Maple Pearl Sugar Brioche

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There’s nothing wrong with reverting to the classics. I’m a serious fan of innovation and weird mismatches that actually work (referring to my previous post here), but I was overcome by the staunch determination to conquer something truly ubiquitous, something most of us rely on the real professionals for. I’m only an amateur baker who does all this whizzing, whisking and whipping in the kitchen for pure fun, but knowledge of and experience with the classics is required for any further exploration, right?

I’ve made brioche pretzels before, dived right in the deep end, no basic loaf or anything first, just a ‘ah-how-posh-and-fun’ kind of feel. Even added some chocolate chips and lemon zest to add to the childish fun. However, thanks to underestimation of the proofing and kneading time, I merely scraped by with a pseudo-brioche. Flat, dense, and just a little too hard on the bottom. The inside was fluffy, but the exterior betrayed a better could-be texture. Think I’ve got it this time, but the method I use here is adapted from something a little more unorthodox, whereby it’s all in the hand work, and the kneading time isn’t too horrid. I also used a little less yeast, because the first loaf I got using the original recipe was a tad too yeasty and the rise wasn’t as perfect as could be. Making this bread is actually fun, if you like to get down and dirty. It’s going to be sticky, wet and yellow, but that’s the magic of excess fat, eh? Rich, eggy, sublime.

The crumb is light and tender, with the slightest stretch, though never feeling or tasting under proofed. The final result will look yellow. Easy to freeze, then microwave and cut for whatever you want really, be it toast, topped with good butter and honey or maple syrup, or dunked in freshly whipped eggs for a french toast morning.

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Brioche (makes one standard 9×5-inch loaf, adapted from La Tartine Gourmande)

For the loaf:

210g all-purpose flour

5g instant yeast

78g unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into medium-sized chunks.

2 tbsp white sugar

pinch salt

80ml milk, warmed slightly in the microwave

2 eggs

1 egg for the egg wash before baking

For the maple pearl sugar:

60g white sugar

1tsp maple syrup

The day before you make the brioche or earlier in the day, make the maple pearl sugar. Mix the sugar and maple syrup in a bowl using your fingertips. It should be wet and clumpy. Tip the maple sugar on a plate and flatten using your fingers, about a half-inch thick. Cover the plate with cling wrap and leave in the fridge to set. After 4-6 hours, the sugar will have formed a malleable, solid layer, which can be broken up into smaller chunks, similar to that of pearl sugar. Yum yum. Leave it in the fridge before using.

Now for the brioche. Use a mixer if you wish, but I used my hands for everything. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast. Make a little well in the centre and, with your hands or a wooden spoon, mix in the warm milk briefly. Work in the butter (I find it easier to use your hands for this part) chunk by chunk, making sure each chunk is mostly incorporated before adding the next. It will be sticky and oily, but don’t fret.

Add in the eggs one by one. Stir the first egg in with a wooden spoon, then use your hands to really work it in. It will look messy and clumpy at first, but keep trying to incorporate the dough and egg together. I ended up working the dough when it was suspended in the air, stretching it then folding it over itself again, like kneading in mid-air. It worked, and I saved myself a lot of clean-up hassle later on. Do the same for the second egg. It will be very sticky, difficult and incredibly wet. That’s exactly what you want.

Once the eggs are worked in, dump the soft, yellow mass of dough into the same bowl and continue to ‘knead’ with a wooden spoon. Beat it with your wooden spoon, mimicking the kneading action in the bowl. Knead for a good 5-7 minutes. The dough will look like a pale baby’s bottom, smooth, taut, flawless, but still very sticky. After kneading, leave the dough in bowl (it’s already greased enough), cover and let the dough rise for an hour. After an hour, put the dough in the fridge and leave for another 2 hours, or overnight.

After the couple of hours, take the dough out of the fridge and the bowl. Preheat your oven to 190C and grease a 9×5-inch loaf tin. Punch the dough down a little, then weigh the dough and divide it into 6 equal pieces. My dough weighed around 450g total, so each piece was 75g. The cold dough is a dream to touch and work with. Roll each piece into a ball and pop into the greased loaf pan. After rolling all the pieces into balls of the same size, you should get a 2×3 row of balls in the loaf pan. Beat an egg and brush the top of the loaf with the egg wash. Finally, take the maple pearl sugar and sprinkle it on top of the loaf. You will get pea-sized chunks as well as normal sprinkles.

Bake the loaf for 30-35 minutes. If you wish, take a piece of aluminium foil and cover the top of the loaf after 15 minutes to prevent over-browning. I used the middle mark and stopped the baking after 33 minutes, and it turned out perfectly.

This loaf can be put in a freeze-safe container and left in the freezer for a couple of months. It can be left at room temperature for 1-2 days and nothing more (especially in this bloody hot weather). Whenever you want a nice, slightly sweet treat, just take the loaf out, microwave on high for 20 seconds, cut with a bread knife, then toast or dunk in egg for… Well, does french toast need any explanation anyway?

Whole ricotta pancakes (and more babbling)

I have the worst love-hate relationship with social media.

One question: If you’re tweeting about some fabulous party you’re at, are you really having fun there? I don’t know about you, but I imagine someone standing in the corner, desperately trying to capture every moment of the fab food and lights and music, totally losing the purpose of socialising in the process. Pick at the food, dance a little, then back to the phone. Phone phone phone. Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are everyone’s best friends. Let me clarify: no, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m guilty of it, and so are many people in this day and age. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can go as far as to say that social media defines the 21st century. That, and obesity. Social media helps me stay in contact with my closest friends and is the perfect means to capture totally retarded moments on the spur. It’s funny, casual, fun, and I love it.

That being said, maybe ignorance is truly bliss? The light that illuminates a certain special occasion, a certain personal, intangible factor, is lost in the process of uploading everything real-time to the infinite cloud of technology. It’s so sad to visit restaurants and see parents barely looking up to talk to their children. The kids fiddle with their bolognese, look around, fold the corners of the posh napkins. Parents. Noses to phone, eyes to screens.. hmm, maybe look up to swallow that tiny starter, but soon after it’s always back to the frantic typing, the ‘This is work, dear’, the hair twirling and silent airs. Or when I see friends together and neither of them actually… Talk. I remember having my grandparents take my sister and I out when we were younger than the malleable age of 12, and oh goodness, the stuff we talked about! No screen distractions or clouding of words. Just good food, great conversation, and buckets of love and laughter. I, for one, am sometimes guilty of being that annoying phone addict (though I only recently got Snapchat and am still slightly averse to the idea of Twitter). I can’t not take a picture of a great dish when I’m out. However, I recently read an article on the dangers of social media and found it highly intriguing. Two people attempted to totally rid themselves of any form of social media for at least a week, and the result was basically that they reached a new state of being, almost approaching that of enlightenment, having sought and found freedom from the perils of pleasing others with their shiny self profiles. It’s true, isn’t it? Who would post a picture of daily family fights, of aspects of pain or severe depression? Social media really doesn’t reveal one’s true self, nor does it guarantee you a solid network of friends you can always reach out to. I have my close friends, here and (one) overseas, and love how all these platforms help me stay in touch. I realised this fact a while ago, but I felt the point was expertly reinforced in the said article, illuminating how people today define and appreciate relationships.

I’ll start off with Instagram. I joined the platform in 2012, as one of my nascent endeavours to be part of the more ‘normal’ scene, where I could assimilate into the teen crowd and actually be more engaged with my other tech-savvy friends. Instagram really was one of my first few steps; heck, I only got Facebook in 8th Grade. My love for food and baking grew, displayed for the world to see on this one platform. I love how Instagram served to reinforce this love and passion. I met so many wonderful people and reconnected with old buds. How perfect, how engaging… and yet, incredibly dangerous. Most people know me as the amateur food blogger with a few thousand followers on my account (I admit it’s nothing impressive). It started off as nothing, then I started to post what I baked or what I had for breakfast (stereotypical Asian foodie, I apologise). As I gained more followers, I felt the need to impress, the need to enhance my own streak of perfectionism. Is that so bad? In most cases, it’s not. Nothing’s wrong with wanting to improve yourself in a specific field, being spurred along by supportive friends. But after years of being acquainted with my alter ego alexcrumb, I now fully acknowledge the fact that all the likes and comments in the world will never, ever, be able to satisfy any sort of emptiness, or justify a certain passion for something. It really, really doesn’t. Social media is much too glittery and superficial for that. I developed a few of my own posting rules, and hope they continue to keep me on the less obsessive side of things. When I whip something up, I take a few pictures. Then, I put my phone down. Ha, it’s rather weird typing this out; feels like I’m listing rules when really it’s just part of normal routine now. Anyways, voila! That is how my food stays hot. Great perks. I just put the iPhone down and eat or continue a meal I’m having out. Doing this makes me feel so much better about living in general. Trying to attain the highest degree of aesthetic sense is one thing, living in the present is another. Down, phone, down. It’s only later on in the morning or day that I’ll put it through my favourite filter, then post it with some appropriate (or utterly irrelevant) caption. It’s all good fun, but that’s just about it. What’s the point in letting Instagram eat into the rest of my day, perusing, scrutinising other people’s profiles, when I can work, read or talk to people? Instagram is a public, picturesque diary, and I love the occasional snoop, but life would not be half as purposeful or meaningful without the chance to unplug and tune in to your thoughts. In my case, it’s writing a diary, but for some others, it could be drawing, painting or running. Nowadays when I’m out, I won’t necessarily snap everything I eat, or I’ll just take a sneaky few shots, because I know how annoying it must be for the chef to poach eggs and have someone stand like an utter idiot for half an hour just to get the perfect bird’s eye view of all the food on the table. Been there, done that. Too many photos and standing like a rigid scarecrow= cold eggs with hard middles. Who wants that? I’m learning, I’m learning.

So. Back to the recipe I want to share. I must, oh goodness I must. A bit non-sequitur, I know. Whole ricotta pancakes? So like… ricotta cakes? Almost, my friend. Pretty darn close. I came across this wonderful pancake variant on one of my favourite Instagram accounts @ingwervanille, and couldn’t believe the results I yielded whilst experimenting with one short recipe just a few days ago… love how it turned out so well. It is only very slightly adapted, with less flour and the addition of greek yoghurt. If anything represents ‘light as air’, except perhaps a gorgeous cheese soufflé, then this is it. Punctured throughout with gaping holes of air. Light, slightly sweet and tangy at the same time. Ricotta is very mild, but the hot pan, butter and addition of vanilla brought the existent flavour to life. They do take a little longer to cook than regular pancakes because the cheese has to cook through together with the egg, and there’s hardly any flour at all, but it’s worth it. They will turn out incredibly light, golden, with that pretty patched pattern on both (well at least on one) sides. Sometimes, heaven’s on your side.

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Whole Ricotta Pancakes (for 2-3)

250g whole milk ricotta (usually one normal tub from the supermarket)

one teaspoon vanilla extract

one tablespoon greek yoghurt (optional, but helps the flavour)

one egg

2.5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

one teaspoon sugar

pinch of salt

Preferable toppings: greek yoghurt, fruit and honey/ butter and maple syrup/ squeeze of lemon, honey and frozen fruit/ nut butter and maple syrup/ the world is your oyster

Preheat your pan on medium heat. Mix all ingredients together, with the exception of the flour, in a medium bowl. This recipe can actually just be done with one bowl and a normal dinner spoon. Using a tablespoon, fold the flour in. If your batter looks too wet to work with, add another half tablespoon of flour. 2.5 tablespoons worked just fine for me, but adjust according to what you see. The batter should be pale and wet, with expected clumps of ricotta. It’s all good.

Butter your pan. Using the same spoon, dollop clumps of batter onto the pan. Make mini coins or large round ones. Whatever you fancy. Wait for bubbles to appear around the sides and in the middle. Once bubbles are visible in the middle, wait a little while longer, for at this point they are still pretty fragile. After around 4-5 minutes, check the underside. Yours might take a little shorter, so just check and see. Once you are able to slide your spatula under the whole underside of a pancake, do a quick flip and cook the other side. The other side takes much shorter to cook, around 1-2 minutes. Layer the pancakes on a kitchen towel to absorb excess grease or moisture, or just serve immediately on plates.

So good.