The 16th is the anniversary of the beheading of Marie Antoinette. In honor of Madame Deficit, prepare your best cake from a historic recipe. And then eat it, bien sur.
"Qu'ils mangent de la brioche." Reducing a volitile political situation into an out-of-context, miss-attributed sound-byte from a disliked celebrity political leader is not a new concept. France was the leader in fashionable gastronomy at the time and this tense situation had the potential to affect great changes on European, British, and American dining as well.
The origins of the Bread Riots during the French Revolution are several-fold and read dangerously close to several other tense times in western history. A severe drought lead to a drop in wheat production. A conscription war took farmers and bakers for armed service, leaving fields fallow and production to women, children, and elderly. A turn from agriculture to industry meant less wheat produced needing to feed a more concentrated population in an industrial center. Less product available means a spike in prices. Government sponsored stock-piling of grains lead to a paranoia from the populace. Bread from a baker was priced at almost a laborer's daily wage. The situation was dangerous indeed.
To stall the situation, the Government asked the bakers to produce common loaves of bread from mixed grains, rather than the dizzying array of wheat based breads and cakes to which the urban populace was accustomed. Alternative bread bases were considered (potato, for one) and met with suspicion and dislike.
In the midst of this dangerous situation, the men who would have the most influence on "classical" French cooking and baking were getting their start. One of the most famous is Marie-Antoine Careme.
Named for Her Highness, Marie-Antoinette, Chef Careme was working in a steakhouse at the time of the Revolution. He studied France's great pastries, including the array of desserts from brioche paste, under the pastry-chef Sylvain Bailly. Chef Careme established the classic sauce families and is credited with two famous pastries we still enjoy today.
So, in honor of the resilience of the French baking tradition... the famous cake from a recipe of it's famous makers.
From: The Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner from the Original of M. A. Careme by M.A. Careme compiled by F.J. Mason, 1834, page 16
Sect. V—Paste For Brioches.
Sift three pounds of fine flour, and in a fourth part of it make a hole, and put therein a glass of lukewarm water and one ounce of good yeast. Then mix the flour lightly with the liquid, adding, if necessary, a little more lukewarm water, in order to form the whole into a light and softish paste. Stir and work it for some minutes, so that it quits the hand and board with ease; then mould it and put it into a small stewpan, which you cover, and put in a place moderately warm.*
Afterwards prepare the remainder of the paste, putting in the middle one ounce of fine salt, one ounce of pounded sugar, and half a glass of cream; mix it, and add to it thirty eggs if small, and twenty-six if large; which you should break on a small plate, and smell each of them before poured into the paste, to prevent a musty one from spoiling it.
The eggs being broken, mix with them, by small quantities at a time, two pounds of the best butter (which should only be worked in winter), and gradually the flour. Afterwards mix and work the whole well together (in winter give it in addition three turns, by working it well with your wrists to render it rather soft). The spunge having now reached its proper degree of fermentation, pour it on the paste, and then mix and stir the whole well together in one mass. Put the paste afterwards in a large glazed earthen pan, sprinkle it lightly with flour, and having covered it with a napkin, put it in a place where there is no current of air, and where the heat is of a moderate degree.
* The yeast should be no more than one day old; and the water, in which it is diluted not too warm. Observe also that the spunge should not be set too long before the paste is ready; and if, during the hot weather in summer (which, as it accelerates the fermentation considerably, requires cold water to be used instead of warm), you find that it rises too fast, lay it immediately on the board, which you have previously sprinkled with flour, before it has attained the proper height, to be remoulded, and then put it to rise again. This, however, should be done only when you are pressed for time; as it is detrimental to the paste, inasmuch as a second fermentation causes the spunge to lose part of its strength.
To ascertain correctly when the spunge has risen to its proper height, young beginners should mark its exact thickness, as soon as it is put in the stewpan to rise, by a black line on a card placed upright in it, another black line should be drawn at an equal distance from the former, and then a third, so as to form three degrees of equal height. This card should be fastened to the side of the stewpan by a sufficient quantity of paste to prevent its moving while the spunge is rising. When the spunge has reached the third line, which points out the complete fermentation of the whole mass, it should immediately be mixed with the paste, which ought to be then ready to receive it. Proficient pastrycooks have no occasion to do this; as they all know that when the fermentation has reached its greatest height, the spunge should be three times its original size.This kind of paste is generally made over night; in which case the first thing to be done the next morning is to sprinkle some part of the board lightly with flour; lay the paste on it, roll it out, and fold it up again. Then put it back into the earthen pan, and, three or four hours after, repeat the operation. If, after this, you find a great number of small globules of air on the surface of the paste, and that it feels soft and elastic, it has been made well, and the brioche will be light, spungy, have an excellent taste, and above all, be easily digestible; but if on the contrary it is flabby, and sticks to the fingers, it is a sure sign that it has badly risen, and that the brioche will be heavy, close, and unwholesome.
I must further add, that this kind of paste should be put in the oven within twenty-four hours after it is made; for if it be kept longer, it will be entirely spoiled. In shops it is usual to refresh it by mixing gradually with it some new paste, made without yeast, equal to a sixth part of its size. By this process the paste will be prevented from acquiring that bitter taste which an excessive fermentation would give it, and enable you to keep it thirty-four or thirty-six hours before it is baked. This method, however, will not suit family pastrycooks, as these kinds of brioches thereby lose part of their mellowness and fine flavour.
I shall conclude by merely observing, that this paste requires a hot oven, such as is used for making les pains benis (holy bread), gateaux des rois (twelfth-cakes), and brioches with cheese, cream, dried currants, and muscadine raisins.
The Date/Year and Region:
1813-1865, France and by imitation, Britain and United States
How Did You Make It:
1.5 pounds flour (2.5 cups)
1/2 glass of water (2 oz.or 1/4 cup) to 1/4 ounce yeast (1.75 teaspoons active dry)
1/4 ounce salt (0.5 tablespoon)
1/4 ounce sugar (0.5 tablespoon)
1/8 glass cream (1 oz.or 1/8 cup)
6 large eggs
1/2 pound butter (2 sticks)
Proof 1.75 teaspoons yeast into 1/4 cup water.
Divide 2.5 cups of flour into four parts. In one divided part, make a hole. Add proofed yeast and water mixture. Blend until a paste forms. Put aside in a warm place.
Add to a bowl, 1/2 tablespoon salt, 1/2 tablespoon sugar, 1/8 cup cream, 6 medium eggs wisked previously.
Add slowly 2 sticks of softened butter and the remainder of the flour. Blend well.
Add the yeast paste to the cream paste and mix until blended. Place the paste in a floured bowl covered with a towel in a warm place.
Bake at 400*-425* for 30 minutes.
Time to Complete:
Overnight to set the yeast paste, then about an hour.
Eggs and butter were the expensive parts, so maybe $6.00
How Successful Was It:
The blended dough was rather sticky, so I think the eggs were maybe larger than historic counterparts and affected the liquid portion of the mix. A bit more flour did wonders.
It tasted like a croissant, so I probably didn't screw up too badly. :-p
How Accurate Was It:
I tried to follow the recipe faithfully, but I made some alterations. I made the recipe in smaller quantities. I also used dry active yeast rather than fresh baker's yeast.