French Toast Smack Down: Challah vs. Brioche

Challah

I’m back from my blog holiday, and I’m ready to rumble. In one corner we have challah, soft, eggy, golden, and faintly sweet.

 

 

 

BriocheIn the other we have brioche, decadent and rich with butter. Which will emerge victorious? Which will claim the french toast crown?

 

 

 

 

Over Christmas a friend asked me where in town she could get brioche. She had heard that it made the best french toast. This lead to a discussion of how to make the best french toast. I grew up eating it made from challah, and I suppose you see where this is going.

Which was better? I had to know. I made challah. I made brioche. I invited a few friends over to assist with the taste testing. In the end, we decided that there is no such thing as bad french toast and we would happily consume either. When forced to choose, the challah came out slightly ahead, but it was a far from unanimous decision.

Make them both and try it for yourself. You can find the challah recipe on Jasper’s blog here. My favourite brioche, from Baking with Julia, is posted below, with my modifications. Note that unlike challah, which can be made in an evening, brioche takes some time, so plan to start a day ahead.

Basic Brioche (adapted from Baking with Julia)

Make the sponge:

  • 1/3 cup warm milk
  • 2 1/3 tsp. yeast
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  1. Mix the milk, yeast and egg with 1 cup of the flour until blended. Sprinkle the remaining cup of flour over the top.
  2. Set the sponge aside to rest for 30 to 40 minutes. As it rises the flour coating will crack. This is a  good sign.

Make the dough:

  • the sponge
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 6 oz. butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 T. water, for the egg wash
  1. Add the sugar, 4 eggs, salt, and 1 cup of flour to the sponge. In a stand mixer, knead with the dough hook just until the ingredients come together.
  2. Add the remaining flour and beat for 15 minutes. Be warned, your mixer will get very hot. During this time the dough should come together and start slapping the side of the bowl as it goes around. If it is too soft to do this add a bit more flour. If it is too stiff, drizzle in a little milk.
  3. Massage the butter in your hands until it is soft and pliable.
  4. Add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, until it is all incorporated. Initially your dough will fall apart. Don’t worry. It will come back together by the end.
  5. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rise until doubled, about 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
  6. Punch the dough down, cover the dough again, and put it in the fridge overnight.
  7. Butter two loaf pans
  8. Divide the dough in half, and divide each half into six pieces.
  9. Shape each piece into a ball and place them in the prepared pans – side by side so tha each pan has three short rows of two.
  10. Let the loaves rise two hours.
  11. Preheat the oven to 375.
  12. Brush the egg wash over the risen loaves and bake them for 30 minutes, until they are a deep golden brown
  13. If you’re not using them for french toast, eat them warm out of the oven. They taste best that way.

 

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Apple Cheddar Sandwich Bread

I’d like to file this one in the better late than never category, with apologies to Laura, Barb, and Jamie, of the Twelve Loaves baking challenge. The ladies of the Twelve Loaves post a new theme every month, and the challenge is to bake a bread, any kind of bread, that fits the theme. September’s challenge was bread with cheese, and I swear, I did make this in September, honest.

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Back before my children were born I made bread regularly, all kinds of bread: Sourdough, rye, brioche, baguette, pizza dough, fancy European peasant loaves that required three-day ferments. I even made my own tortillas.

Then, when they were infants and toddlers, came a period of store-bought bread. It was a sad, dark time. It was a 2 1/2 hour drive to get a decent loaf. Most of the time we made due with cheap supermarket bread. I did not eat much bread.

A few years ago I hauled out the yeast and made a couple of loaves of white sandwich bread. My children went wild, especially the youngest, who declared that he never wanted to eat store-bought bread again. With this goal in mind I began baking bread more regularly again, mostly sandwich bread, alternating between white and whole wheat.

The day I baked my September loaves I was making white bread. I used my standard go to recipe, Craig Kominiak’s from Baking with Julia, which is the best I have ever found. After the first rise, I rolled the dough out into two rectangles, sprinkled it liberally with 1/2 inch cubes of apples from my back yard and aged cheddar cheese, rolled it up into loaves, and set it in the prepared pans for the second rise. All in all I used about 4 cups of diced apples and a pound of cheese.

I’m not sure I ever actually made any sandwiches with this bread. I think we wound up eating all of it straight up, slice by slice.

Here’s the recipe.

Apple Cheddar Sandwich Bread (adapted from Baking with Julia)

  • 2 1/2 cups warm water
  • 1 T. instant yeast
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 7 cups white bread flour
  • 1 T. salt
  • 2 oz. butter, room temperature
  • 1 lb sharp cheddar cheese, 1/2 inch dice
  • 4 cups peeled and cored apples, 1/2 inch dice
  1. Add the first four ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer. Attach the dough hook and mix, on low speed, until the ingredients are combined.
  2. Add the salt, increase the speed to medium, and continue kneading in the mixer for about 10 minutes. The dough should be soft, but not sticky. Add flour or water as necessary.
  3. With the mixer still running, toss in the butter, a tablespoon at a time, and continue kneading until it is incorporated. The dough may look like it is falling apart at first. Keep going. It will come back together.
  4. Roll the dough into a ball. Place it back in the bowl, cover it, and set it in a warm place to rise for 45 minutes to an hour, until it doubles in bulk.
  5. Divide the dough in two and roll it out into rectangles, about 1/2 inch thick.
  6. Scatter the cheese and apples over the two rectangles. It will seem like far too  much to ever fit. Don’t worry, it will.
  7. Roll each rectangle up and place it in a buttered, 8-inch bread pan.
  8. Let the loaves rise for 45 minutes, until they double in size again and have grown over the tops of the pans.
  9. About 30 minutes into the rise, preheat the oven to 375.
  10. Bake the loaves for 45 minutes, or until they are a dark honey brown on top.
  11. Remove the pans from the oven, remove the bread from the pans, and let the loaves cool before slicing.

Plum Ricotta Focaccia

This is for the #twelveloaves bread baking challenge, put together by the Cake Duchess, Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives, and Life’s a Feast. I can’t resist a baking challenge. The idea is to bake one loaf of bread each month, following that month’s theme. The theme for August is bread with summer fruit.

I knew right off I wanted to use Italian plums as my fruit, but I struggled with exactly how. Then the other night, as I was making pizza, it came to me. I set a piece of dough aside, shaped it into a square, topped it with halved, pitted plums, and let it rise while I baked off all the pizzas. When the pizzas were done, I took about 1/2 cup of ricotta, blended it with a bit of sugar, and dropped spoonfuls between the plums. I sprinkled the whole thing with cinnamon and slid it onto the pizza stone to bake.

I have no idea what exactly it is I made. I’m going to go with focaccia because it seems the closest. Whatever it is it is so very good.

Plum Ricotta Foccacia

  • 1/8 of the dough for Peter Reinhart’s Pain a l’Ancienne (recipe to follow)
  • 6 Italian plums, halved and pitted
  • 1/2 cup ricotta
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Begin recipe after removing the dough from the refrigerator and allowing it to warm up for 2 hours.

  1. Set a pizza stone on the lowest rack in the oven and preheat to 475.
  2. Shape the piece of dough into a square, roughly 6×6 inches.
  3. Arrange the plums, cut side down, on top of the dough.
  4. Allow dough to rest for 1 hour. It will rise slightly, but not dramatically.
  5. Mix the ricotta with the sugar and drop spoonfuls between the plums on the dough.
  6. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
  7. Bake directly on parchment, on a pizza stone for 15 minutes or until bread is golden brown and plums are soft and beginning to release juice.
  8. Slice and eat warm or at room temperature.

Peter Reinhart’s Pain a l’Ancienne, from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice

  • 6 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 2 1/4 tsp.  salt
  • 1 3/4 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2 1/4 cups + 2 T to 3 cups ice cold water
  1. Combine all ingredients and mix a mixer for 2 minutes with the paddle attachment. Switch to the dough hook and continue to mix for 6 minutes. The dough should stick to the bottom of the bowl, but not to the sides. Add more water or flour as appropriate to achieve this texture.
  2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and immediately place in the fridge. Refrigerate overnight.
  3. Remove the bowl from the fridge and allow it to warm up for 2 hours.
  4. Proceed with recipe above.