Schmaltz Brioche

I recently found myself in possession of a pot of gold. A large container filled to the brim with schmaltz--creamy, golden, rendered chicken fat, redolent with the aroma of chicken soup and (somebody's) grandmother's kitchen.

Eugene was excited when I brought home this prize. He, being Jewish, grew up with the stuff, but was disappointed when I opened it and he realized the container was lacking the tiny bits of crisp chicken skin. "Schmaltz without gribenes is nothing," he declared, while comforting himself with a hunk of bread spread thick with a slather of inferior crackling-less fat.

While contemplating the schmaltz, I remembered a recipe I'd learned from a friend back when I lived in Italy. He--let's call him Brandon-- was a fellow American student at the same culinary school I attended.  He was in the pastry track, while I was in the regular culinary arts program, so we didn't share very many classes but had met at various events and had become friends.

The rule at our school was that we weren't permitted to bring food home from the class; due to liability concerns, leftovers were to be consumed on the premises or thrown away--something which many of us found horrifying as we were often living on very tight budgets and hated the thought of wasting food.

Fortunately, some of the instructors were lax, purposely exiting the room to smoke a cigarette or flirt or do other Italian things while we quickly tucked cooked pork chops, partially cut fruit, and fritters into our loose pant pockets. Brandon had somehow managed to make away with a bounty of freshly baked bread rolls, dropping more than half a dozen of them inside his roomy toque just before hightailing it for the exit.

Later that same day, my roommate and I stopped by Brandon's apartment for dinner and he served us the fresh rolls--golden, soft, and buttery with a hint of sweetness. Just one bite in and I was already begging for the recipe.

"They're made with pork fat," he explained as he wrote down the formula for me on a tiny piece of paper ripped from the corner of the book he was reading.

I tucked that recipe away and, for some reason, didn't think about it again until the pot of gold came into my life. Remembering how good the rolls made with bacon fat had been, I wondered if savory chicken fat would have a similar effect. I immediately started rummaging, flipping through the sticky pages of my old culinary school texts trying to find the recipe he'd given me. I could see it clearly in my head--his boyish handwriting in black ink on the torn piece of paper--but it was nowhere to be found.

Too impatient to keep trying to find the original recipe, I decided on a different approach. I would need a bread recipe that called for a lot of fat, preferably something solid like butter. Brioche, of course.

I got to work and the results were brilliant--golden bread with a soft, tender--almost flaky--crumb and crisp, delicate crust. This was the brioche of my dreams. And the flavor...wow. Each bite is infused with just a hint of that unmistakable flavor, but in a subtle and not at all overpowering way. Eugene agreed as we turned the bread into breakfast sandwiches and then later on tried a sweet version with a bit of strawberry jam.

It was fantastic both ways, my only regret being that I didn't make two loaves instead of one.


How to Make Schmaltz:  To make this recipe you obviously need schmaltz. While you can often purchase schmaltz at ethnic and kosher markets or kosher sections of some grocery stores, it really is very simple to make and works about the same way as cooking bacon.

Start with a pound or two of chicken skin and fat (you can get this very cheaply from your butcher at any grocery store) and spread our in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, the way you would if you were caramelizing onions, and let the fat melt off the pieces of chicken. Let it continue to cook for about 30-45 minutes, turning down the heat if it gets too hot. Once it's ready you'll end up with lots of pieces of dark, crisped chicken skin (aka gribenes), and a lot of liquid fat (again, like if you were cooking bacon). Strain the liquid fat through a sieve into a glass container and let cool. It will thick and solidify once cold.

You can store this in your refrigerator and use for cooking the way you would any cooking oil (great with eggs or for sauteing vegetables) or spread on toast. The gribenes are also great spread on toast along with the schmaltz, and can also be sprinkled onto salads or soups the way you would use bacon bits or croutons.


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Schmaltz Brioche
Schmaltz is typically made at home by rendering the fat from chicken skin (directions described in the post), but it can also be purchased at Kosher markets, poultry shops, or grocery stores with Kosher sections. Recipe very heavily adapted from La Tartine Gourmande's "Simplest Brioche" recipe.
Print This Recipe
Ingredients
1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
1/3 cup warm milk (should be warm, not hot; you should be able to comfortable dip your finger in it for 10 seconds)
1/2 cup schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 rounded teaspoon Kosher salt
1 egg, for egg wash
Additional schmaltz or butter for greasing

Directions

Whisk together the yeast, sugar, and warm milk and let sit for 5 minutes until frothy.

Pour yeast mixture into the base of your mixer and attach the dough hook. Add the schmaltz and eggs and mix in well with the dough hook. Add the salt and flour, mixing with the dough hook at medium speed until it pulls away from the sides and a dough starts to form. Let knead for 5-10 minutes until the dough is smooth and not too sticky. If the dough is still too wet after 10 minutes of kneading, add another 1/4 cup of flour and knead it again.

Grease a clean bowl with a bit of schmaltz. Remove the dough from the mixer and shape into a ball. Place in the bowl and turn once to coat with schmaltz on all sides. Top loosely with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and leave in a warm spot to rise for 90 minutes or until doubled in volume.

One the dough has risen, poke it down and turn over onto a floured surface. Knead it gently by hand for 2 minutes and then form into a ball and cut into 8 even sized pieces (doesn't have to be exact). Shape each piece into a ball. Grease a 9" loaf pan with schmaltz and tuck the 8 dough balls into the bottom of the pan so that they all touch. Use a pair of clean kitchen scissors to snip an X into the top of each ball (optional but gives the final bread a pretty shape) then cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm spot for 30 minutes to 1 hour or until doubled in volume.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Whisk one egg with one tablespoon of water and use a pastry brush to gently cover the top of the loaf with the egg wash.

Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until the bread is golden. Remove from the oven and let cool in the loaf pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

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