Historically, until powdered non-yeast leavening agents came into common use later in the nineteenth century, the distinction was not so marked. A ‘cake’ was originally made from basic bread dough which was then enriched with fat and sweetened with sugar (perhaps) and speckled with fruit. ‘Cake,’ at that time, was closer to something we would make into raisin toast today. Perhaps the OED is merely out of date.
For the word-smiths amongst you: such authorities as I have been able to rustle up at short notice say that the word ‘brioche’ comes from the Middle French dialect brier ‘to knead’, which in turn is of Germanic origin, and is ‘akin to Old High German brehhan to break.
For the bakers and cooks amongst you, I give you some encouraging words and a recipe, from Culture and Cooking: or, Art in the Kitchen, (New York, 1881) by Catherine Owen.
I suppose the very name of this delectable French dainty will call up in the mind's eye of many who read this book that great "little" shop, Au Grand Brioche, on the Boulevarde Poissonière, where, on
Sunday afternoons, scores of boys from the Lycées form en queue with the general public, waiting the hour when the piles of golden brioche shall be ready to exchange for their eager sous. But I venture to say, a really fine brioche is rarely eaten on this side the Atlantic. They being a luxury welcome to all, and especially aromatic of Paris, I tried many times to make them, obtaining for that purpose recipes from French friends, and from standard French books, but never succeeded in
producing the ideal brioche until I met with Gouffé's great book, the Livre de Cuisine, after reading which, I may here say, all secrets of the French kitchen are laid bare; no effort is spared to make
everything plain, from the humble pot-au-feu to the most gorgeous monumental plât. And I would refer any one who wants to become proficient in any French dish, to that book, feeling sure that, in
following strictly the directions, there will be no failure. It is the one book I have met with on the subject in which no margin is left for your own knowledge, if you have it, to fill up. But to the brioche.
Paris Jockey-Club Recipe for Brioche.
Sift one pound of flour, take one fourth of it, and add rather more than half a cake of compressed yeast, dissolved in half a gill of warm water, make into a sponge with a very little more water, put it in a warm place; when it is double its volume take the rest of the flour, make a hole in the center, and put in it an equal quantity of salt and sugar, about a teaspoonful, and two tablespoonfuls of water to dissolve them.
Three quarters of a pound of butter and four eggs, beat well, then add another egg, beat again, and add another, and so on until seven have been used; the paste must be soft, but not spread; if too firm, add
another egg. Now mix this paste with the sponge thoroughly, beating until the paste leaves the sides of the bowl, then put it in a crock and cover; let it stand four hours in a warm place, then turn it out on a
board, - spread it and double it four times -, return it to the crock, and let it rise again two hours; repeat the former process of doubling and spreading, and put it in a very cold place for two hours, or until you want to use it. Mold in any form you like, but the true brioche is two pieces, one as large again as the other; form the large one into a ball, make a deep depression in the center, on which place the smaller ball, pressing it gently in; cut two or three gashes round it with a sharp knife, and bake a beautiful golden brown. These brioche are such a luxury, and so sure to come out right, that the trouble of making them is well worth the taking, and for another reason: everyone knows the
great difficulty of making puff paste in summer, and a short paste is never handsome; but take a piece of brioche paste, roll it out thin, dredge with flour, fold and roll again, then use as you would puff
paste; if for sweet pastry, a little powdered sugar may be sprinkled through it instead of dredging with flour. This makes a very handsome and delicious crust. Or, another use to which it may be put is to roll it out, cut it in rounds, lay on them mince-meat, orange marmalade, jam, or merely sprinkle with currants, chopped citron, and spices, fold, press the edges, and bake.
There is an interesting variation on the theme of brioche in The Cook’s Dictionary and House-keeper’s Directory (1830) by Richard Dolby, and it sounds like a great idea for breakfast.
Brioche au Fromage.
When you make the brioche, cut some Swiss cheese into dice, and throw them into the past while it is liquid, and bake as before.
Quotation for the Day.
Food: Part of the spiritual expression of the French, and I do not believe that they have ever heard of calories.
Sir Beverley Baxter.