Step 1. Establish your relationship with brioche. The first - and undoubtedly most crucial - step in your quest to make perfect brioche is to fall utterly, completely, soul-consumingly in love with it. Without this emotional foundation, you will not have the necessary motivation to persevere to the end. Chances are this will happen the first time you taste it, and thus you may have already completed this step. If you've tasted it and not fallen in love, something has gone wrong; you have probably been exposed to a bad batch, so head out again to a reputable dealer, buy the freshest specimen you can lay your hands on, and take a bite. If you still find yourself lacking in love, it is best to abandon the project now. For everyone else, move on to step 2.
Step 2. Assess your equipment deficit. If you have, as instructed, truly fallen in love with brioche, you will reach a point where you want to take the relationship one step further by making it yourself. The first thing you must do at this point is check your cupboard for the presence of a KitchenAid® stand mixer. If you find one, and it appears to be in working order, proceed directly to step 4. If you do not, you must heed this important warning: where brioche is concerned, no amount of determination can make up for the lack of the aforementioned KitchenAid mixer. You may try your hand at producing brioche without it, but this is not recommended, for two reasons: (1) not only will your brioche be a dismal failure, but (2) you will be forced to live without the use of one or more of your arms for the next week (which can significantly detract from the quality of your non-briochemaking life). This may trigger feelings of hopelessness and self-pity as you suddenly realize that all other brioche-lovers in the world seem to be in possession of a KitchenAid mixer - this is normal. You do, however, have two options. If you are on amicable enough terms with a brioche-loving KitchenAid-owner to request a loan, you may do so - perhaps in exchange for a finished loaf or two. If, on the other hand, you are not (or if by some cruel twist of fate you only know fellow brioche-lovers through the internet), it is time to bite the bullet and buy your own machine. Just be aware that biting the bullet may mean eating canned beans on toast for the next six months. But at least it will be canned beans on brioche toast.
Step 3. Buy your KitchenAid. Since the price of a new KitchenAid stand mixer is enough to make your skin crawl and your sweat glands short-circuit, you must explore all secondary options. Particularly recommended is the use of ebay for procurement, although this is not a route for the faint of heart. Before embarking on a KitchenAid-buying mission on ebay, it is recommended to carefully read the following helpful tips:
a. Seek out a KitchenAid mixer that is described as having something wrong with it, but only something minor. The last thing you will want is to send your new purchase away for repair as soon as you receive it. A small cosmetic defect is ideal, for the simple reason that ebay bidders are as predictable as they are shallow, and it is a proven fact that if an item for sale is in non-perfect condition, many of your fellow bidders will not want it, thus your competition will be less and the end price lower. If you can find a specimen that is described as "in perfect working order but missing the little cap that covers the attachment hole and prevents dust from settling inside when not in use", so much the better.
b. Whatever you do, play dirty. Ebay is not for the timid, the nice or the morally upright. Decide how much you are willing to pay for this slightly defective machine, set up camp (with no distractions!) in front of your computer to monitor the final half hour of bidding, and then - pay attention here - submit your bid in the last ten seconds to prevent anyone else from outbidding you. You will not win any other way, and it is better to be the owner of a KitchenAid than a nice person. You have brioche at stake, after all.
Step 4. Make your first batch.You now have your beautiful new KitchenAid, in verified working order (apart from that silly little cap, which you discover costs just $3.99), and a recipe or two to guide you. You don't even have to be particularly picky about which recipe you use - at least not at this point - nor do you have to follow it carefully, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. Do, however, spend as much money as you can on top-quality beurre d'Isigny, free-range farm-fresh eggs and organic unbleached flour, just so you feel suitably guilty when what results from this first attempt is only marginally edible. It is this guilt that will spur you on, when what comes out of your oven crumbles away in your hand like a dry poundcake instead of a soft, fragrant and pillowy bread. Do not despair at this point, however, just chalk it up to experience and move on to step 5.
Step 5. Make your second batch. Armed with the bitter taste of disappointment (and a few extra inches in the waist, since by god, you weren't about to throw that first disaster away!), assemble the ingredients again. This time you will meticulously follow a recipe from a reputable source, ignoring all those other recipes you've dug up from equally reputable sources. Soften your butter to just the right stage of squishiness, temper your milk just enough to dissolve the yeast, and follow timings for beating, resting, rising and fermenting as if your life depended on it. Tentatively coddle and caress your dough, looking for the signals it sends at every stage to let you know it's ready to be gently assisted to the next one. When, at the end of two long days of labor, you pull a burnished-brown loaf out of the oven that is on the road to somewhere but clearly not the brioche destination you intended, you may feel a twinge of despondency. Of course you eat this batch too.
Step 6. Make your third batch. Repeat step 5, only substitute another equally reputable recipe, and this time when it does not work out, hang your head in utter despair, wondering how you could have ever loved a bread that seems to want nothing more than to evade, foil and humiliate you.
Step 7. Make your fourth batch. Assemble all your recipes from reputable sources, and read through them carefully. Notice how they all disagree on just about everything. Never mind - you are past the point of caring. Randomly pick and choose parts of each recipe to follow - the proportions from one, the rising time from another, ingredients from yet another. Feel free to even add your own touches - at this stage in the game you're understandably itching to flex your creative muscles, so go ahead! It can't turn out much worse than it already has. Assemble, mix, and proof your ingredients. Surprise yourself with your nonchalance and devil-may-care attitude. Force the dough to conform to your schedule for a change. However, as soon as you slide it into the oven, this is what you must do: cross your fingers and - most importantly - pray to whatever god, gods, goddess, spirits or lack thereof that you either believe or don't believe in, and continue to pray until your kitchen timer goes off and you open the oven door to see what waits for you inside. You will, if you have followed all the preceding steps carefully and conscientiously, be rewarded with the most jaw-droppingly beautiful brioche imaginable: long, lacy strands of gossamer bread that separate with a gentle tug; a delicate interior that doesn't crumble, but instead softly exhales as it collapses together under the weight of your teeth, and flavor that is yeasty, buttery, nutty and subtly perfumed by a mosaic of tiny black vanilla seeds. You will want to cover both your KitchenAid and your golden loaves with kisses, but your mouth will be too full.
Epilogue. Share your success with the world. And give them the recipe that you wish you'd been given so you could have avoided this whole rigamarole in the first place.
Browned Butter and Vanilla Bean Brioche
Yield: 2 loaves
Source: adapted primarily from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard and Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
Notes: This is a recipe for medium-rich brioche which I prefer to slightly richer versions for its improved workability and better structure. You'll notice my unconventional use of browned butter in it - I tried this on a whim and was more than pleased at the deep, nutty flavor it provides, but you can certainly substitute softened, unbrowned butter. Likewise, as my favorite way of eating brioche is plain, for breakfast or a snack with a cup of coffee, I prefer mine slightly sweeter than many recipes make; for a more savory brioche simply halve the sugar and omit the vanilla beans. And in all seriousness, my brioche disasters taught me that there is one technique that is absolutely crucial to achieving the right texture, which is is the technique described by Nancy Silverton in Baking with Julia. You must beat this dough to within an inch of its life before you add the butter - a full fifteen minutes on medium speed - in order to get those beautifully delicate, lacy strands so coveted in this king of breads. No matter whether your mixer protests, grows hot enough to fry an egg on top, or even starts to smell funny (though if you see smoke you should probably give it a rest), you must not skimp on the beating. Trust me.
For the browned butter:
2 vanilla beans
1 cup (2 sticks/225g) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
For the sponge:
2 teaspoons instant (fast action) yeast
1/2 cup (125ml) whole milk, room temperature
1/2 cup (70g) bread/strong flour
For the dough:
1/2 cup (100g) sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups (420g) bread/strong flour, plus more if needed
For the egg wash:
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Split the vanilla beans down the middle and scrape the seeds with the tip of a knife into a skillet. Toss in the vanilla pods in too and add the butter. Turn the heat to medium. Swirling occasionally, bring the butter to a boil and keep it boiling until the solids turn chestnut brown and everything smells deeply nutty. Do not let it burn. Remove from the heat, remove the vanilla pods pour into a heatproof bowl or container (scraping in all the vanilla seeds and browned butter particles), and refrigerate until solid, about 2 hours. Remove it from the refrigerator about twenty minutes before using it.
To make the sponge, put the yeast, milk, and flour in the bowl of a heavy duty mixer. Mix the ingredients together with a rubber spatula, mixing just until everything is blended. Cover the bowl with plastic film and set aside to rest for 30-40 minutes. During this time it should bubble up, your indication that everything is moving along properly.
Add the sugar, salt, eggs, and remaining flour to the sponge. Set in the mixer, attach the dough hook, and mix on low speed for a couple of minutes, until the ingredients come together in some semblance of a dough. When everything is incorporated, turn off the mixer, cover the bowl loosely, and let the mixture rest for 5-10 minutes. Uncover, increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 15 minutes, stopping to scrape down the hook and bowl as needed. During this mixing period, the dough should come together (clearing the sides of the bowl), wrap itself around the hook and audibly slap the sides of the bowl. If it doesn't after about 8 minutes, sprinkle in more flour, a tablespoon at a time (to a maximum of about 1/3 cup), until it does (this partially depends on the amount of sugar you use; if you use the full amount you will probably need to add some extra flour).
In order to incorporate the butter into the dough, you must work it until it is approximately the same consistency as the dough. If it has softened enough, you can easily do this by working it with a fork or spoon until no lumps remain. With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter a couple tablespoons at a time. This is the point at which you'll think you've made a huge mistake, because the dough that you worked so hard to make smooth will fall apart. Don't panic - just carry on. When all of the butter has been added, raise the mixer speed to medium again and beat the dough for 5 full minutes, or until you once again hear the dough slapping against the sides of the bowl. When you're finished, the dough should feel somewhat cool, and be shiny, slightly sticky and very elastic.
Transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let it rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 2 - 2 1/2 hours.
Deflate the dough by folding it over itself a few times in the bowl with greased hands. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough overnight, or for anywhere from 6-24 hours, during which time it will continue to rise and may double in size again.
To make loaves: grease two loaf pans. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and working quickly, divide the cold dough in half. On a greased work surface, pat each half into a square about the length on one side of your pans. Roll each half up tightly, pinching the seam together to create surface tension. Lay the dough in the pans, seam-side down.
To make pull-apart rolls (my favorite): with a pastry scraper or large knife, cut the dough in half, then half again, and continue until you have pieces of dough about the size of golf balls. Take each ball in your hand and knead it lightly a few times to deflate it and redevelop the gluten. Form into a rough ball, pinching it together at the bottom to create surface tension. Lay each ball with the pinched side down in a buttered cake or springform pan so that they are close but not touching each other. Fill the entire pan in this way - you will probably need two, depending on their size.
You can also bake these in brioche à tête pans or as individual rolls, but adjust baking time accordingly.
Cover the pans with buttered plastic and allow the dough to rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours, or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Mix together the egg and cream. Lightly brush each loaf with egg wash, taking care not to let the glaze dribble into the pan (it will impair the dough's rise in the oven). Bake the loaves for about 30-40 minutes, until they're well-browned, firm and lofty. Cool to room temperature on a rack, and consume or freeze within a day.