Ah, pray tell, what is this lovely loaf, with its buttery interior, golden crust, and tiny/tasty bits of smoked ham scattered throughout?
Why, I'm so glad you asked. That would be Ham & Cheese Brioche.
And you thought brioche was sweet...
Actually, brioche is buttery, and eggy, and soft and tender and delicious - but it's not necessarily sweet.
A typical brioche may have a bit of coarse sugar sprinkled on top, but the dough is only very lightly sweetened – which means it's an easy conversion to a strictly savory version, like this one.
One thing you can say about brioche - it's not the easiest yeast dough in the world to deal with.
Just about the highest-fat dough you can imagine, it's a bear to develop - unless you have a) a stand mixer, or b) a bread machine. Yes, this is one time when your hands just won't do the trick - unless you're a French chef pâtissier, and used to kneading dough for, oh, 20 to 30 minutes at a time.
So, given the challenge – is brioche really worth making at home?
YES. Brioche isn't something you can walk into your local CVS and buy.
In fact, unless you're in a fairly urban environment, you're not going to find it at your mom and pop bakery, either.
Which means it's time to break out the flour and yeast and butter and eggs and DIY.
Not a problem, when you love to bake!
Place the following in the bowl of your stand mixer; or in the bucket of your bread machine:
2 3/4 cups (11 1/2 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup Baker's Special Dry Milk or nonfat dry milk
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup Vermont cheese powder*
1 tablespoon instant yeast
2 large eggs + 1 large egg yolk, white reserved
1/4 cup lukewarm water
10 tablespoons unsalted butter**
*For a good-looking, tasty loaf with great texture, we recommend using cheese powder, rather than freshly grated cheese. If you don't want to mail order our Vermont cheese powder, other types of cheese powder can often be found in your supermarket alongside the canned grated Parmesan/Romano cheeses, in the pasta aisle. But use 1 cup diced or grated fresh cheddar or Parmesan, if you like. We found that adding chunks of cheese made the dough lumpy and challenging to shape; and grated cheese gave it a speckled crust; but either is tasty.
**Reduce the salt to 1 teaspoon if you use salted butter.
OK, firs tip: unless you've made brioche without benefit of a mixer or bread machine before, and know what's involved, we don't recommend trying to knead this dough by hand. It's super-sticky, and takes a lonnnng time to come together.
Your bread machine, set on the dough cycle, is a great tool for this particular dough; we've found it does an excellent job taking the ingredients from sticky mess to cohesive dough.
A stand mixer will do the same thing; it just requires a bit more hands-on attention. If you're using a stand mixer, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl every 5 minutes for however long it takes to develop a cohesive, relatively smooth dough - which might be up to 20 minutes of kneading.
So, where's the ham? You don't want to add it until the dough is fully developed. You'll need 1/2 pound of good-quality ham. It pays to use full-flavored smoked or baked ham in this bread; save the pale, boiled deli ham for sandwiches.
Dice the ham in 1/4" to 1/3" cubes, and knead it into the dough. If you're using a bread machine, add it about 5 minutes before the end of the kneading cycle.
If you're using a mixer, form the dough into a ball (it'll be very soft), place it in a greased bowl, cover the bowl, and it let rise for about 2 hours at cool room temperature; it won't seem to change much, but don't worry.
Refrigerate the dough for several hours, or overnight. This will allow fermentation to slowly continue; and will chill the butter, making the dough easier to shape.
If you're using a bread machine, allow the dough to remain in the machine for about 1 hour after it's completed its cycle; then refrigerate. Check out the final photo in the sequence above, which shows the dough after an overnight rest in the fridge. It doesn't look like it's risen much, but when you peel back the surface, you'll see lots of tiny bubbles.
Remove the dough from the fridge, and place it on a lightly floured or lightly greased work surface; a silicone rolling mat works well here.
Notice how stiff and clay-like the dough feels; actually, this is a good thing; it makes it easier to shape.
Shape the dough into a long (28") log.
It's best to work as quickly as possible; the warmer the dough gets, the stickier it is, the more challenging it is to work with.
Lightly grease a 9" round cake pan. Coil the log into the pan in a spiral.
Cover the pan, and let the shaped brioche rise for 2 to 3 hours, until it's come to room temperature and nearly reached the edges of the pan.
Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 400°F.
Brush the brioche with the reserved egg white, which you've mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water. This will give it a shiny crust.
Bake the brioche for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F; gently tent the loaf with foil, and bake for an additional 35 to 40 minutes, until the loaf is golden brown (peek under the foil), and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers at least 200°F.
Remove the brioche from the oven, and very carefully slip it out of the pan onto a rack to cool.
Don't worry about any "shreds" in the crust; with dough this rich, they're bound to happen. If you slice the bread in the kitchen rather than at the table, no one will be the wiser!
Serve the brioche warm, or at room temperature; refrigerate any leftovers, tightly wrapped. Reheat before serving; a toaster or toaster oven works well here.
And remember: brioche makes great French toast. Imagine using this particular recipe for your favorite French toast - the salty ham, the sweet maple syrup... heavenly!
Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Ham & Cheese Brioche.