A tasty way to start the day

Want a special bread for breakfast? Try your hand at brioche.

Buttery delight: Brioche is a rich and tender bread often served in the morning. It can be baked in special fluted pans, but muffin tins work fine, too.

Not many breakfast foods are greeted with as much delight as still-warm-from-the-oven French brioche, the ancient egg- and butter-rich muffin-size yeast creation that's just barely sweetened.

The French dip their morning brioches into strong café-au-lait or spread it with butter, jam, or marmalade and sip coffee or tea to wash down the buttery crumbs. To me, that's heaven brought to the breakfast table.

Many cuisines include egg- and butter-rich breads. Jewish challah bread is a good example, although not nearly as rich as brioche.

These yeasty creations are not like delicate tortes where recipe proportions of ingredients are sacred. Instead, the cook can feel free to adjust the recipe: reduce eggs and butter if seems too rich to you or maybe increase or decrease the sugar according to taste.

To be successful, though, there are two things to keep in mind when changing ingredient amounts. First is that plain, white all-purpose flour or white bread flour makes the best brioche. Substituting whole wheat flour simply won't work.

And second, don't reduce butter and eggs too much or you will end up with a merely good white bread.

While searching for the best brioche recipe, I concentrated on ones that started with about three cups of flour, since that produced the number of rolls I wanted.

I discovered that various recipes used two, three, or four eggs and from four to nine ounces of butter. I tried several and found that two eggs are plenty. Any more and the brioche tastes eggy.

With butter, six ounces seems right – not too rich, yet not plain or dry. The amount of sugar in the recipes varied from two to three tablespoons, which you can certainly adjust to your taste without compromising the brioche.

Although brioches are not the easiest of kitchen creations, they are doable by anyone with modest baking skill. Don't let yeast scare you away from baking. They are very friendly little creatures if you treat them right. If you follow the recipe with care, your brioches will be the pride of your kitchen. You'll find that your main concern will be not to overeat — they are hard to resist.

You can make a number of different shapes from a basic brioche recipe: round or rectangular loaf, large fluted pan shape, or tall cylindrical loaf, but I like muffin-size brioches with a little "head" or topknot stuck on top (the tête in French).

These cute little brioches have become my favorites, and I find that few people are able to stop with eating just one at the breakfast table.

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(with a tête on top)

This brioche dough is easiest when started a day ahead by making a very soft, almost soupy dough called a sponge. In the sponge, the yeast multiply and the dough slowly ripens and proofs, improving the final quality.

3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided

2 teaspoons dry yeast, divided

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup warm milk

12 tablespoons (6 ounces) butter, melted, slightly cooled

3 large eggs

Place1 cup of the flour in a medium-size mixing bowl and stir in 1/2teaspoon of the yeast. Mix a small amount of warm water into the flour with a rubber spatula until you have a very soft, batter like dough. (This is the sponge.) Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature for several hours or overnight.

Stir the rest of the flour, the remaining yeast, the sugar, and the salt into the sponge;then stir in the warm milk. Blend in the melted butter, making sure it's not too hot (that can kill the yeast).

Beat the eggs in a small bowl and reserve about 1 teaspoon for the egg wash you need later. Add the beaten eggs to the brioche dough. If necessary to get the dough to a consistency that's easy to work, dust the dough with flour if it's too sticky or sprinkle lightly with water if it's too stiff.

Knead the dough either by hand for 8 to 10 minutes, with a food processor for 90 seconds, or with an electric mixer for 4 minutes. Let the dough rest for 20 minutes.

Divide the dough into two parts: 3/4 and 1/4 of the total. Cut each part into 12 more or less equal pieces and roll each piece into a smooth ball. You'll have 12 large and 12 small balls.

Place the 12 large balls into an ungreased muffin pan; press the dough down to fill the space.

Make a deep depression in the center of each ball, moisten the depression with water, and press a small ball into each depression.

Beat the reserved egg with an equal amount of water and brush each brioche with this egg wash, making sure the liquid doesn't drip into the muffin tin. Reserve any remaining egg wash. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature until nearly doubled. Then refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, uncover dough and brush again with egg wash. Let it warm up for 30 to 40 minutes while preheating the oven to 400 degrees F.

Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until the brioches are cinnamon brown and a skewer inserted in them comes out clean.

Makes 12 brioches.

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