dough scraper; two nonstick 1-quart (1 l) rectangular bread pans.
1. Prepare the sponge: In the bowl of the heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle, combine the milk, saffron, yeast, and honey and stir to blend. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the egg and 1 cup (140 g) of the flour, and stir to blend. The sponge will be soft and sticky. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup (140 g) flour, covering the sponge. Set aside to rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes. The sponge should erupt slightly, cracking the layer of flour.
2. Prepare the dough: Add the honey, salt, eggs, and flour to the sponge. With the paddle attached, mix on low speed just until the ingredients come together, about 1 minute. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 5 minutes.
3. To incorporate the butter into the dough, it should be the same consistency as the dough. To prepare the butter, place it on a flat work surface, and with the dough scraper, smear it bit by bit across the surface. When it is ready, the butter should be smooth, soft, and still cool—not warm, oily, or greasy.
4. With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter a few tablespoons at a time. When all the butter has been added, increase the mixer speed to medium-high for 1 minute. Then reduce the speed to medium and beat the dough for 5 minutes. The dough will be soft and sticky.
5. First rise: Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
6. Chilling and second rise: Punch down the dough. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough overnight, or for at least 4 hours, during which time it will continue to rise and may double in size again. After the second rise, the dough is ready to use.
7. To bake the brioche: Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces, each weighing about 2 1/2 ounces (75 g). Roll each piece of dough tightly into a ball and place 6 pieces side by side in each bread pan. Cover the pans with a clean cloth and let the dough rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
8. Center a rack in the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
9. Lightly brush the dough with the egg wash. Working quickly, use the tip of a pair of sharp scissors to snip several crosses along the top of each pan of dough. (This will help the brioche rise evenly as it bakes.) Place the pans in the oven and bake until the brioche loaves are puffed and deeply golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and place on a rack to cool. Turn the loaves out once they have cooled.
The secret: Top-quality honey makes all the difference here. Honey not only enriches the flavor of this brioche but also helps keep it moist.
Note: The brioche is best eaten the day it is baked. It can be stored for a day or two, tightly wrapped. To freeze, wrap it tightly and store for up to 1 month. Thaw, still wrapped, at room temperature.
Recipe from The French Kitchen Cookbook, reprinted with permission from William Morrow. Copyright © 2013 by Patricia Wells.
Chef Sean Brock, author of Heritage, grew up in a town where seed saving was a way of life. "You just saved these seeds not because you were poor, but because you really loved the flavor of a particular tomato or a particular bean," he says.