Sunday, April 5, 2009

Pecan Brioche

You know how all those books about the rules of dating go on and on about how the worst thing you can do when you're getting to know someone is reveal too much too soon? Well, I've always been desperately bad at that. I just compulsively shout out things that are wrong with me to get it over with, like I have personal baggage turrets.

Now, I know you and I aren't dating here, but we are starting a relationship of sorts. So, if I were smart, I'd stick to describing recipes with flowery adjectives and stop telling y'all my biznass. But I just can't help myself.

I am not the adept specimen of feminine perfection you might think I am. (Um, okay, can you please stop laughing? I was about to reveal something embarrassing, and it's hard enough without you guffawing in my virtual face. You settled now? Okay, here goes...)

I have a serious fear of revolving doors. Irrational, I know, but real all the same. It's that one moment, trapped between in and out, I get a decent dose of panic that the door will suddenly stop and I'll be forever encapsulated in the glass like a bug under a jar. At hotels and airports I avoid the revolving death traps whenever possible. (Luckily, there's always a non-murderous door available somewhere, to accommodate wheel chairs -- and pussies like me, thank god).

But that's not my only fear. I'm also terrified of baking bread. And not just bread, it's most pastries -- basically things that require rising/resting/kneading/rolling out. I lie awake sometimes, chastising myself for not having a signature pie crust. It's inexcusable, shameful, pathetic. I don't deserve you, dear reader.

It's no wonder I'm so scared of baking bread with all that propaganda about the pitfalls of dough. "Don't knead it too much, it will get tough." "If the yeast doesn't bloom perfectly, the bread won't rise, and you will fail." "Beware the temperature of your butter, one degree too warm and your face will fall off." It also has something to do with the time Patrick and I tried to make sourdough bread and the starter we had going in a mason jar actually EXPLODED, sending yeasty shrapnel over the entire kitchen. It's all so intimidating! So when my mother mentioned a certain brioche recipe twice in two months, I knew I had to face my fear and batter up. Determined, I bared my teeth, roared like a lion, and called my mommy for help.

When my mom stopped by for a visit on Sunday, and I just happened to be at the exact stage of the brioche that terrified me the most: the part after you've mixed the dough effortlessly in the mixer, let it rise, deflated it, and let it rise again in the fridge overnight. All of those steps are remarkably easy. It's the moment when you plop the dough on the counter and face it with your bare hands that terrifies me. I have no mojo with dough. Some people can slap it, flip it, shape it into perfect globes... I cower from it, re-reading the recipe a thousand times, looking for some clue as to how I'm going to screw it up.

With my mom at my side, I dumped the prepped dough onto the floured counter and looked up at her, helpless to continue. Since she is an adept specimen of feminine perfection, she grabbed the dough without trepidation, smacked it around, coated it with flour so it wouldn't stick, formed it into a completely manageable mound of potential deliciousness, all the while waxing poetic on the significant power of baking bread. Seeing her fearlessness inspired me, so I grabbed my own mound of dough, slapped it like I was a football player in a locker room, got a gleam in my eye and stuck my hands into the welcoming, pillowy, delicate dough. And you know what? It felt great. Effortless. The first loaf took some coaching from my kitchen goddess mom, who convinced me my fears were unfounded. The second loaf, I faced on my own, in serious concentration, tongue sticking out of mouth in a kind of modified mascara-application face. But it was a breeze. A breeze!

The only thing difficult about the entire process was my own pathetic brain. I watched the beautifully buttered loaves rise another two hours in the loaf pans, remembering the ribbons of sugary pecan filling that were in the center of that glorious dough. Then I popped them in the oven with my new found confidence until they were a glorious golden on top. I sliced into the still-warm brioche and took a bite out of my former fear. It was, against all odds, perfect.

This recipe is not to be missed. It's kind of the sophisticated French cousin of the cinnamon bun. It's delicious sliced and toasted with butter melted on it, or if you really want to treat yourself, use it for french toast.

Here's what I learned: Don't be scared to use your common sense, even if that means straying from the directions a tiny bit. If the dough is too sticky as you roll it out, add a little more flour to the workspace. Treat the dough with respect, but show it who's boss. And if all else fails, call your mommy.

So, other than that revolving door thing, I guess I am the adept specimen of feminine perfection you believed me to be. And since revolving doors aren't edible, I doubt I'll be tackling that fear any time soon.

Adapted from Beth Hensperger

Dough must be prepared the day before cooking and refrigerated over night so it can be handled during filling and shaping.

4 1⁄2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour, exact measure

Grated zest of one orange
1 Tbsp. (1 pkg.) active dry yeast

1⁄4 c. granulated sugar

2 tsp. salt

1⁄2 c. hot water (120 degrees)

6 Eggs, at room temperature

1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted Butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces

Pecan Paste

4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted Butter, at room temperature

3⁄4 c. (packed) light brown sugar

1 egg
1 tsp. pure vanilla

2 c. finely chopped nuts

1 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted, for brushing

1. Mixing the Dough: In the bowl of a heavy duty mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 1 c. of the flour, the orange zest, yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the hot water and beat at medium speed for 2 min. or until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in 2 more cups of the flour. When well blended, add the butter, a few pieces at a time. Beat just until completely incorporated. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the remaining 1 1⁄2 c. flour. Beat until thoroughly blended and creamy in consistency. The dough will be very soft and batter-like.

2. First rise and overnight refrigerated rest: With a spatula or plastic dough scraper, scrape the dough into a greased, deep container. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise at cool room temperature until double in bulk, about 3 hours. Gently deflate the dough with a spatula, cover tightly and refrigerate for 12 hours, or as long as 24 hours.

3. Preparing the pecan paste: In the bowl of the electric mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Add the vanilla and the nuts and beat until evenly combined. Set aside.

4. Shaping, filling and final rise: Grease the 9X5 loaf pans. Turn out the chilled dough onto a lightly floured work surface and divide into 2 equal portions. Roll each portion into a rectangle about 12 X 8 inches. Spread each rectangle evenly with half of the pecan paste, leaving a 1 inch border all the way around the edge. Working from both long sides at the same time, tightly roll up each rectangle to meet in the center, forming 2 tight scroll-like swirls. Turn the loaves over and place each in a loaf pan. Lightly brush the top with melted butter. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at cool room temperature until puffy and double in bulk, 2 – 2 1/2 hrs.

5. Baking off and cooling: Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350. Bake in the center of the oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the loaves are golden brown and firm to the touch; a cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean. Let stand in the pans for 5 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.


  1. that is adorable! seriously. adorable. bread.
    moms are good for the kitchen confidence, aren't they?

  2. My face totally fell off from poor butter temperature management. Remember?

  3. I can't believe you brought all that brioche to your new co-workers and only let me have one slice. You are so fired.

  4. Jeff - I think it was alcohol that made your face fall off.

    Noncentz -- it was for our own good. And, you can't fire me.

    And Cate, YES! I wish my mom had taught me this stuff years ago. I'm a bit of a late bloomer (is that a yeast pun) in the kitchen, and I'm so glad I have my mom to fall back on.