This recipe by André Sales was originally published in Volume 2, Issue 3 of South African literary magazine, Prufrock.
Unless you were rich, before the revolution was a miserable time to be in Paris. In les grandes maisons of France the aristocracy hosted lavish dinner parties of multiple courses created by renowned chefs with seething teams of staff and servants to work in the kitchens and wait on the guests. But for the man on the street, the gastronomic scene consisted solely of taverns and inns serving dry meat and soggy vegetables, and only a lot of drink to wash it down.
And then in 1765 a man named Boulanger (probably not really his name, but his profession) began selling a choice of soups on a menu. These were most likely horrible brothy things (fonds bruns from beef, fonds clairs from veal and poultry), but nonetheless restorative, as in restaurer, and hence the birth of the restaurant as we know it today.
To this unremarkable start came the fire of revolution. In 1789, when the aristocracy either fled or lost their heads, they left behind their highly trained chefs. At the same time the abolishment of the guild system meant that the culinary professions were no longer confined and controlled. Very soon the rising bourgeoisie could dine intimately in a public space on a choice of fine meals and fine wine. Chief amongst the restaurateurs was Marie-Antroine Carême, who, amongst other things, was the first to define the four grands sauces of French cuisine.
But before the revolution, when the upper classes were still dining extravagantly, the ninety-nine percent had to survive on these fonds bruns et clairs, and bread. Bread was the main source of nourishment for the poor, and so when a series of crop failures in the 1780s caused the price of bread to rise, many people were spending more than eighty percent of their income on their basic sustenance.
It was in this context that Marie Antoinette probably didn’t utter the famous phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (not cake). The political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to write the mal mots in an unreliable autobiography in 1765, (when Marie Antoinette was nine years old and still living in Austria) attributing them to an unnamed “grande princesse”.
In fact, the phrase was attributed to Marie Antoinette about fifty years after her head rolled, by a journalist named Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, in his satirical monthly journal Les Guêpes.
It is with this history in mind that I’ve chosen my first recipe. Brioche can be extremely decadent, especially enjoyed at brunch, stuffed with chocolate, and covered in sweet raspberries and crème fraîche. It is not a very complicated bread to make, but start the night before. The initial dough must be left to ferment in the fridge overnight, and needs 3 hours to proof in the morning. This recipe fills two small loaf tins.
Yeast 10g sachet
Eggs 140g (about 4 or 5, whisked)
Butter 125g cut into cubes
Chocolate 1 slab 70%
Crème Fraîche 250ml
As with all bread, brioche is best made with your hands, so it’s a good idea to make sure all your ingredients are measured before you begin. Butter a large bowl, in which to rest the prepared dough. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour and yeast once or twice. Add the sugar, salt, eggs and milk, and mix until it comes together, and continue for about half an hour. At this point you will have quite a sticky dough. Add the butter a few blocks at a time, mixing them into the dough before adding more. Continue mixing for about ten minutes until you have a velvety ball of dough. Tip this out onto a floured board and press it down into a rough rectangle. Fold it in thirds as you would a letter. Turn it by 90˚ and repeat the pressing and folding. Now place this in the prepared bowl, cover, and rest in the fridge overnight.
In the morning, turn the dough out onto a floured surface, press it down into a rectangle, and divide it into twelve parts. Roll each part until it forms a smooth ball, using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. Put six balls in each pan, cover with a damp cloth and proof for 3 hours until the balls have risen and are touching. When baked, they come together and form a single loaf.
Preheat the oven to 180˚C, brush the dough with eggwash (an egg or two, beaten), and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are golden brown, and the loaves are baked through. A skewer stabbed in the centre should come out clean.
When the loaves are cooled, cut them into thick slices. Make a horizontal slice in the crust of each just big enough to press a square of chocolate into the centre. Melt the butter in a large pan and toast each slice. Sprinkle the sugar into the pan, and caramelize the brioche slices until they turn a golden brown.
Now the raspberries. Melt the butter in a pan, add the sugar and allow to caramelize a bit. Add the raspberries and cook for about thirty seconds just until they are warm. Tip in a tablespoon of water at the end – this is what makes the juices come together. Spoon this onto the brioche slices, and top with a spoonful of crème fraîche.
André Sales is a bookseller at Clarke’s Bookshop, and hosts occasional dinner parties at his home in the Bo-Kaap as La Petite Mort. To come to one of these dinner parties, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every Wednesday.