Marie Antoinette's famous response to the news that her peasant subjects were starving, "qu'ils mangent de la brioche!", will forever characterize her as an unsympathetic and out-of-touch queen. In school and in films, the quote is often translated into English as "Let them eat cake!", because no American bread comes close to comparing with the rich, buttery, and impossibly light delicacy that is brioche.
Brioche is an enriched (meaning it contains butter, eggs, milk, and sugar), yeasted French dough that falls into the category of Viennoiserie, right alongside croissant, danish, and beignet. It's best known as a breakfast dough in America, because its fluffy yet stretchy texture lends so well to treats like sticky buns, yeasted doughnuts, and buns containing chocolate or dried fruit. Personally, I love making loaves of it for sandwiches (it tastes like a more buttery and sweet version of potato bread) and once it has staled a bit, it's perfect for making French toast or bread pudding.
Brioche has a reputation for being a fussy dough because it undergoes a long mixing process, which includes the slow and gradual addition of softened butter. Like other yeasted doughs, it requires additional time for fermentation and proofing. Although it's definitely not the easiest bread to make, understanding what to look for each step of the way removes some of the mystery behind making brioche, and the reward of eating it is definitely worth the effort.
Start by viewing this slideshow to learn step-by-step tips and things to know when making brioche, and then head over here for a great recipe for making it in your own kitchen. This recipe is big enough for making two standard loaves (to achieve proper mixing it's important to work in bigger quantities), and you might consider making one regular loaf and one pan of this highly-addictive monkey bread.
About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute.