For what butter cannot heal, there is no cure.
I was born in Swords, a small county just on the outskirts of Dublin, more than 40 years ago. The Swords I knew back then was mostly farmland – complete with cows, sheep, goats and pigs, not forgetting the milk stealing robins and the milkman’s dog, Bruno, would brazenly come into the kitchen in the mornings to see if there were any treats to be had.
Some of my fondest childhood memories were of chasing sheep out of our garden with much excitement. A small brook ran the length of our back garden along with a piece of broken fence; sheep from the neighboring farm gleefully jumped over the brook to munch on the wild mushrooms that would spring up in the garden after a heavy rainfall.
Growing up, chasing rogue chickens, sheep and wild rabbits took up most of our ‘play-time’, along with ad-hoc ‘fishing’ with rods made from whatever tree branches we could find. We tried to fish for eels but alas none was ever caught. And then there was ‘fairy hunting’. There were whispered rumors that fairies lived at the bottom of the garden if you just sat still and stayed quiet long enough you may be allowed to see one – an obvious ploy by my parents for some peace and quiet (now that I think of it). That made it no less magical to me for that thrill of knowing that magic existed in the world and that it was to be found at our back-garden made me positively effervescent as a child.
Back then, the community we grew up amongst, was tight; we knew our neighbors by name, us kids all played together out on the street and every holiday we went door-to-door wishing neighbors well, popping in for homemade cookies and freshly brewed Barry’s tea at each house along the way.
Our milkman, Mr. O’ Brien, would collect the empty milk bottles that you left on the doorstep overnight and refill them. I often came out in the morning to find small holes punched in the milk bottles; cheeky robins had used their long beaks to pierce the foil and drink the creamy milk within. It was years before I learnt the truth about this mysterious occurence. My parents used to tell me that it was the milk fairies who would take their share early in the morning in exchange for helping the garden grow.
Being so closely located to the local farms (if you have been to Ireland, you would know that cows are everywhere), there was always an abundant access to milk, butter and cheese. The Irish have got a particular affinity to butter; not just for its cooking uses but as an almost mythical cure-all for any ailments.
There’s an old Irish saying, “An rud nach leigheasann im ná uisce beatha níl aon leigheas air.” which translates to “What butter or whiskey does not cure, cannot be cured.” At face value, it seems a little peculiar, and a naive statement, when put in context with modern medical science. Historically, butter was used a base for ointments and poultices and mould would be grown on the surface of butter and used to dress wounds (an early form of penicillin). Even though these practices have long faded away, it was a saying I heard my parents spout many times, even though they may not have fully understood its meaning.
If butter can truly cure, then perhaps there could be slightly less guilt when it comes down to eating a classic brioche which, to me at least, is among the most delicious breads in existence. With a heart-stopping ratio of 50% butter to flour this is a wonderfully rich yet light and fluffy bread, perfect for French toasts, bread and butter pudding or for making breakfast sandwiches. If the ancient Irish had a recipe like this perhaps it would have been, “What butter, brioche or whiskey does not cure, cannot be cured.”
½ cup bread flour
2 tsp instant yeast
½ cup whole milk, warm to 35°C
5 large eggs
3 ½ cups bread flour
2 ½ tbls sugar
2 tsp salt
225gm unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
We are gonna start by fermenting a sponge to activate the yeast and give the brioche a good rise. To begin, stir together ½ cup of bread flour with the yeast and stir in the warmed milk until well incorporated and the flour is hydrated. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and ferment for 45 minutes. The sponge will become frothy and fall back when you knock on the bowl.
Making of the dough
Beat together the eggs and add to the fermented sponge mix, using a whisk beat until smooth.
In your mixing bowl, add the bread flour, sugar and salt and stir to mix it well.
Add the sponge to the flour and mix on low for 2 minutes with the paddle attachment
Turn off the mixer and rest for dough for 5 minutes to allow the gluten to develop.
Still using the paddle attachment, on a medium speed, gradually add the softened butter, 2 heaped tablespoons at a time, beating until the butter is fully incorporated before adding the next addition of butter. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times if the dough clings to the sides of the mixing bowl. If you do not have a mixer this can be done by hand using a wooden spoon (it will, however be quite the workout).
Once all the butter is incorporated, mix for another 6 minutes. Once done the dough is going to be very soft and smooth as pictured below.
Transfer the dough to a greased baking tray. Mist the top of the dough with some oil, and cover the pan with cling wrap. Refrigerate the dough overnight (or a minimum of 6 hours if you want to save some time).
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and using a pastry scraper, divide into 2 approximate equal parts, flatten the dough into two rectangles roughly the width of your loaf tins and roll up, using the side of your hand to pinch the dough down with each roll to create surface tension. Pinch the bottom seam and place into the greased loaf tins, seam side down, brush with oil, cover with cling wrap and let proof for 2 hours.
After two hours, preheat your oven to 180°C and gently brush the tops of your brioche with the egg wash, mist the inside of your cling wrap with some oil before covering your brioche loaves and allow to proof for another 20 minutes.
Bake the brioche for 30 minutes, rotating the loaves at the 15 minute mark to stop them from coloring unevenly. Once baked, remove from the loaf pans and cool on a wire rack for 1 hour before slicing.
A surprisingly simple recipe to rival our focaccia recipe and a change of pace to all the sourdough breads out there at the moment. It may not be as healthy or as photogenic as sourdough but it’s 100% comfort and 100% decadence and we deserve to spoil ourselves silly, feeling like kids eating cake for breakfast every now and then.