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Brioche Nanterre

The best bread you’ve never had.

One 1½-pound loaf


Day one: about 30 minutes to make the dough and two rising periods totaling 2½ hours; Day two: about 10 minutes to shape the dough, two resting periods totaling 2½ hours, and about 35 minutes to bake


Honestly, we don’t much care whether Marie Antoinette herself uttered the legendary chewed-over phrase that in English ends with “cake.” What we love is the scathing subtlety of the original French. No bread? Then perhaps some brioche?

Brioche: better bread. Aristocratic bread. Have some brioche, starving peasants!

Of course the English translation of this bon mot went straight to “cake.” Not because English-speaking people of the time wouldn’t have seen or heard the word brioche. They might have enjoyed a slice or three on holiday. What they wouldn’t have immediately grasped perhaps, is the sheer significance of bread in French culture, a significance so striking that the French need almost as many names for bread as the Inuits have for snow. No native English word calls forth a fine, lofted, buttery loaf with aromatic dimensions as complex as fine scent. They had to call it “cake.”

We took brioche into development sufficiently apprised of its famous idiosyncrasies, its requirements for windowpane extensibility in a buttery formula, its wheat sensitivities (high protein or not?), its handling difficulty, its fermentation demands, its shaping challenges. We were also aware that experts found themselves in disagreement over additional issues, from butter ratios to baking temperatures. What we weren’t prepared for, ultimately—after we slogged with due diligence through trial after trial, testing variable after variable—was how absolutely worth it, it is, to make brioche at home. Brioche, in the flesh, can easily fall short of the grandeur of its reputation. But this! Our final loaf resting before us on a cutting board, we were thrilled to discover we’d never tasted brioche of this quality before. Transcendent, particularly, in the first five or six hours after baking, the teeth-first plunge into our brioche crust was riveting: lightly springy and micro-crisp at the same time, and the Maillard browning principle in its full, elegant expression, this crust had none of the eggy flaccidity to which some brioche crusts fall prone. The interior was gauzy and light with complex fermentation flavors and an open, buttery crumb.

It always comes back to ingredients. In this recipe, we use freshly laid farm eggs, fine organic cultured butter, and two kinds of Anson Mills flour: a percentage of French Mediterranean bread flour, finely milled and sweet offering both strength and delicate crisping factors, and a percentage of White Lammas cake flour whose cream and honey flavor notes are matched only by its performance in creating an elegantly smooth and ultra rich crumb.

Baking Notes

Cultured butter is produced from cream that has been inoculated with lactic acid bacteria. Its complex flavor performs real miracles, we think, in the flavor of this brioche.

This recipe is not difficult to execute. So burdened by eggs and butter is the formula that a mixer produces more consistently favorable results than the hands (we tried both)! Treat the dough like it’s having a day at the spa: nice and easy, a gentle pace, a light touch. Give it a nice slow, slumbering rise, a long chilly overnight nap, etc. Precision in weighing and mixing is paramount. Allow the dough enough time to complete its first proof, and enough to finish its second in-pan rise. Don’t be tempted to throw flour down on the counter or onto the dough. Oh, and work quickly during the hands-on phase. Brioche dough can lose its temper if it gets too warm. Rising times are based on an ambient temperature of 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

We chose Nanterre brioche (named after a town near Paris), which refers to the bread’s shape: parallel balls of dough snuggled up together in a loaf pan and baked. It is substantially easier to work with smallish individual pieces of dough than a large mass—never mind the traditional topknot!

The 10 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pan we use is this recipe is larger than a standard loaf pan. It is available for purchase online.

equipment mise en place

For this recipe, you will need a digital kitchen scale, a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, a stand mixer with a paddle attachment and a dough hook, an instant-read thermometer, a whisk, a large medium-fine-mesh sieve, a wooden spoon, parchment paper, a medium mixing bowl, a small mixing bowl, a small fine-mesh sieve, a liquid measuring cup, a rubber spatula, a plastic dough scraper, a gallon-sized zipper-lock bag, a pair of scissors, a chef’s knife, a small cutting board or baking sheet, a heavy-gauge 10 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pan, a pastry brush, a pizza stone, and a wire cooling rack.


    Make the starter: In a small heavy-bottomed saucepan, warm the milk over low heat just until it begins to bubble gently; do not allow it to reach a full simmer. Set the mixer bowl on your digital scale and turn on the scale. Immediately pour the milk into the bowl; it should weigh 3.2 ounces. If it exceeds 3.2 ounces, spoon out the excess. Let the milk cool until it registers 115 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. 


    Sprinkle the yeast over the milk and allow it to soften without stirring for a couple of minutes, and then whisk until the yeast fully dissolves. Using a large medium-fine-mesh sieve, sift the flour into the bowl. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until a smooth, soft dough forms (fig 2.1). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let proof at room temperature for 30 minutes, by which time the starter will be puffy and show small bubbles (fig.2.2).


    Make the dough: While the starter is proofing, cut a large sheet of parchment paper and lay it out on the work surface. Using the sieve, sift together the flours, salt, and cardamom onto the parchment; discard any flecks of bran remaining in the sieve. Use the paper to tip the ingredients into a medium mixing bowl. Add the sugar and whisk to combine.


    Whisk the eggs in small mixing bowl until well combined. Place a liquid measuring cup on the digital scale, set a small fine-mesh sieve on the cup, and tare the scale. Pour the beaten eggs into the sieve and let them flow into the cup. Lift off the sieve and discard its contents; the egg weight should be between 5 and 5.2 ounces. If it exceeds 5.2 ounces, pour off the excess. 


    Attach the bowl and paddle attachment to the mixer. With the mixer running on low speed, add the beaten eggs to the starter in four batches, mixing well between additions and scraping down the bowl two or three times with a rubber spatula (fig. 5.1). Next, add the dry ingredients in three batches, continuing to beat on low speed and occasionally scraping down the bowl. After the dry ingredients have been incorporated, the dough will look scrappy and rough (fig. 5.2). Mix on medium speed for 10 seconds, and then reduce the speed to low. Add the butter 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, mixing until the butter is fully incorporated after each addition. When all the butter has been added, the dough will be glossy and sinewy. Pull the dough off the paddle and replace the paddle with the dough hook. Knead the dough on low speed until it is smooth, shiny, and extensible, and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 8 minutes (fig. 5.3). Remove the bowl from the mixer and pull the dough off the hook. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at room temperature until it has nearly doubled in size and a floured thumb leaves a depression in the surface, 1½ to 2 hours (fig. 5.4).


    Using your hands, gently deflate the dough, and then use a plastic dough scraper to scrape down the sides of the bowl and fold the perimeter of the dough toward the center a few times, rotating the bowl after each fold. Using the dough scraper, transfer the dough to a gallon-sized zipper-lock freezer bag, press the dough into a flat rectangle through the bag, and tightly seal the bag. Refrigerate for 1 hour, and then flatten the dough again. Refrigerate overnight.


    In the morning, remove the dough from the fridge; it will be firm and will not have risen dramatically. Open the bag and, using a pair of scissors, slit open the two side seams. Pull the plastic away from the surface of the dough, drape it back in place, flip over the bag, and lift off the plastic on the second side. Working quickly so that the dough remains cold, use a chef’s knife to cut the rectangle into 8 even pieces (fig. 7.1). Each piece should weigh between 3.2 ounces and 3.3 ounces, but it is most important that all the pieces are of equal weight. Lightly flour your hands and roll each piece into a ball between your palms—the shape does not need to be perfect. Place the dough balls back on the one half of the opened plastic bag (fig. 7.2) and cover them with the other side of the bag. Slide the plastic with the dough balls onto a small cutting board or baking sheet refrigerate for 30 minutes.


    While the dough is resting, grease a heavy-gauge 10 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pan with butter. After the dough has chilled for 30 minutes, remove it from the refrigerator. Lightly flour one hand and roll each piece of dough in a circular motion under your palm on an unfloured work surface, cupping your palm around the dough to pull it into a taut ball. As the balls are finished, place them two abreast in the prepared loaf pan. In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk and milk and sparingly brush the dough with the egg wash, taking care not to let it run down the sides of the pan (fig. 8.1). Cover the pan lightly with plastic wrap and let the dough proof at room temperature until it is well risen and slightly pocked (fig. 8.2), about 2 hours. (Cover and reserve the remaining egg wash for later.) One hour into proofing, adjust an oven rack to the middle position, set a pizza stone on the rack, and heat the oven to 350 degrees.


    When the bread is ready to bake, gently brush it additional egg wash. Let the egg wash dry, uncovered, for 10 minutes. 


    Bake the loaf on the pizza stone until the surface is deep golden brown and the center registers 190 to 200 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately invert the brioche out of the pan onto a wire rack. Turn the loaf upright and let cool completely before slicing. For best enjoyment, slice thickly. Eat this bread as soon as possible after it cools. Brioche will hold in a plastic bag for 4 or 5 days, but at that point, it should have become toast or French toast.

    1. 2.1
    2. 2.2
    1. 5.1
    2. 5.2
    3. 5.3
    4. 5.4
    1. 7.1
    2. 7.2
    1. 8.1
    2. 8.2