I recently had the opportunity to attend a wonderful dinner party that celebrated not only the classic American icon, Julia Child, but also the enormous breadth of work she had devoted to her myriad of cookbooks. The idea for the party was that the dinner would be divided into various categories: appetizers, soup, entree, sides, desserts, and breads. Then each attendee would volunteer to make and bring a favorite Julia Child recipe from one of the categories. Our host then coordinated the attendees' efforts so that there wasn't too much duplication.
Of course, when I saw that bread was one of the courses, I immediately volunteered my talents as a bread baker. Seeing that no one else volunteered to do breads, I convinced myself that it would be a good idea to bring two different kinds. The only problem was that I do not, now nor ever, own any of Julia Child's cookbooks. No problem. I simply meandered over to my local public library and checked through the books that they had on hand. Finally, I narrowed my search to "The Way To Cook". In it, I found Julia's recipes for both classic French bread and brioche. Knowing that it would be unwise and foolish to make two recipes out of a book I had never even cracked before, I decided instead to be "Julia-inspired" and substitute my own personal recipes for those two breads.
Knowing that I needed to produce some truly saliva-inducing breads, I decided to go for the version of brioche that is everything brioche is supposed to be: rich, decadent, and totally what Julia would do. That version, gentle reader, is called Rich Man's Brioche (or RMB for short). RMB is aptly named because of the amount of butter contained within it. While challah is enriched with lots of eggs, RMB is also enriched with one pound (yes, you read that correctly) of butter for each three pound batch of dough. What you end up with is a bread that is almost the same interior consistency of cake. It is tender and flavorful and literally just melts in your mouth.
There are only three additional ingredients that differentiate classic French bread from brioche; eggs, butter, and sugar. Aware that the sugar wouldn't make enough of a difference in the end product, I decided to bring out the big guns and make sure I had the best butter and eggs I could find. Having discovered the Riverbank General Store some time ago, I knew that they carried locally produced dairy and eggs from Hartzler Farms. Located right off of Rt. 21 between Canal Fulton and Massillon on Butterbridge Road, the quaint looking shop houses some of the area's finest meats, dairy, eggs, grains, and planet-friendly products. Here is a shot of the storefront:
The Hartzler Farm unsalted butter comes in a two-pound log and sells for $7.50. Although this sounds expensive, realize that most boxes of butter at the grocery store are about $3-$3.50 per pound, so this is right in line with most supermarkets. And although you can find the salted version of this butter in stores closer to where I live, the unsalted is much more elusive, but can be found consistently at Riverbank. The added advantage of driving to the Riverbank is that I could also get a dozen farm-fresh eggs with their marvelous bright orange yolks.
While I was up at the counter paying for my butter and eggs, I decided to splurge for a treat I had been longing to try, homemade ice cream made from the Hartzler Farm milk and cream. I have had their milk in the past and it has a wonderful "milky" flavor to it that I have never experienced with the supermarket variety. There were six flavors from which to choose and I decided to go with an old stand-by, strawberry:
This was the single scoop portion size and once I got everything out to my car, I dug in. To say that this was excellent was an understatement. It wasn't adventurous like Jeni's Ice Cream in Columbus, OH, but on a hot summer day, this cold treat really hit the spot. The flavor of strawberry was present from the first bite to the last and the creaminess of the ice cream was second-to-none. This ice cream needed no adornment of any kind; sprinkles and whipped cream need not apply.
After finishing my treat, I hopped back in my car and drove to my next stop, the kitchen where I'd be putting all of those wonderful ingredients to good use. While this entry isn't meant to be a bread recipe or tutorial like other entries I have posted in the past, I did want to give you a few before and after shots of the breads that I would be taking to the party. The brioche was actually a two-day bread. On day one, I made the starter (egg whites, flour, water, sugar, yeast). After it fermented for a couple of hours, I added the rest of the ingredients (egg yolks, flour, salt) and kneaded the dough for several more minutes. Only at that point do you add one pound of softened unsalted butter. At the end of that, the dough looked more like a batter than a bread dough. At that point, there was one crucial step that allowed you to handle the dough the next day, refrigeration.
The next morning, I took the dough out of the refrigerator and used it immediately to shape the brioche loaves into their final shapes. I knew that it was going to be sticky and a pain to handle, but was still preferable to working with the dough after it had warmed up. Once the dough was panned, I brushed the top with an egg wash and sat it in a warm spot to proof. Here was a shot of the RMB right before it went into the oven. Note that you give the loaves another egg wash (for a total of two) just before going into the oven:
And here are a couple of shots of the brioche after they have completely baked through:
The smell of the baking loaves was something that was hard to describe. A rich, heavy aroma filled the kitchen and adjoining rooms. You can actually smell the egg that is used in the egg wash. If Pavlov was a breadmaker, he certainly would've trained his dog to salivate at this smell rather than the thought of meat powder.
I also decided to go with a classic French bread. After mixing up both of my batches of brioche the night before, I made a starter for my French dough with a poolish. Equal amounts of flour and water with just a pinch of instant yeast were quickly stirred together, covered, and placed in a warm spot to ferment overnight. Since traditional French bread is only flour, water, yeast, and salt, the use of a starter was crucial to bread that actually tasted good. It also helped to extend the shelf-life of the finished bread as well, even though in real life, it didn't sit around for very long.
After panning up my second batch of brioche the next morning, I placed the poolish, the rest of my flour, water, yeast, and salt into my KitchenAid mixing bowl and mixed and kneaded the dough until it was satiny smooth and pliable. I then covered the bowl and placed it into a warm spot. This allowed the dough to go through a primary and secondary fermentation stage before turning it out onto the counter to shape and proof it. I decided that I would stick with the batard shape (as opposed to a baguette) because of the nice ratio of crust to crumb. After shaping, proofing, and baking, these were what came out of the oven:
Anyone who has successfully baked bread using a very hot oven to create a nice thick crust is familiar with the concept of the bread "singing" to you. For about five minutes after the bread came out of the oven, the cool air around the bread caused the hard crust to contract and hundreds of micro-fissures were formed. These micro-fissures made a cracking noise. It's very similar to listening to a bowl of puffed rice cereal when you first pour on the milk.
After letting the breads cool, I packed everything up, hopped in the shower, and headed over to the Julia dinner party, arriving precisely at the time specified in the invitation. Needless to say, I had an absolutely fabulous time at the party. We spent nearly four hours cooking, talking, laughing, and most importantly, eating. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that I would be able to take pictures, so I left my camera in my car.
We started out with a few appetizers and a wonderful cocktail, Kir Royale. Made with cassis liqueur and champagne, this was a tasty and refreshing way to start out the party. Once we finally sat down at the dinner table, we were presented with the most incredibly chilled and smooth soup, vichyssoise. For our entree, we enjoyed both a meat course, chicken fricassee, and a fish course, couilibiac of saumon (essentially salmon in puff pastry) served with a homemade hollandaise that I actually helped our hostess put together. Our sides consisted of a wonderful corn souffle, pan-roasted root vegetables, a chilled sliced potato salad, and creamy mashed potatoes. The French bread was served during this course as well. Thankfully, I garnered much praise for my version.
After our entree, we all decided to take a break in order to give ourselves time to digest as well as clean up the table a bit before returning for the cheese course and the dessert course. I retired to the patio along with a few other guests to enjoy the remnants of the wonderful gewurztraminer in my wine glass and enjoy the now sunless night air. After what seemed to be a lengthy period of time, we finally reassembled at the dining room table for a selection of four cheeses, fresh apricots and figs, and the rich, buttery brioche I had brought. Our final course, desserts, consisted of two flamed items, the first a wonderful Sour Cherry Tart Flamande and the second, a delightful tableside preparation of the classic French dessert, Crepes Suzette. Both were delicious, but the Crepes Suzette was truly exceptional.
At the conclusion of dessert, we retired from the table and adjourned ourselves to either the living room or the kitchen. Having talked, laughed, and eaten for the past three and half hours, we were all beginning to sink into a much anticipated food coma. After I profusely thanked my hostess for wonderful time I had just had at her Julia dinner, she presented me with some leftovers to take home with me. I bid adieu to the remaining guests and reminded them to take the extra brioche home with them for French toast the following morning. I climbed back into my car and drove home, completely sated both mentally and physically. The myriad of leftovers I consumed the next day acted as a reminder of the wonderful meal and fellowship I had experienced just the night before.
I highly encourage you to throw your own Julia-inspired party. Dividing the work up amongst your guests and making it a potluck dinner of sorts is a great way to take the stress out of having to make an entire dinner for twelve people. What better way to spend a Saturday evening than with great food, great friends, and great conversation?
If you'd like to read our hostess's account of what happened at the Julia dinner party, feel free to click on this link for her latest eNewsletter.