Brioche is the granddaddy of sweet enriched breads; it’s rich and tender because it’s laden with butter—we’ve made delicious brioche with as much as 100% butter (in baker’s percentage). Generally speaking, fat can get in the way of gluten-bond formation, so although high-fat dough can take longer to mix, the lubricating quality of fat results in a more tender crumb.
In addition to having a wonderful texture, Brioche is versatile, forming the basis of many enriched breads. Brioche can be sweet or savory and handle a number of fats, such as flavorful infused butters. It can be divided into individual portions or baked into loaves; used to make sandwiches or laminated like a croissant; and baked, steamed, fried, or even microwaved.
The French sweetened pastry dough pâté sablée is the namesake of this relatively easy brioche recipe from Modernist Bread, and we borrow from it the traditional pastry-making technique of rubbing or cutting the fat into the flour. We recommend using a food processor to most efficiently accomplish that task. This technique will greatly reduce mixing time and reduce stress on the dough. The eggs and milk are blended in at the end, unlike with most other brioche recipes, which signal to add them early in the mix.
There’s a lot to understand about how to properly handle the dough so that you wind up with a well-executed brioche. Baking it is a balancing act that involves ensuring the crumb is strong enough to support the structure while not overbaking, which can create a thick crust. Careful baking results in a loaf of brioche that’s rich and satisfying. We love tearing off soft, delicate strands of freshly baked brioche—that’s something you could never do with a baguette. Those strands are long gluten chains made flexible by fat, but more to the point, they’re simply a pleasure to eat.
Soft, plaited, and with a shiny crust, challah is an easily recognized loaf that is often prominently displayed on bakery shelves during Jewish holidays and on Fridays for Shabbat. While the bread has a distinctive richness that’s reminiscent of brioche, it is traditionally pareve (it contains no meat or dairy), so it is made with oil rather than butter, as well as much less liquid. The whole eggs and egg yolks give the bread its lush flavor and golden color.
A typical challah is made by braiding ropes of dough. The process can be tricky at first, but it can become second nature with practice. Because challah is traditionally braided, proofing is key—if the dough is not properly proofed, it will tear in the oven. Challah isn’t as finicky as brioche because challah’s lower hydration level makes it less prone to collapsing. Challah dough typically gets an egg wash to make the crust shine, but take care not to let the wash drip down the sides, or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs in your braids. You can up the shine factor by opening the oven vent after the bread begins to brown.
Varieties of challah often involve creating different shapes or adding various flavorings. For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, challah loaves are made in a circular or spiral shape for various symbolic reasons—depending on whom you ask, the round shape represents continuity, the wheel of the seasons, or a spiral of upward progress.
Traditional challah recipes generally limit additions to honey, raisins, or saffron and sometimes toppings like nigella, sesame, and poppy seeds. We’ve come up with our own variations on challah that feature vanilla, Earl Grey tea, and chocolate as well. When the bread begins to stale, it makes terrific French toast.
You need just four ingredients to make French lean breads: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Simple, right? That’s why we recommend lean breads as a good starting place for new bakers. The baguette is not only a loaf by which many bakers are measured, it is also the quintessential example of French lean bread. Although the word “baguette” has a number of meanings (including a stick or concertmaster’s baton), surly its most common meaning is this long, slender loaf. One of its distinctions is the crispy crust achieved by incorporating steam in the baking process.
The master French Lean Bread recipe from Modernist Bread is made with commercial yeast rather than levain. We use commercial yeast to make a preferment called a poolish, which imparts a slightly tangy flavor and a nice finished appearance to the bread. The dough is versatile enough to work when formed into boules, bâtards, baguettes, and other shapes. The best examples of French lean breads have a crusty exterior, a light yellow–beige crumb that yields to the teeth, a mild flavor that goes with nearly everything, and an aroma that will make you want to inhale deeply through your nose.
Like the Portuguese themselves, this sweet bread has traveled the globe; it has taken hold where larger populations of Portuguese immigrants settled, including Hawaii and New England. And when we say “sweet bread,” we mean sweet! These rolls include much more sugar than many enriched doughs. In Portuguese, this bread is called folar, and it is made during Easter. There is a savory variation called folar de Chaves, which is stuffed with ham, linguiça, and salpicão. This bread is best enjoyed within one day or can be frozen for up to two months.
Steamed buns or bao are a significant staple in Chinese cuisine. Some authorities date the origin of steamed bao all the way back to the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.) in China, although others suggest bao is a few centuries more recent than that. Bao have relatives in various Asian countries, including Korean mandu, Malaysian pau, Japanese nikuman, and Filipino siopao.
Bao is made of flour, water, and yeast, just like any other bread. The difference is, the dough is steamed, not baked, turning it into a warm, plump bun. Bao dough is typically wrapped around a filling before steaming. Sometimes, bao is served without filling, as a sop for sauces. This is often called mantou, although some authorities define these terms differently. In terms of fillings, there are endless regional variations and creative possibilities.
The slightly sweet bao dough is forgiving, easy to put together, and extremely versatile. This easy recipe creates a dough you can transform into many different shapes, from a simple steamed mantou to a more elaborate knotted hua juan (or “flower bun”) and stuffed buns, such as hum bao. While the actual buns are petite, they should be generously plump, not deflated from oversteaming. The crust should be almost invisibly ultrathin and shiny from the gelatinized starch. The crumb should be tender, with a delicately chewy texture that’s soft enough to be easily pulled apart.
Steamed buns should be eaten warm, ideally as soon as possible after steaming. You can also refresh the buns in the steamer or fry them if they’re not consumed right away.
By adding cherries, we have taken the beloved combination of bread and chocolate in a new direction. A variation of our Sourdough Master Recipe, this dough is only moderately sweet; the natural sourness of the dough tempers the sweet character of the inclusions. Given how many taste testers were waiting when these loaves came out of the oven, it’s a captivating combination (and a team favorite). As a bonus, the bake-proof chocolate chips remain melted for a good while (while still holding their shape), adding to the indulgence of each bite. We recommend making an extra loaf or two to share—this surprising sourdough makes a thoughtful gift from the heart. This bread is best enjoyed within two to three days and can be frozen for up to two months.
In many cultures, there’s a holiday tradition of baking bread with a small token hidden inside, such as a coin or a whole almond. It’s a nice surprise for whoever gets the slice with the token, which is sometimes said to bring a year of good luck.
Though our own version may be showier than is accustomed, King’s Day Bread (or Rosca de Reyes in Spanish) is always adorned with candied fruits. King’s Day, January 6, commemorates the arrival of the three Wise Men in Bethlehem with gifts for baby Jesus. The baker customarily hides a figurine of baby Jesus inside the dough. The bread has a particularly rich tradition in Mexico, where the person served the piece with the figurine is obliged, traditionally, to host a tamal dinner on February 2 (the Day of the Virgin of Candelaria).
Versions of the citron-tinged bread—also known as Three Kings Bread, Twelfth Night Cake, or Brioche des Rois—are eaten in many countries, including France, Spain, and Portugal. In addition to King’s Day, the bread is also prepared for Twelfth Night (a Christian holiday 12 days after Christmas) and in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
A recipe for fat may strike some as strange, but fat is one of the key flavor elements in food. French cuisine would be unrecognizable without cream and butter. Indian cuisine relies heavily on ghee (clarified butter). Chefs in Mediterranean countries turn habitually to olive oil, while those in Tibet always have yak butter on hand. The recipe here is for rendered chicken fat, which is widely used in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. (The Yiddish word for it—schmaltz—has taken on a whole other connotation in American English.)
As much as we love cream, butter, and olive oil, rendered fat is sometimes a better choice for use in a sauce or as a complement to meats because it does not distract from the flavor of the other ingredients. We use our Modernist schmaltz to enrich chicken sauce, salad dressing, and garlic, but it has innumerable applications—you can even use it to fry eggs!
Buy chicken skin from your butcher, or collect scraps of fat and skin from other chicken recipes in the freezer until you have enough to render. Note that the same technique can be used for any animal fat, including turkey, duck, or goose skin, and fatty trimmings from cuts of pork, veal, or beef.
Salt is not just a universal seasoning. It also has a powerful chemical ability to retain juices within fish and meat during cooking, provided you distribute the salt evenly throughout the meat at the proper concentration.
Slathering salt on the outside of a fish or a piece of meat doesn’t work very well, unless you want the distinctive flavor and firm, smooth texture of a cured meat, like corned beef or smoked salmon. At such high concentrations, salt actually causes the proteins in meat to fall apart.
The subtler effect of brining is more widely useful. Brining is the technique of soaking meat in a dilute salt solution until the dissolved salt permeates the muscle tissue. You’re shooting for a final concentration of about 0.5% salt throughout the meat—weak compared to curing. The challenge with brining is getting the meat deep in the interior to be just as salty as the meat on the outside. Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to end up with a steep gradient of saltiness.
Modernist brining, akin to cooking sous vide, soaks the meat for long periods (up to 24 hours) in a solution having a salt concentration only slightly higher than that target of 0.5%. The risk of oversalting is eliminated. Brining fish prior to cooking will season it, firm it, and protect its delicate color.
It’s hard to miss the fanfare (or better yet, 12th-manfare) around Seattle right now—the Space Needle glows green at night and enormous 12s can be spotted along the skylines of Seattle and Bellevue, just across Lake Washington. Whether you’re a fan of the Seahawks, Patriots, or the commercials (or biding your time until next year), there’s one thing we can all get excited about: game day snacks. This year, we’re honoring the old pigskin with . . . pig skin. Pressure-Cooked Chicharrón to be exact.
Chicharrón is pork skin that has been dehydrated, fried, and puffed into crackling. It’s an addictive snack or garnish: make plenty, or it might disappear before it gets to the table. Pork skin is available from many butchers and at many Asian and Latin American markets.
The key to good chicharrón is drying the skin by just the right amount before frying it. The dried pieces should at that point flex slightly, and then snap in half. If they are too moist or too dry, they will not puff properly in the hot oil. Proper inflation is essential to good chicharrón. A food dehydrator is the best tool for drying the skin, but if you don’t have one, preheat the oven to its lowest temperature setting, arrange the pieces on a rack set over a baking sheet, and dry them for 8–10 hours until they become leathery and flexible.
We like chicharrón with guacamole and salsa; however, if you truly want to win your Super Bowl party, make campechanas: tacos of corn tortillas filled with equal parts carnitas and chicharrón,topped with your favorite green chili salsa.
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