If you’ve eaten brioche lately, it was likely as a hamburger bun, at a buzzy spot where the American cheese is ironic and you have the option to #putaneggonit. And that’s great. A split pillow of brioche makes for a darn good burger. But historian-turned-baker Ellen King isn’t content to rest on her buns.
At Hewn, her bakery in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ellen greets this golden, supple, luxurious dough like some people do a can of crescent rolls—with carte blanche. She cradles it in pans to bake coppery sandwich loaves (opposite). She spirals it around sugar and spice for decadent cinnamon rolls. She pushes back against its sweet inclinations with additions of herbs, potato, cheese or sun-dried tomato. And, yes, she shapes it into buns, glossy and pebbled with sesame seeds.
Ellen shares her classic brioche dough (and all the ways to play with it) in Heritage Baking (Chronicle Books, $29.95). More than just a cookbook, it’s an elegant ode to Midwest grains and the people who grow them. Ellen’s recipes aren’t fast, but they’re inspiring. At a time when gluten and carbs get a bad rap, she describes her book as a “call to arms” for all of us—to learn where the flour in our pantries comes from and to make time, just occasionally, for turning it into a truly glorious loaf of bread.
Brioche is a classic French bread made with oodles of butter and egg. It's soft, fixh and luxurious. See Ellen King's recipe for Classic Brioche Loaf, from her book Heritage Baking.
Brioche for Beginners
Bread Of Kings Compared to a baguette or sourdough boule (made with flour, water, salt, maybe yeast), brioche contains eggs and butter, so it’s softer, richer and sweeter, with a tighter crumb. Ellen explains in her book that those indulgent ingredients made brioche a favorite of French royalty.
Stand (Mixer) And Deliver The palace cooks charged with baking the kings’ and queens’ bread would have developed impressive biceps kneading brioche dough. The fat must be incorporated slowly, and it makes the dough dense and sticky. Ellen strongly advises using a stand mixer—and, after making her recipes, we agree.
Lifting The Weight Although Ellen prefers to naturally leaven bread at Hewn (allowing the natural yeasts in the grain and air to do the work of fermentation and rising), heavy brioche dough requires a little boost from commercial yeast. Because of all the butter, the dough will be quite firm after its overnight nap in the refrigerator, but it will bake up light and fluffy, we promise.
Running on Flour Power
Hewn isn’t alone. Bakers all over the Midwest are mindfully sourcing their grains—and these bakeries are even milling them into flour in-house.
Baker Miller, Chicago
Husband-wife team Dave and Megan Miller (yep) bake crusty loaves and whole-grain chocolate chip cookies to complement an all-day hot food menu featuring egg-custard biscuit sandwiches and burgers on sourdough brioche buns.
Madison Sourdough, Madison, Wisconsin
It takes 36 hours to craft the crackly baguettes, country batards and other naturally fermented breads at this breakfast-lunch cafe and patisserie. In addition to selling his house-milled flour, owner Andrew Hutchison offers occasional baking classes.
Crackling Crust Microbakery, Cincinnati
Michelle Kovach’s weekly bake list includes whole-grain muffins, brownies, seeded sourdough and a fluffy white sandwich loaf she calls Wander Bread. Her grains come from Ohio and Kentucky farms, and she sells her bread at several farmers markets.
Baker’s Field Flour And Bread, Minneapolis
Until this summer, your best bet for buying Baker’s Field’s flours, loaves and cinnamon rolls was to shop online or track them down at co-ops and supermarkets. Now a new storefront in the bakery’s home (the Food Building incubator) is a one-stop shop.
Farine + Four, Omaha
Opened just last year, this sunny bakery-cafe sells bread, croissants, toasts, ice cream and coffee drinks—and wine. Renaissance woman owner Ellie Pegler is a certified sommelier.
Brioche Swirl Loaves: Start with the basic dough, but roll it flat to enclose one of two fillings: pizza-like sun-dried tomato pesto with Parmesan cheese or über-rich chocolate streusel. See the recipe here.
Support The Movement
At Hewn, Ellen bakes with heritage grains that have been stone-milled to preserve nutrition, flavor and texture. “We hope that small-scale farmers of sustainable grains are able to reverse 100 years of industrialization and monoculture to bring back the beautiful biodiversity and flavors of the wheat and flours of our ancestors,” she says. Bonus: Some gluten-intolerant folks seem to fare better with heritage flours and naturally fermented breads. Curious to taste the difference? Some of Ellen’s suppliers sell online.
The Mill at Janie’s Farm uses a custom-built Danish mill to grind wheat, spelt, rye, buckwheat, corn and more south of Chicago.
Hazzard Free Farm Andrea Hazzard remembers milling corn for cornbread with her grandparents. Today the 1847 farm in northern Illinois grows a rainbow of heirloom corns, plus oats, heirloom wheat, popcorn and more.
Meadowlark Organics is owned by a former Wisconsin dairy farmer who transitioned his pastures to organic grains.
Fluffiest Cinnamon Rolls: Because of the super buttery dough, these meltingly tender brioche buns hover on the line between pastry and bread. Even a Frenchified brioche cinnamon roll tastes best glazed in old-school powdered sugar icing. See the recipe here.
Plum Bostock: French bakeries spread slices of plain day-old brioche with almond paste and crunchy nuts and bake it all in the oven. Ellen adds fruit for a hit of tang. We love stone fruits or apple. See the recipe here.
Double-Berry Bread Pudding: Cut a loaf of plain, day- or two-day-old brioche into rough cubes, then bake bathed in creamy custard with a scattering of summer’s last berries. See the recipe here.
Herbed Dinner Rolls: Add thyme and rosemary to the basic brioche dough, then form buns to nestle in a pan and bake off before dinner. See the recipe here.