At first glance, they don’t look anything alike; I know. And yet, both the shiny-with-butter French brioche up top and the sprinkled-with-colored-sugar New Orleans Kings cake underneath are made of the same basic concept: a yeast dough enriched with butter.
Problem is, for a very long time, I harbored an extreme fear of yeast-based doughs. I once made some hamburger rolls that turned out like rocks, and from then on, I contented myself with making quickbreads. Other people were usually incredulous: bakers, in particular, who saw that I could make a pork roast basically drunk, told me how easy it was.
“You just follow the recipe!” they exclaimed. I shook my head; I was convinced that yeast had a bone to pick with me, and I would rather not duel with tiny fungi I can hardly see.
The Kings Cake came first; I’m not nearly so masochistic as to decide, on a whim, to make brioche. I didn’t even realize that Kings Cake was a brioche based dough, as the last one I remember eating must have been about fifteen years ago, and even then, I think it came from a bakery. I remembered the colors, though, and I was on vacation and starved for a project that would give me a good reason not to do my real work, and so Kings Cake it was.
When I found the first recipe, I faltered; yeast… hmm? I don’t think so. I searched “Easy Kings Cake,” “Kings Cake with Kids,” “20-Minute Kings Cake”… but my desire for the authentic won out over the appeal of making a cupcake with cream cheese frosting and purple, green and gold sprinkles, and the absence of roll-and-bake cinnamon rolls in my Paris supermarket had me standing over a bowl of frothing yeast, wondering whether it had doubled in size and if I should have used a ruler or something… But for once, I followed the recipe to the letter, poked and prodded the dough until it behaved, and several hours later, I was rewarded with three small loaves of what looked like brioche.
I was ecstatic. I danced through my kitchen. I believe I might have given myself some sort of over-enthusiastic, “You da man,” speech in the safety of my own apartment. The Country Boy, however, was less enthused.
TCB doesn’t always understand the emotional turmoil that goes into producing a new recipe for the first time, especially in a toaster oven, and especially when I’m confronting a food fear. I don’t blame him; the boy was raised on brioche. His mother apple tarts fresh for him to have as a snack when he got home at 4pm from school. I’m never really going to measure up to that, and neither is my Americanized brioche. While he came in the door with a smile on his face at the smell and bounced up and down before I gave him a taste, his reaction was lackluster.
“It’s good,” he offered, politely polishing off a whole brioche. (To be fair, I did hand him one of the three loaves and tell him to eat that one. To be truly fair, I was distracted with taking pictures of the prettier one, and in no way did I expect him to actually take a bite out of the larger loaf I handed him.)
Still, his reaction, even after putting away an entire unfrosted Kings Cake, was lukewarm. “I prefer the French kind of brioche.”
It was only with this statement that I truly realized that what I had made was a slightly less buttery version of this pastry-shop classic, a favorite in my family (so much as to spawn a song — a creation of my brother — extolling the virtues of brioche. The song has an accompanying dance.)
I had several more days of vacation, a box of yeast in my cupboard, and the bakers’ high I get when I do something properly and nothing goes up in flames. The next day, I set about making French brioche.
The Country Boy came home to find a new loaf, a braided, shiny loaf, awaiting him. As he put away half of that loaf, he mused that he might like more sugar in it. A normal girlfriend would have clocked him. I started brioche-making experiment number three. It was a disaster that I do not care to discuss, and involves kneading butter until it resembles frosting and placing a bowl of questionable dough on the heater, only to have it melt into a puddle of butter, which would congeal overnight in the fridge.
The next day I tried again and came up with this: it’s sweet, sweet enough for breakfast, but not so sweet as to deter an accompanying cup of hot chocolate. The Country Boy rewarded my efforts the best way he knows how…
He ate an entire 440 g. loaf of brioche standing over the counter and was sick for a day and a half. To be fair, not 48 hours had passed before he was rummaging around for the last few slices.
Kings Cake Recipe available here.
11 + 50 g sugar
60 g. warm milk
8 g. yeast
300 g flour + 50 g. for kneading
9 g. vanilla sugar
150 g. eggs (~3 medium eggs)
8 g. salt
300 g. butter, softened
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 Tbsp. water
Combine 11 grams of sugar and the warmed milk in a small, wide bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the top. Leave in a warm place for about 5 minutes, then stir to combine. Leave in a warm place for 10-15 minutes, until the yeast is foamy and the combination has doubled in size.
Combine the yeast mixture and the flour. Use a wooden spoon to stir until the mixture resembles sand. Allow to rest for 15 minutes.
Add vanilla sugar, the rest of the white sugar and the eggs. Mix until well combined, then turn out onto a lightly floured surface, using about a Tbsp. of the 50 grams of remaining flour. Knead five minutes. The dough will be extremely sticky; don’t fight it. Simply grab a handful of dough and pull it towards you. Then turn your hand right side up and fling the dough (gently!) away from you onto your countertop (like Spiderman). Then bring your hand up to fold the dough still sticking to your hand over the dough that has landed, and start again. (Seems complicated, but you get used to it). After about 15 minutes of kneading, when the dough is very elastic and stays together, cover with a kitchen towel and allow to sit another fifteen minutes.
Knead in the salt. Knead the butter into itself until you have a soft paste, then add the butter, bit by bit, to the dough, continuing to knead using the Spiderman technique. The dough will start to get quite soft, but it should stay together. When you add the last of the butter, it will be very soft, but it should remain elastic. If it ever starts to lose its elasticity, allow the dough to rest 5 minutes, and then pick up kneading again. You may not be able to knead in all the butter, especially if your kitchen is very warm. You can use some of the remaining flour here, if necessary, but try to avoid it.
Grease a glass bowl with butter, then roll the dough into something resembling a ball and roll it in the butter, coating the dough ball on all sides. Cover with a dishtowel and leave in a warm place until it doubles in size (1-3 hours, depending on room temperature at your house). Punch down, cover with a dishtowel and place in the fridge. Allow to double in size (about 2 hours) and punch down again. Cover, and leave in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, shape your loaves (I make 2), cover with a dishtowel and allow to double in size. Brush with 1 egg yolk.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 180 degrees C and bake for an additional 25 minutes, until the outside crust is golden brown. (Note: these baking times are for baking one loaf at a time. This bread goes stale quickly, so I usually bake one loaf one morning, and the other loaf the next morning).