Let them eat … brioche

History has it that Marie Antoinette lost her head after saying ‘let them eat cake’.

Many have since pointed out Marie Antoinette probably never said these words. This quote came from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s somewhat-fictionalised autobiography, written when Marie Antoinette was only nine years old. He attributed this saying to ‘a great princess’. And, as many others have noticed, the original phrase ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ refers not to cake, but to brioche.

But, “‘Let them eat brioche!’ says an unknown princess” just doesn’t have the same ring. So, we’ve stuck with the glib yet flawed version of history.

Recently, this little factoid fuelled a brief obsession with yeast doughs that use butter or milk. I began noticing recipes for pan de leche from Argentina and Spain, brioche, Asian buns (like milk bread from the Philippines or those globs of psychedelic-coloured sugary deliciousness from Breadtop).

Thinking about Argentina reminded me that we have dulce de leche left in the house. We revelled in this unctuous caramel goodness morning, noon and night in Buenos Aires: on toast, in alfajores, or straight from the tub.

That was when I saw a recipe for brioche scrolls with dulce de leche and fruit/nut filling in the October edition of ABC Delicious magazine (recipe by Rachel Khoo). My way was clear.

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My first attempt at yeast was disastrous: it was the middle of winter in Canberra, the temperature was 0°C. The dough refused to rise, and looked like it had frosted toes (I should have proved the dough in the fridge. At 4°C, the fridge was warmer than the kitchen). The bread came out of the too-cold oven looking pale, anaemic and terribly dense. 

I, and the weather, have both come a long way since then.

The brioche dough was rich with lots of milk, a bit of butter, and creme fraiche (I used yoghurt). After recent adventures involving yeast, kneading began to seem intuitive. I’m starting to appreciate how the dough’s appearance and texture changes when yeast turns flour and other sugars into long strands of gluten, with the distinctive smell of yeast bacteria working their magic.

Mixing the dough manually was initially difficult because it’s wetter than many other types of dough. Most recipes recommend using a mix master, but I managed with chopsticks (Chinese genes breaking through) and wet hands. After a coupe of minutes of hand kneading, the dough came together, and I could turn it onto a floured stone surface and keep kneading until it became shiny, supple and elastic.

Then the easy part: leaving the dough in the fridge for 24 hours.

By the next day, the dough had grown to almost twice it’s original size. It was stiff out of the fridge, but soon became malleable enough to knead and form into a scroll. I used dulce de leche, finely diced apples and slivered almonds in the filling. I cut the roll into 12 slices, which were packed loosely into a lined springform baking tin, brushed with egg wash, and left to double in size again.

After about 35 minutes in a 160°C oven, the kitchen was full of that alluring, sweet, cake-like smell and the scrolls were ready. 

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The result was golden tops with dark brown bits, and layers of caramel, apple and almond slivers peeping through. The scrolls were full of creamy sugary caramel, frolicking with the yeasted sweetness of the bread, and just-soft tart-sweet apple.

Mr Gander’s colleague said these reminded him of tea scrolls from a favourite London bakery, and began giving broad hints for more. I think this is a keeper.

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