Paris’ pain au chocolat: More than a chocolate croissant
PARIS – Pain au chocolat comes in an unassuming wrapper that hides a world of wonder inside: Light, buttery layers of flaky dough, wrapped around two morsels of dark chocolate that melt on your tongue.
Literally translated as “bread with chocolate,” the pain au chocolat is a typical French breakfast food, perfect with a steaming bowl of cafe au lait or as an after-school snack for hungry children.
For visitors to France, the memory of its taste can linger long after you leave, triggering cravings on chilly mornings and unmasking the inferior impostors sold in chic coffee shops back home.
According to baking mythology, the pain au chocolat, which shares its roots with the croissant, was born by accident when a baker’s apprentice forgot to put the butter into the dough.
The novice’s attempt to fix his mistake by “turning” the dough, or rolling butter in between layers of dough until it was incorporated, unexpectedly created the pastry’s unique flakiness.
But this process is changing. While French law strictly prohibits accredited “boulangeries,” or bakeries, from selling bread made from frozen dough, the same standards do not apply to “viennoiseries,” the name of the group of pastries that include croissants, brioches and pains au chocolat.
Bakers these days increasingly rely on factory-made frozen pastries or make their viennoiseries in advance.
Frozen pastries include all the same ingredients as fresh ones, but the difference in the texture is clear: Frozen pastries lack both the fluffy inside or the crusty outside of their fresh counterparts.
When you nibble on a pain au chocolat, you take in the sound of a French “bonjour,” the smell of warm butter and the sight of that flaky pastry made from a process perfected over generations.
Preparation time, start to finish: 8 hours (1 hour active). Makes 12 servings.
For the dough:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cups whole milk, cold
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the butter square:
3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces and kept cold
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 large egg, lightly beaten
To make the dough, in a medium bowl whisk together 2 3/4 cups of the flour, yeast, sugar and salt.
Place the milk in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add the flour mixture and knead at low speed until a ball of dough forms, about 5 minutes.
Cut the butter into small pieces and add them to the dough. Continue to knead until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough becomes smooth, begins to form a ball, and clears the sides of the bowl, an additional 5 to 6 minutes.
At this point, the dough should be sticky. If more dough is sticking to the sides of the bowl than to itself, add the remaining 1/4 cup flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, as necessary.
Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate it for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make the butter square. On a clean work surface, toss together the butter pieces and flour. Using the scraper, smear the butter back and forth until it forms a smooth mixture.
Wrap the butter in plastic wrap and form it into a 7-inch square. Refrigerate until needed, or at least 30 minutes.
Lightly dust a work surface with flour. Roll the refrigerated dough into an 11-inch square. Place the chilled butter square in the center of the dough, slightly askew.
Fold the corners of the dough up over the butter square so that they meet in the middle and pinch the ends of the dough together to seal them.
Using a rolling pin, gently tap the dough, starting from the center of the dough and going outward, until the square becomes larger and the butter begins to soften.
Start gently rolling the dough into a 14-inch square, checking often to make sure the dough is not sticking and dusting with additional flour as necessary.
Fold the square into thirds to form a long rectangle. This method of folding is called a “turn” and resembles folding a business letter. Starting from the narrow ends, fold the rectangle into thirds again to form a square.
You have now given the dough two turns. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Roll the dough into another 14-inch square, dusting with flour to prevent sticking as necessary. Fold the square into thirds to form a long rectangle. Fold the rectangle into thirds again to form a square.
Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for 2 hours.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place the chilled dough on a floured work surface and gently roll the dough into a 20-inch square. Use a pizza cutter and ruler to cut the dough into 4 equal 10-inch squares.
Cut each square into thirds to make a total of 12 rectangles, each approximately 10-by-3 1/4 inches.
Place 1 tablespoon of chocolate in the middle of each rectangle. Fold the short sides into the center over the chocolate, with the edges slightly overlapping. Transfer to the prepared baking sheets, seam-side down.
Cover the pains au chocolate loosely with plastic wrap and let them rise at room temperature until puffy (they will not double in size), 45 to 60 minutes.
Meanwhile, adjust the oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 400 F.
Brush the pastries with the beaten egg. Bake until they are golden brown, 18 to 22 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time.
Cool the pastries on a wire rack until warm, about 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
– Recipe from Cook’s Illustrated magazine’s “Baking Illustrated” (2004).
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