Where does brioche Polonaise come from? Not Poland, at least I haven’t found any reference to Poland in my research so far. Brioche Polonaise is a Parisian sweetmeat, perhaps a take on a Polish-style cake, probably invented in the mid-to-late 1800’s, about the time that the fluted brioche mold became popular. Today it’s something of a staple of the Parisian pâtissier’s repertoire, though it’s little known in the States.
What makes brioche Polonaise so remarkable is not its name or its origin, but the fact that it’s a product of both the boulangerie (bakery) and the pâtisserie (pastry shop).
What’s the difference, Joe? You may well ask. Certainly here in the States there’s no difference. Bakeries here produce, and indeed are expected to produce, both breads and pastries. If the establishment has a hot hole in the wall, it had better deliver everything associated with that device, from bread to cookies, croissants to Napoleons. The baking world in France isn’t organized this way. Or at least it hasn’t been for about 600 years.
The dawn of the fifteenth century was a tense time for bakers in the French-speaking part of Europe. The boule-making (“round bread”-making) establishment was being challenged by a sub-class of bakers who specialized in pies, small cakes and other sorts of things that didn’t fit the traditional mold of “baking”, no pun intended. Things came to a head — ooh, there I go again — in 1404 when this clan of upstart, off-shoot bakers demanded recognition by the crown.
That demand was granted, and ever since French baking has been, by law, divided into two professions: bread bakers (boulangers), who handle anything made with dough including breads of all kinds, brioche and croissants, and pastry makers (pâtissiers) who handle all the fussy cream fillings, fondants, chocolate and whatnot.
Given all that, brioche Polonaise is quite the little oddity: a base made by the boulanger — stale brioche — embellished to no small degree by the pâtissier. Is it cooperation or competition that brought this unusual pastry about? I have no idea, though brioche Polonaise certainly could be interpreted as a sort of revenge of the upper-crust pastry maker against his working class brethren. There! I have now made your ridiculous “head” of brioche all but unrecognizable! Come and poke me in ze nose if you dare! Ah ha!
I could be reading into things of course. Boulangeries and pâtisseries often cooperate with one another — are frequently owned by the same person or persons — so it’s more probable that brioche Polonaise is nothing more than an attempt by one business to make something salable out of another’s leftovers. I prefer the idea of a 600-year-old grudge match, however, because there’s something about the idea of toque-wearing culinarians fighting each other with rolling pins and icing spatulas that I find funny.