Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Breton biscuit

Breaking of the Breton biscuit. Photos by Steve Shanahan
First published Canberra Times 13 June 2012
The universe aligns for me when I am exposed to that fatal combination of sweetness and saltiness. Throw in butter, and it becomes something far better than the sum of its parts, achieving a richness of universal proportions. 

In western France, we first come across the fun but oddly informal tradition of guests reaching into the middle of the dining table and breaking off fat chunks of  this sweet and salty, buttery biscuit which is brought to the table in the form of a large, golden slab.

In the Normandy and Brittany regions, butter is king and remains an integral patisserie ingredient. The high quality, unsalted butter used in this recipe is the catalyst that creates the texture, and releases the fine flavour and irresistible smell of the biscuit while baking. It makes a huge difference to the finished taste, and this is one of those instances where price does count, so buy the best butter you can afford.

These traditional Breton biscuits date back to the 1800s and are instantly recognisable by the criss-cross pattern on the top, made shiny by painting liberally with an egg wash before they go into the oven.  This large cookie is no exception and takes the shape of whatever large biscuit slide or pan you might have available.  I usually make mine in a rectangular oven tray.

This substantial biscuit has all the punch it needs to be served alongside a strong, black coffee.

You can make this biscuit dough a few days ahead and store wrapped in cling wrap in the refrigerator or freeze in an airtight container. This dough quantity makes enough to cover a large baking tray.

A timely warning at this point though. These need to be eaten in moderation as they are seriously addictive and probably don’t form part of any nutritionally appropriate diet. But we don’t indulge that often, do we?

1 ¾ cups plain flour
⅔ cup sugar
130g good quality, unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
¼ tsp sea salt flakes
6 tbsp cold water
2 egg yolks for glazing
1 tsp extra sea salt flakes for scattering on top

Place the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and blend to combine. Gradually drop in the cubes of butter until the mixture looks like rough breadcrumbs.  With the machine still running, gradually add the cold water, just enough to produce a dough that forms a ball. The dough should feel soft.

Place the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, form into a flattened square and cover with cling film and refrigerate to rest for an hour or so. The dough can be left refrigerated for a few days at this point.

When you’re ready to bake the dough, preheat the oven to 180C and line a baking sheet with baking paper.  Remove the dough from the fridge to allow it to soften just enough to be malleable.

Roll the dough out between 2 layers of cling wrap or baking paper and roll into a rectangle about 5mm in thickness. Roll to fit your baking tray.

With a spatula, lift the dough onto the lined baking tray. Beat the egg yolks together with a teaspoon of cold water and using a pastry brush, paint the surface of the dough. With a fork or a sharp knife, score the surface into a criss-cross pattern, by first making lines one way, then the other. Sprinkle the surface of the dough with the extra sea salt flakes.

Bake the biscuit for about 30 minutes, checking its edges do not burn. If you feel they are browning too much, cover the edges of the biscuit with a strip of alfoil to protect them while the centre of the biscuit continues to brown.  The biscuit should be a shiny golden brown.

Transfer carefully onto a wire rack to cool to room temperature and serve in the centre of the table to allow guests to break off pieces when they want.

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