Brioche with Mahleb Date Paste and Walnuts

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There’s something about making brioche from scratch that brings comfort and pleasure: the rich smell of butter and yeast, the pillowy soft dough beneath your hands, the quiet hours of the kitchen, the dark golden loaf rising in the oven. The whole process calms me and makes me forget about stressful weekdays and the constant buzz of people in this chaotic yet charming city.

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The flavors I used here are inspired by K’aak bi M’aamoul, these little round semolina cookies filled with dates, nuts, and orange blossom water. They remind me of home – Beirut – and my family’s traditional recipes. What I love about this combination is  the thick pockets of mahleb date paste layered with crunchy walnuts and the soft aerated brioche dough.

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A freshly baked warm slice of buttery brioche brings a smile to my face but if you end up with leftovers the next day, go ahead and make french toast. The bread is naturally sweetened with dates so there’s no need to douse it with honey or maple syrup.

Brioche dough recipe adapted from Bouchon Bakery Cookbook
Makes two 9″x4″ (23 cm x 10 cm) loaves

Ingredients:

Date Paste
250g pitted medjool dated
30g butter
3 Tbs water
1 tsp orange blossom water
¼ tsp ground mahleb

Make the Date Paste:
1. Place the dates and butter in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, and stir until the dates get really soft.
2. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and add the rest of the ingredients.
3. Blend until a smooth thick paste is formed. Cover and set aside.

Roasted Walnuts
1 cup, chopped roasted walnuts (reserve a handful to sprinkle on top of the loaves)

Brioche
372g bread flour
8g instant yeast
45g granulated sugar
5g fine sea salt
186g eggs, room temperature
63 g whole milk, room temperature
170 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/8th inch dice
1 small beaten egg with a dash of water  (for the egg wash)

Make the Dough:
1. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray.
2. For the brioche, place the flour and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix for 15 seconds to distribute the yeast evenly.
3. Add all of the remaining dough ingredients except for the butter and mix on low speed for 4 minutes.
4. Add the butter a few pieces at a time, incorporating after each addition before adding the next. Stop and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and push the dough off the hook. Mix for a total of roughly 20 minutes on low speed. (it is ready when the dough is elastic and holds together in one piece)
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Fold the left side over to the right, the right over to the left, then the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top so you have a “package” with the seam at the top. Place the dough seam-side down in the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it ferment for 1 hour.
6. Repeat the folding process, place it back in the bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight (up to 24 hours).

7. Grease a 9×4 inch (22 x 13 cm) loaf pan. Line the tin with parchment paper, making sure to let it slightly overhang the sides. Set aside.
8. Remove the brioche from the refrigerator and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Work with one piece of dough at a time while keeping the other half in the refrigerator.
9. Lightly dust your working surface with flour and using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to form a rectangular shape, about 10 x 15 inch (25 x 40 cm).
10. Spread half of the date filling onto the brioche using an offset spatula, reaching all the way to the edges but leaving half an inch (1.3 cm) of dough bare on one of the long sides. Sprinkle with half of the chopped walnuts.
11. Brush the bare part with water. Starting from the other long side, roll up the dough tightly and evenly. Refrigerate the dough for 15-20 minutes on a parchment lined baking sheet.
12. Using a large knife, make a cut in the dough log. Place the right half of dough over the left, then repeat until you have a “braid” of dough. Gently press the ends of the dough together them together, then place in the prepared loaf pan.
13. Place a piece of oiled plastic wrap lightly on the surface of the brioche and let it proof in a warm place for 2 hours. (Note: I turn the oven for a minute and place boiling water in a cup to add some steam – make sure the oven is not too hot!). Take the brioche dough out of the oven.
14. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly brush the brioche with egg wash, sprinkle with more walnuts, and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.
15. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before slicing. (Repeat the process for the second brioche dough).

Braided Easter Bread

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Each year for the Easter holiday, my mom bakes small raisin bread rolls that are usually braided in 2 or 3 strands. It’s a family tradition that’s been around for many years, so I wanted to post a similar recipe that’s bit less sweet and dense but just as good. I came across a very similar breaded raisin bread recipe in Kamran Siddiqi’s book Hand Made Baking that uses honey as a sweeter instead of refined sugar. What also caught my attention is that the whole dough is braided into one big circular loaf instead of several small loaves. So I decided to give my mom’s classic recipe a twist and the result is spectacular! It’s a slightly sweet and fluffy bread with a brioche-like texture that’s dotted with juicy raisins soaked in apple juice.

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We traditionally serve this bread for the Greek Orthodox Easter (which is a different day than western Easter). It is actually based on the Julian calendar–introduced by Julian Caesar–instead of the Gregorian calendar, and it’s always the first Sunday after the first full moon AFTER the spring equinox which will be April 4th this year. That’s an easier way to remember it. I actually had to look up this information, because my friends always ask me why we celebrate Easter on a different date… Well there you have it.

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The steps in this recipe might seem daunting at first, but believe me it’s not as hard as it seems. It just needs a little bit of patience – and that is the hardest part for me. You basically mix some warm water, yeast, oil, eggs, honey, flour, and raisins together and wait for the dough to double in size then put it in the fridge overnight. The next day you’re going to punch the dough down, braid it into a beautiful round loaf, wait for it to double in size again, and then bake until it’s golden. The loaf will be slightly flaky on the outside and delightfully tender in the middle. You can even use some leftovers stale pieces for French Toast!

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Braided Easter Bread (recipe adapted from Hand Made Baking)

Ingredients:
¾ cup (180ml) warm water (100°F/38°C)
2 tsp active dry yeast
1 tsp granulated sugar
5 Tbsp (75ml) vegetable oil
1/3 cup (80ml) honey
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp sea salt
3¾ cups (470g) all purpose flour
1 cup (160g) raisins, soaked in simmered apple juice for 5 minutes then patted dry

Egg wash:
1 small egg
1 tsp water

Directions:
1. In a large bowl, pour the warm water and then add the yeast and sugar. Let it sit for 5 minutes without stirring until a foamy surface forms. Then stir until the yeast dissolves in the water.
2. Add the vegetable oil, honey, eggs, vanilla extract, and salt into the yeast mixture and whisk until homogeneous.
3. Stir in the flour and raisins with a wooden spoon.
4. Tip the mixture on a floured surface and knead with your hands for 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour until it just comes together.
5. Shape the dough into a round and put it in a lightly oiled large bowl, turning it a few times to coat it with the oil.
6. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place for 2 hours. (I like to preheat the oven for a minute or two to place the bowl in it). The dough will double in size.
7. Remove the damp towel and cover the dough in plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight.
8. The next day, take out the dough from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for an hour to come to room temperature.
9. Meanwhile, line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
10. Punch down the dough and divide it into three equal portions.
11. Roll out each portion into 20″ (50 cm) ropes. Lay them parallel to each other, pinch one end together and braid the pieces, then pinch the other end. Roll the long braid into a circle to form a round loaf.
12. Transfer the loaf to the lined baking sheet.
13. Whisk the small egg with 1 tsp of water and brush it all over the loaf. Wait for the egg wash to dry for 5 minutes then brush it again.
14. Place the loaf in a warm place and let it rise for one hour until it doubles in size.
15. After 45 minutes, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) and adjust the rack to the center of the oven.
16. Bake for 35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway, until the braided loaf is a deep golden color and sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom.
17. Let cool for 10 minutes on the baking sheet then transfer on a wire rack to cool completely.
18. Store in a plastic bag or tupperware for 3 days (this bread can be frozen too).