Wednesday, March 2, 2011

song of my little carboholic heart

I pay close attention to the bread in restaurants.

Is it good bread, worth eating for its own sake? Or is it just something to keep diners occupied before the food shows up? Does it come with interesting accompaniments? Does it go well with the food? Is it better than the food? The bread may not make or break a restaurant, but a restaurant with the right answers can easily earn a place in my little carboholic heart.

I've been to a restaurant in Boston's North End where the food was wildly hit-or-miss, but the foccacia was to die for. At Prune in New York's East Village, they had pappadams better than the ones I've eaten in Indian restaurants. I was won over by the crusty rolls with little crocks of pork rillettes and butter served at French restaurant of the hotel I interned in, and I didn’t waver in my enthusiasm - even after I was assigned to fill the crocks.

The restaurant bread that stands out most clearly in my memory, however, is that of The Lobby at The Regent in Sydney. While the food at The Lobby was decent enough, there must have been someone, either in management or in the kitchen, with a love of bread like mine.

Only a carboholic after my own heart could have dreamed up their enormous breadbaskets with lavish arrangements of assorted breads, embellished with sprays of grissini and flourishes of crisp homemade crackers. I could have made a meal out of one of those breadbaskets alone, and were it my last meal, I would have died happy.

The sheer variety would have been memorable enough, but the selections had their own distinguishing features. Nestled between neat slices of crusty white, whole wheat, and poppyseed were cornbread muffins (the first I ever tasted), delicate little caraway rolls, and, most unusually, brioche buns scented with dill.

Tender and fragrant, with a light, buttery crumb, the brioche was always the first item to disappear from the breadbasket. On the rare occasions when it didn’t vanish completely, we’d take the leftovers to go. Lightly warmed, they became a wonderful breakfast, a welcome change from our usual toast and margarine.

Now that the Regent has become the Four Seasons Sydney, and the The Lobby is no more, those breadbaskets are only the stuff of memory. The brioche, however, was too good to forget, and so I've combined rich buttery dough with finely chopped fresh dill to make my own.

The results make for a superb breakfast or brunch, whether served alongside smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, split and toasted as a base for eggs norvegienne, or simply presented warm and unadorned. They're every bit as wonderful as the ones I remember. It makes my little carboholic heart sing.

Dill Brioche

The Lobby remains the only restaurant I’ve been to where the breadbasket included brioche, and the only place I’ve ever seen brioche with dill. It’s a wonderful addition, though. Somehow, the aroma makes the buttery quality of a brioche even more intense. I think the original used dried dill rather than fresh, and if that's your preference, cut back on the quantity by a tablespoon.

I've provided measurements by volume, and weights in metric and imperial, but for best results, use the metric measurements.

(Owes some inspiration to this brioche recipe by Dorie Greenspan. Makes eight dinner-roll-size buns, which can be frozen.)

This dough needs to rest overnight, so begin the recipe at least a day before you want to eat the results. It's easiest to work with in a cold (or at least cool) room, so don't start the dough if you have the heating or the oven on.

First, a spot of prep: leave two large eggs and three-quarters of a stick of unsalted butter (one hundred and seventy grams, six ounces) out of the fridge to warm up. The butter needs to be soft, and the eggs shouldn't be cold. If you, like me, keep your flour in the freezer, let that lose its chill too. Clear off and wipe down a section of your countertop.

Finely chop a small bunch of fresh dill. Measure out three or four tablespoons (depending on how strongly you'd like your bread flavored); set aside in a bowl.

In a mixing bowl, combine one-and-three-quarters of a cup of flour (two hundred and fifty grams, eight point eight ounces), one teaspoon (five grams) instant active yeast, half a teaspoon (four grams) salt, and a quarter-cup (sixty mililitres) warm milk. Stick a hand in the bowl, and stir the mixture until it forms dry, shaggy clumps.

Crack in one egg, and work it into the mixture. It will be sticky and difficult to work with; that's normal. Crack in the second egg, and work it into the mixture. You should have a sticky, lumpy dough.

Sprinkle the dough with four teaspoons (twenty grams) of white sugar - as though it were flour - and work it in. When no loose sugar remains in the bowl, turn the dough out on your countertop. Knead for six to seven minutes, or until the dough is smooth and no longer lumpy.

Time to add butter. Grab the butter, and cut it into six equal pieces. Flatten the dough out slightly with your palm. Place one tablespoon of butter in the center of the dough, and fold the dough over so that the butter is trapped inside. Start kneading. The goal is to get the butter to work into the dough from the inside out. Once the butter has been fully absorbed, repeat the process with another tablespoon of butter.

Keep going until you run out of butter. The dough will become softer and silkier; when all the butter has been incorporated, it will have an oily sheen, but shouldn't be too greasy. Knead for another ten minutes or so, or until the dough develops resistance and doesn't stick to your palms when you pull them away. (If you gather the entire ball of dough and pull, and it comes off the counter cleanly, it's good to go. If it sticks, and pulls like taffy, keep kneading.)

When the dough has achieved the right consistency, sprinkle the fresh chopped dill over, and knead until it's evenly distributed.

Place the dough back in your mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise for an hour.

After the dough has risen, press down upon it gently to deflate. Cover it over again with plastic wrap, and place it in the fridge to chill overnight. (Check back on it after the first hour - if it's started rising again, deflate it.)

The next morning, remove the dough from the fridge and press down upon on it gently to deflate. Butter a five-by-nine inch loaf tin. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and shape them into small brioches to fit the tin, leaving a little space between each brioche.

Cover the tin with wax paper, and leave in a warm place to rise for fifty minutes, or until the dough is light and nearly doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 400F. Crack one egg and beat until frothy. Brush the beaten egg all over the tops of the brioches.

Place the tin in the oven. Bake for twenty minutes. If necessary, tent the brioches with tinfoil to keep them from browning too much on top. When baked, remove the tin from the oven. Let the brioches cool in the tin for ten minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm.


Virgin In The Volcano said...

My god. How dare you tell me about this when you're half-way around the world.

adele said...

Virgin - Sorry. If you want to visit Beijing, though, I can offer you a place to crash, and great breakfasts!

Cakelaw said...

These look so good - they remind me of a yeasted version of last week's FFwD.

adele said...

Cakelaw - Chive bread? Huh. You're right, they are kind of similiar.

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Oh. Wow. Great post! (I am heading to the North End in a bit to do some writing, I'll give it your best!)

I LOVE dill and what a great way to welcome spring in with a little green (at least, here in Boston). I'm almost ready to give brioche a go again. It scares me!

adele said...

Plum - I guess it would be one way of doing green food for St. Patrick's Day without resorting to food coloring, wouldn't it?

I strongly encourage further adventures in brioche. :)