Berliners To Bomboloni, The History Of Brioche Doughnuts

Brioche doughnuts have been having their moment in the sun recently and it’s no wonder why. These delightful confections seamlessly blend the velvety richness of brioche bread with the sweet indulgence of a doughnut and boast a captivating history as intriguing as their flavour which begins in 16th century France.

Brioche is a rich bread, enriched with eggs, sugar, and butter and with its dense texture it ventures into the realm of viennoiserie, a French term encompassing pastries like croissants and pain au chocolat. But unlike these morning treats, brioche is enjoyed throughout the day, even as part of lunch or dinner.

The name "brioche" and its origins are uncertain, but it is believed to come from the old Norman French verb, "brier," associated with the modern French verb "broyer," meaning "to grind or crush." Which could describe the kneading of the dough with a wooden rolling pin, known as "broye" or "brie" in Old French. The suffix "-oche" was later added to designate the finished bread.

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Like many other French culinary creations the exact origin of brioche has spurned a lot of legends. Some say that the famous Marie-Antoinette introduced it to France from her native Austria. And since she is famously attributed with the revolution-stirring phrase "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche!" (Let them eat cake!). Many feel like that is a telltale sign. Although later evidence suggests this remark was falsely attributed and she never said anything of the sort. Furthermore, brioche was a staple of French for centuries, with references dating back to the early 15th century, well before Marie-Antoinette's time. 

Its more probable birthplace lies in Normandy and its first written mention dates back to 1404 with the most conclusive date being recorded when it appeared in a French-English dictionary dating to 1611. In Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues; it was described as “a rowle, or bunne, of spiced bread”.

Krapfen, The German Connection

Later in Germany came the Krapfen. a delightful cake with Austro-German roots, crafted from yeast dough and then fried in oil or lard. While it goes by the name "Berliner" in most parts of Germany, in the Rhineland, this heavenly treat is lovingly referred to as "Kreppel." The precise origin of its name remains uncertain. 

Some suggest it hails from the old German word "krafo," meaning pancake, while others attribute it to Cäcilie Krapf, a skilled Austrian confectioner credited with giving birth to this round, leavened cake, presumably first created for the Congress of Vienna in 1815. During that event, the Austrian capital witnessed the consumption of over ten million of these delectable pastries.

Into Italia, The Bomboloni

Next it found its place in Italy and the Bomboloni – named for the Italian word "bomba" (plural "bombe"), directly translating to the English word "bomb," – hailed from Tuscany. They are traditional in other Italian regions too, each with slight variations in the recipe. There are main two types of bomboloni: the original Tuscan style and the Krapfen style which was more common in areas formerly under Austrian rule, such as Trentino Alto-Adige, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The difference being that the more German-inspired version includes eggs, a feature absent in the Tuscan version.

So…Are They Still Doughnuts?

The idea of calling them doughnuts is to some, controversial, simply because the two pastries have very different background even though their legacy seems to have met somewhere in the middle. The term "doughnut" traces back to Dutch settlers in America, who referred to them as "oily cakes." These early doughnuts were typically plain, ring-shaped, and deep-fried.

In contrast, Bombolonis and Berliners are both solid spheres, often with a centre of jam or custard piped into the centre. The only real similarity is that both are deep-fried breads of the dessert persuasion, and for most of us, that’s enough to bridge the gap. 

Brioche doughnuts, with their delectable blend of brioche's buttery elegance and the sweet allure of doughnuts, have a rich history steeped in French and Italian traditions. While the origin stories of brioche and doughnuts may differ, their union in the form of these delightful pastries transcends borders and cultures, offering a treat enjoyed by many around the world.