(French Craquelin (sugary brioche with a crispy top) - recipe in post)
During the weekdays, The Boyfriend and I like to e-mail each other - sometimes with a piece of news or other importance, sometimes just to say hello.
Last week, I received an e-mail titled "Mornin', Sweets". Inside was a link to Destination Dessert's post on Craquelin. The Dessert Traveler's description upon first tasting Craquelin was intoxicating to read, and from The Boyfriend to me it was a clear and direct compliment of my own sweetness.
"I instantly realized that this was no ordinary brioche ...Nothing could prepare me for the nirvana on my taste buds. The craquelin was simply phenomenal! I quickly cut myself a second piece, and then a third: I was hooked!" - Destination Dessert
*Swoon* you hear that? I'm no ordinary brioche!
I decided to reciprocate by making my own Craquelin over the weekend - sweets for my sweetie.
But first, what is it?
Craquelin (also known as Suikerbrood, or sugar bread) is a French brioche, dough studded with nib sugar, and top so crisp you literally crack into it - hence the name (meaning, The Cracker). It is often served as a breakfast treat, or with tea, and is common throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. So sweet and cloud-like, the perfect combination of bread and pastry, it would be a sin to cover it up with jams or spreads.
Brioches are a family of breads typically made with lots of butter and many eggs. The dough is worked very thoroughly (no fear of over-mixing, here!) so that the butter gets between the sheets of gluten. After a good leavening, the dough forms many pockets of air and butter - and in the oven, the butter melts. This creates a delightfully rich, but light-as-a-feather, loaf.
"Humble ingredients - flour, eggs, and butter - are transformed creatively to a sublime dessert." - Ron Ben Israel, in an interview with Journal Sentenial
There are two types of sugar used in this bread that are less-than-common here in the states: Nib (or pearl) sugar, and caster (or superfine) sugar.
(Nib (pearl) sugar and Caster (superfine) sugar)
Nib (or pearl) sugar is basically granulated sugar that has been packed and pressed into little... well, nibs. The thing that makes them special is that they take longer to dissolve during regular bake times/temperatures, which results in little pockets of gooey sweetness. When used to top desserts or pastries, the nibs often remain whole. Nib (or pearl) sugar can be found in some specialty stores and online, but I've seen some recipes substitute small sugar cubes. Joanne Change suggests using chopped candied citrus peel, which would also make a fine substitute.
Caster (or superfine) sugar is granulated sugar that's been ground much finer - you can replicate this at home by spinning white sugar in a blender or food processer until fine, but not powdered. If you can find caster sugar in the stores, though, I would suggest using it as the measurements may be less than precise with home-made.
(Loaf studded with extra nib sugar)
This bread is certainly a little time consuming, but the dough and finished loaves are both freezable, which lends some flexibility. And all efforts aside, it is so incredibly worth it - definitely the best brioche I've ever made.
Recipe notes: After much reading, I decided to base my recipe off some of my favorite authors - Joanne Chang, of Flour bakery, and Shirley Corriher, of the books 'CookWise' and 'BakeWise'. I also integrated the recipe cited by Destination Dessert.
So far as I can tell, it is traditional for Craquelin to have a hint of citrus worked into it. I've chosen to use orange here, but you could certainly substitute other citrus fruits, or even citrus liquors. It is also common for the bread to have sliced or slivered almonds, either in the dough or as garnish. Feel free add these if you would like, as well as a few drops of almond extract. Other possible add-ins, though less traditional, include cinnamon and dried fruit (such as raisins, currants or cranberries).
This recipe makes two loaves, but could be halved if working the dough by hand. Though it is certainly easier in a stand-mixer, Chang recommends not halving the recipe if using one due to the stand mixers inability to thoroughly work a smaller amount of dough.
I have included instructions for both using a stand mixer and making the dough by hand (which is the method I used, so fear not - it can be done!).
Makes two loaves, freezes well
1/2 cup (115 grams) warm water (115f. or 45c.)
3 1/4 tsp. (1 1/2 packets) active dry yeast
1/4 cup, plus 1 TBSP (52 + 13 grams) Caster or superfine sugar
2 1/4 cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups (340 grams) bread flour
1 TBSP (10 grams) kosher salt (or 1 1/2 tsp. table salt)
6 large eggs, room temperature (5 whole, one separated)
1/4 (112 grams) cup crushed ice
3 1/2 sticks (400 grams) butter, room temperature, cut into small cubes
1 1/2 cups (225 grams, or 8oz) nib or pearl sugar, chilled in the freezer (can substitute with small sugar cubes, or finely chopped candied orange, or other citrus, peel)
1 orange, zest and juice of (or other citrus - omit if using candied citrus peel instead of nib sugar)
Optional: 1/2 tsp. almond extract (add to the dough along with the eggs, yeast, and water)
Optional: More nib sugar, chopped citrus peel, or sliced almonds for garnishing the tops of the loaves
Toss together the nib sugar and all of the citrus zest in a small baggie, and chill in the freezer for at least one hour ahead, or freeze overnight.
Once you're ready to use the dough, squeeze the citrus juice over the nib sugar and stir to combine. Let this macerate at room temperature for 5-10 minutes, then drain before using.
In a small bowl, combine the warm water, 1 TBSP caster sugar, and yeast. Set this aside for 5-10 minutes, or until the yeast becomes very frothy and active.
In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, sift together the flour, salt, and the rest of the caster sugar. Stir after sifting to be sure everything is mixed.
Make a well in the middle, and add all (6) of the egg yolks and 5 of the egg whites (reserve one white for later - this can be set in a small bowl with plastic wrap pressed directly on top and stored in the fridge).
Pour the active yeast mixture in with the eggs, and begin mixing (on low speed with your stand mixer's dough hook, or with your hands or a wooden spoon), stirring from the center out - lightly beating the eggs, and then slowly incorporating more and more of the flour. If using almond (or other) extract, add it here.
Turn your mixer to medium-low (or knead by hand) for a good 5-6 minutes (or 6-8 minutes by hand). The dough should be fairly stiff - if it is too sticky too knead, add up to one TBSP more flour. Once all of the dry is incorporated into the wet and the dough has come together, let it rest for 10-15 minutes.
Add the crushed ice, and one cube of butter. Mix on low speed (or knead with your hands) until the butter has disappeared before adding another cube. Continue until all of the butter is added - the dough should become very sticky and shaggy. Continue mixing (or kneading) for a good 8-10 minutes (or 10-15 minutes by hand), until the dough is a silky (and sloppy) mess. Scrape down the sides of the bowl often to be sure all of the butter is integrated.
Tip: if using your hands, prepare to use a lot of elbow grease (and get greasy up to your elbows!), so roll up your sleeves. Keep in mind that a big function of a stand-mixer at this point is to introduce air. Pinch, squeeze, and pull to incorporated the butter, while also using your hand as a paddle to scoop the dough the way a mixer would. Once all the butter is added and the dough begins to smooth out, I found it very helpful to lift the dough out of the bowl and pull it between my hands - stretching it apart, and then bringing my hands together - like pulling sugar.
Transfer the dough to a clean, lightly greased bowl (at least twice the size of the dough itself) and cover loosely with plastic wrap.
Let the dough rise at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for 2-3 hours. At this point the dough can be used immediately, refrigerated overnight, or frozen in an air-tight container for up to one week.
Making the Craquelin:
Grease two 9x5 inch loaf pans.
Peel the dough out of its container and set on a lightly floured surface. Using a knife or bench scraper, divide the dough in half. Take each half and cut off a small ball of dough, approximately 1/8th - 1/4 of the size of the half. Set these smaller balls of dough aside for later.
To one of the larger chunks, press in a handful of the citrus and nib sugar mixture, flattening the dough into a wide square. Fold the dough over itself like an omelet, and press in another handful of nib sugar, now creating a rectangle. Repeat 1-2 more times, pressing and folding, or until half of the sugar is used. Shape the last rectangle into a cylinder the length of your loaf pan.
Roll (or press with your fingers) one of the smaller dough balls into a long thin envelope and wrap it around the larger cylinder, pinching to seal at the bottom. Place in one of the greased loaf pans, seam side down, and repeat with the rest of the dough.
Brush the top of each loaf with some of the remaining egg white. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let the dough proof for 4 hours, or until doubled in size. The loaves should rise up to the tops of the pans. They will be sticky to the touch, but feel very soft and full of air - gently poke the center of one loaf and you can almost hear the Pillsbury Doughboy giggle somewhere in the distance.
Preheat the oven to 350f. (180c.)
Brush once more with the rest of the egg white, and using your pastry brush (or fingers) gently make a shallow indentation in the shape of an X across the tops of the loaves - this will help them bake evenly, but don't worry, they'll puff out again in the oven.
Optionally, sprinkle with a little extra nib sugar, sliced almonds, or other garnish.
Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes. The tops should be dark golden brown when finished (an instant-read thermometer inserted to the center of a loaf should read 200f. or 95c.). Set the loaf pans on a wire rack and let cool for 30 minutes before removing from the pans.
Enjoy these loaves warm and fresh, or let cool completely before wrapping tightly in plastic wrap and storing in the freezer for up to one month.