The Mother Dough Saga: Black Pepper Brioche

By Erin Allen


As mentioned in this post, Erin will be attempting to get through the recipes in Christina Tosi's "Milk Bar" cookbook. This post is one in a series.

Black Pepper Brioche

During quarantine, it seems many people are taking to their kitchens and baking. Bread, specifically. I figured that was a good place to start in the "Milk Bar" cookbook. Tosi has a "mother dough" that she says will be your favorite recipe. "This bread dough is always tasty, very forgiving and can be fashioned into nearly any style or variety of bread item," she writes.


This is the dough used for Milk Bar's famous bagel bombs and volcanoes. Before taking on this cookbook challenge, I've actually used her dough recipe to some success with making said bagel bombs (which I will try to recreate, again, at some point for the purposes of this challenge). Thus, I felt pretty confident when deciding to make the black pepper brioche. Boy was I wrong ...


Mother Dough

Mother Dough

One thing I didn't remember was how sticky the dough comes out. When I made it before, I was making it in a commercial kitchen which doesn't suffer from the weird temperature fluctuations that seem to exist in my home. Nothing in the recipe talks about stickiness, except that the dough should look like a "wet ball and bounce back softly when prodded." I make pizza dough all the time at the restaurant, and it never looks like this. Naturally, I feel like I may already have done something wrong.


I let the dough proof at room temperature as directed, but it didn’t seem to rise much, likely because I live in Colorado and my house is cold all the time. I stuck the bowl of dough in a warm water bath for another 45 minutes, and it appeared to grow a tad bit in size.

Once the dough is proofed, you're instructed to “punch down and flatten the dough” for the black pepper brioche. I've never made a loaf of bread before – when it comes to baking, I'm usually a dessert person – so those instructions seemed very vague to me. Do I hand-knead and roll? Am I really just putting it on the counter and beating it up a bit? Admittedly I did give the dough a hard time for a couple of seconds.


Black Pepper Brioche


Even after proofing, the dough remained sticky. Scooping it out into the loaf pan with the ice cream scoop was a messy process. And, it seemed like I had way more dough than room in the pan.

Black Pepper Compound Butter

The finished product was very salty, even though I'm fairly certain I followed the recipe correctly. When making the black pepper compound butter, I didn't actually taste the final product. Obviously, I should know better. That's Rule One in cooking – taste everything!


The bread also had a biscuity texture. Of course, that makes my Southern-girl heart happy, but I'm not sure if that outcome was correct. Tosi doesn't share how the bread is supposed to correctly turn out like she does for some of her other recipes.


The bread also cooked unevenly. I was using a silicone loaf pan, which could account for that outcome. I have noticed this before when making brownies using silicone bakeware.

Second Attempt


Because the bread was so salty and didn't seem to have the right texture, I tried again. I looked up other brioche recipes, and the one in the "Milk Bar" cookbook is nothing close. Tosi admits that her recipe is a very loose interpretation of brioche. "This is probably the most sacrilegious 'brioche' recipe you will every find," she writes. So I felt better about trying again because, I don't know, maybe I'm not really making brioche.


Because of the salty previous attempt, I decided to cut down the salt by half in both the dough and the compound butter.


The mother dough came out sticky again, of course. And I was still unsure of the hand-kneading. I made a mess of it on the counter and a mess of my hands when attempting to “punch down a flatten” before adding the compound butter. Note to self and other bakers, don’t forget you have one of those metal scraper things — I think they are officially called a "dough cutter" — to help you work you super sticky dough. Don’t have one? Get one!


Black Pepper Brioche Oven Explosion

Baking is always a crapshoot here in Colorado, because of the altitude. I forgot to take a picture of the bread proofing in the pan and the subsequent explosion of dough. Oops! Because it’s always so cold in the house, I proofed the dough on the stove with the oven on for warmth. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea? I just know that when we’ve proofed stuff at “room temperature,” rising is difficult because room temperature is like 60 degrees here. The bread did, however, explode in the oven, so you get the visual idea.

In hindsight, the bread pan may have been too small. I retried using a metal tin instead of silicone. And, again, I felt like I had more dough than room in the tin. The end result was not a pretty loaf, but it sure was tasty. Buttery, yeasty and not very dense. The brioche also had a flakey texture, like a biscuit. So, it was similar to the first attempt.


I had trouble getting it out of the bread tin, despite spraying it to help prevent sticking. I knew I should have lined it with parchment paper instead. Once out of the tin, the bread didn't slice like bread, even after putting it in the fridge in hopes that getting it cold would make it hold together. The bread was pretty crumbly, which I know can be the result of over-kneading.


Maybe next time, I’ll refrigerate the dough and use next day or several hours later to see if it solidifies a bit better (because it’s super sticky) and then try this recipe again. All in all, though, it was yummy sort-of-kind-of bread, and taste/flavor is one of the most important components of a successful recipe.


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Durango, CO, USA

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