Rich and buttery, yet light and delicate, brioche is so soft it needs chilling before shaping – the results make the wait well worth it. Served with apricot jam or blue cheese, this recipe is ideal for a special brunch.
Warm the milk with the grated orange zest in a small pan until it just feels comfortable to the touch. Set aside. Place the flour into a large mixing bowl, then mix in the yeast with your hand, until combined. Work in the sugar and salt and make a well in the centre.
Pour the warm milk and the beaten eggs into the well. Draw the flour into the liquid (you can use the dough hook of a mixer on the slowest speed), to make a very soft dough. Work the dough in the bowl for 5 minutes. Then, beat and slap it with your hand until smooth and elastic.
In a bowl, work the butter, little by little, into the dough, until thoroughly incorporated. Beat for 4 minutes, then cover the bowl with cling film and prove for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. Punch down the risen dough, cover again and chill for at least 2 hours, until very firm.
Turn out the dough onto a floured worktop and knead it to deflate. Divide it into 4 equal portions. Take 1 portion and pat it out with your fingers to a rectangle 10 x 15cm. Cut it lengthways into 4 strips, then, using your hands, roll each strip into a neat 19cm-long sausage.
Set the 4 sausages vertically in front of you. Pinch them together at the top. Begin with the strand on the far right. Bring that strand over the one next to it, then under the next. Then, bring the strand on the far left under the strand you’ve just moved (now next to it). Repeat using the farthest right strand (over, then under), then again move the one on the left under.
Repeat until all the dough strands are plaited, then pinch the ends together and tuck them neatly under the plait. Gently transfer to a lined baking sheet. Repeat the rolling and plaiting with the remaining dough.
Loosely cover the baking sheets with cling film and leave on the worktop to prove for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size and the plaits have retained their shape.
Heat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/Gas 6. Uncover the plaits and brush lightly with the beaten egg yolk, then brush again. For sweet brioche, sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake for 20–25 minutes, until rich golden brown, rotating the sheets after 15 minutes for an even bake. Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool before slicing.