Food & Drink: Revel in the riches of brioche: This delicious bread, made with large quantities of butter and eggs, is France's best invention

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Packed to the hilt with eggs and butter, brioche is the French baker's star-turn. Good brioche is not very easy to find over here and many commercial brands are far too sweet, but it is not that difficult to make your own. If you fancy fresh brioche for a late Sunday breakfast, start it off on Saturday in the late afternoon, then leave the dough in the fridge overnight and finish the final proving and baking in the morning.

Bought or home-made, never waste stale brioche. It makes the best toast in the world; almost worth getting up for on Monday morning.

Plain brioche

It is hardly plain, with all that butter and all those eggs beaten in, but this is a good basic recipe made with a processor or electric mixer. When proving the dough, particularly that last session, be careful not to let it rise too much (judge by eye, rather than time), and once it has doubled in bulk, whip it into the oven before it becomes too lumpenly uneven. Over-proved dough will be dry and greasy.

Below I make two suggestions for embellished brioche, one with walnuts, which I first tasted at the now closed White's Restaurant in Wiltshire, and another for a subtly sweeter, orange brioche.

Makes 1 large or 2 medium loaves

Ingredients: 1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast

2fl oz (60ml) warm milk

1oz (30g) sugar

1lb 4oz (560g) strong plain flour

1 heaped tsp salt

6 eggs, lightly beaten

10oz (280g) unsalted butter, softened

1 egg yolk

Preparation: Cream the yeast with the milk and sugar and leave in a warm place until frothing (5 minutes or so). Fit the dough hook into the processor. Sift the flour with the salt, and spoon into the processor bowl. Pour in the yeast mixture and the eggs. Whiz to a soft dough and keep beating for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic.

Beat the butter into the dough gradually. Keep beating until the dough is smooth and glossy and elastic. Roll into a ball, place in a floured bowl and dust with flour. Cover with a damp tea-towel and leave in a warm place (but not hot, you do not want the butter to start oozing out) until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 -2 hours.

Punch down and knead briefly. Return to the bowl, cover with a cloth and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours, but better still overnight. The dough should once again have risen, and should be light and spongey. Beat the dough until it feels springy. Grease either two long thin loaf tins - 9-10in (22.5-25 cm) long, by about 3in (7.5 cm) wide - or an 8in (20cm) cake tin. For loaf tins, divide the dough in two, then divide each piece into four and roll into balls. Place them in the tin, so they are almost touching. For a cake tin, divide the dough into 8 and roll each bit into a ball. Place seven of them round the edge of the tin and one in the centre.

Beat the egg yolk lightly with 1tbs water, and brush carefully over the surface of the brioche. Leave to rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk - another 1 1/2 hours or so.

Bake mixture in loaf tin for 30-35 minutes, or in cake tin for 40-45 minutes, at 200C/400F/gas 6 until browned. When done, ease the sides away from the tin and the loaf will slip out. Double-check it is cooked through by tapping the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it is done. If not, return it to the oven for 5 minutes more. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Walnut brioche

At the final kneading stage, add 8oz (225g) chopped walnuts. Bake in long loaf tins so it can be sliced. This is particularly good toasted, or with savoury or sweet dishes (try it hot with ice-cream, and chocolate or butterscotch sauce).

Orange brioche

Double the quantity of sugar to 2oz (55g). At the final kneading stage, knead in the finely grated zest of one orange. I like this one baked in a cake tin and cut into wedges at teatime. It would also go well in the brioche and butter pudding.

Brioche and butter pudding

Possibly the best bread and butter pudding I have ever tasted. I cannot claim much credit for it, however. Ever since Anton Mosimann developed his Dorchester Hotel version of this old favourite, other chefs and cookery writers have taken it to their hearts. I thought brioche (use a bought one if you do not have time to make your own) would be good for bread and butter pudding, then discovered half-a-dozen recipes where it is used. Both Nigel Slater and Annie Bell tear their brioche up and fry it - a clever touch which I have appropriated. From Alastair Little, however, comes the most brilliantly simple modification: serve it chilled.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 2oz (55g) mixed raisins and sultanas

brandy, calvados, or poire william liqueur

8oz (225g) brioche

4oz (110g) unsalted butter

3tbs plum, peach or apricot jam

15fl oz (425ml) milk

15fl oz (425ml) double cream

vanilla pod, slit open

a pinch of salt

5oz (140g) castor sugar

4 eggs

Preparation: Soak the raisins and sultanas in alcohol for at least 2 hours, longer if possible. Tear the brioche into pieces. Melt half the butter in a frying pan and fry half the brioche pieces until golden brown. Wipe the pan out, then repeat with the remaining brioche and butter. Place the fried brioche pieces into a dish that is about 2in (5cm) deep, and just large enough to take the brioche in a single layer. Drain the raisins and sultanas and scatter over the brioche. Take 3tbs of their soaking liquid and warm with the jam in a small pan, stirring until evenly mixed and just runny. Drizzle over the brioche.

Gently heat the milk with the cream, vanilla pod and salt, until it comes to the boil. Draw off the heat, cover and leave to stand for 5 minutes. Whisk the eggs lightly with the sugar, then pour in the warm milk mixture, stirring constantly. Strain the mixture over the brioche. Stand the dish in a roasting tin, and pour enough hot water in to cover half-way up the sides. Bake at 160C/325F/gas 3 for about 45 minutes until just firm. Serve hot or warm or chill it in the fridge overnight and serve the next day