What are the first three foods that come to mind when you think of France? Take your time, I will wait. Ready? Let’s see – I assume baguettes are up there? Baguettes seem to grow like grass here. What about delicate pastries like eclairs? Or their 1600 cheeses? Basically, anything involving butter?
France is pretty obvious when it comes to food, isn’t it? As the country which maintains its position near the top of the food ladder (I will not give them the satisfaction to declare them at the actual top), the cuisine has almost become a caricature of itself, like the traditional stereotype of a Frenchman – moustachioed, riding his bicycle with a string of onions or garlic hanging around his neck. And of course, we mustn’t forget those snails and frogs legs, foods to disgust and amaze children, when they’re actually mere regional delicacies for tourists. If we were speculating on the foods the French truly love, I think that would be viennoiserie – croissants and pain au chocolat.
Have you heard of the word viennoiserie? A clue is in its name: these are pastries that originated in Vienna – yes, it’s true, a beloved ‘French’ treat isn’t even French!
Yet, somehow the French have claimed it, and the treasured pain au chocolat – or should I say chocolatine in the south of France – is known worldwide by nothing other than the French term. A ‘chocolate bread’ they are not.
And, after sampling many here in Toulouse, I have – for some unexplained reason – made my own.
Homemade pain au chocolat
In January 2022, I wrote a food bucket list for the year (if you’re curious to know what else is on the list, check it out here). These were 10 dishes that for far too long I’d longed to make so just make them already woman, and on that list are pain au chocolat.
As you can see, I delayed making them for 11 months. I put them on the list with the confidence of a procrastinator, and now here we are, it’s Gaylord’s birthday and one of the few things he requested were the homemade pain au chocolat I had promised.
This is coming from a Frenchman who, without the moustache, bike and string of onions, is a French stereotype nevertheless. He’s a gourmand, he’s a romantic, his greatest love in life is a crusty, beautifully baked baguette, and if you need lessons in joie de vivre, he’s your guy. He also has a weakness for pain au chocolat.
Every Sunday, he’ll disappear off to the boulangerie and come back with a brown paper bag of pain au chocolat… and a mischievous expression because there’ll be a treat too. It’s enough to make anyone weak at the knees. What can I say, I’m exploring French cuisine. This is the guy who scoffs at the word ‘chocolatine’ because he is Parisian to his bones and I’ve known him to throw away freshly-bought pastries that don’t live up to his standard!
So, when he told me that my homemade pain au chocolat were delicious and ended up eating three in one day, I knew he wasn’t just sparing my feelings. I had the French seal of approval!
So, how do you make them?
Well, I found this recipe in a round-about way – so please excuse this tangent. A few years ago, I worked as a chef at a little bakery in south-west London. I stood in my corner of the bakery – a little cubby-hole of a kitchen – while the bakers crashed around me, shovelling bread out of ovens and shaping the exquisite croissants and pain au chocolat. Honestly, these were the best pain au chocolat I’ve ever had in my life and I now live in France. We’re talking good. Even my friend Sam would take two days off a week from her veganism to be able to eat them.
So, last week, I got in touch with one of my ex-colleagues, now a baker in Norway with a fancy cookbook, for his pain au chocolat recipe recommendation. He steered me towards a recipe by Adam Pagor, head baker at the bakery Grain & Hearth. During Covid, Adam had very kindly uploaded videos as he made croissants for a little bake-along on Instagram. These videos are fantastic and rather than being technical and overwhelming, the recipe is incredibly easy to achieve especially as it’s entirely visual. If your croissant dough looks like his, then you know you’re on the right path.
First of all – making homemade pain au chocolate is not as difficult as it first seems! In total, there are less than 10 ingredients needed. The long rests and proofs lessen the challenge’s pressure; it feels achievable in its bite-sized tasks.
Second – of course – keep the butter and dough cold. If the butter starts to smear while rolling and folding, wrap it up and chill. During the proofing, the dough becomes soft and jiggly, looking like perfect miniature pillows. If any butter leaks, quickly brush in egg wash and bake straight away.
My pain au chocolat were all different sizes, a bit scruffy and misshapen, but who cares, they don’t need to be boulangerie perfection and will still get a delighted thumbs up from your token Frenchman.
Pain au chocolat
- 425 g strong white bread flour or T55
- 135 g water
- 135 g whole milk
- 40 g caster sugar
- 10 g instant yeast or dried yeast which needs activating
- 10 g salt
- 250 g unsalted butter
- 30 dark chocolate sticks you can buy these online
- 1 egg beaten
For the dough
- If your yeast needs activating, heat the milk and water in a pan until lukewarm. Pour it into a jug, and add the yeast and a teaspoon of the sugar. Mix together and leave to becoming bubbly and frothy, around 15 minutes. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl and add the frothy yeast liquid. Mix with a wooden spoon to form a thick and sticky dough.If your yeast is instant, just put everything in a bowl and mix to make a dough.
- Tip it onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or so until smooth. Tuck it into a ball, place in a bowl and cover with cling film. Put it in the fridge overnight.
Preparing the dough and butter
- The next day, when you're ready to go, take the block of butter out of the fridge to soften for about 20 minutes.
- The dough will be super soft and airy, it might even be overflowing out of the bowl. Dump it onto the floured work counter and flatten it to remove the air. Place it in on a baking tray, cover in cling film and place in the freezer to firm while you sort out the butter.
- Time to bash the butter! If you're ok with deafening your neighbours, take a rolling pin to it straight away. Otherwise, place a towel under a chopping board then put the butter on top. Flatten the butter and trim the edges so they are straight, put them on top and smush them in. Cover it in baking parchment and leave it in the fridge until you need it.
Rolling and layering the dough
- Time to roll the dough. Roll it out to be twice the width of the butter. Peel the baking parchment off the butter and place it in the centre of the dough. Fold the dough over and around the butter and seal it inside.
- Roll it out, again horizontally. Trim the edges again, place them in the centre then fold one end over them, then the other end on top – this creates three layers and is called a turn.
- Rotate the dough 90° and roll out again in a long thin sheet. Trim and fold as before, then wrap in cling film and chill or freeze for 20 minutes to ensure the butter doesn't melt.
- After its little chill-out time, repeat the rolling and folding one more time. In total you will have folded it three times – three turns. With it still folded, wrap it in cling film and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Shaping the pain au chocolat
- Roll out the croissant dough until thin and flat into a large rectangle, then divide into smaller rectangles – roughly 8 x 16 cm. Place a chocolate stick along the short end of one, roll over the pastry until it's covering the chocolate. Place the next chocolate stick next to it and keep rolling. Place all the pain au chocolat on two lined baking trays.
- Once you've finished all the pain au chocolat, preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F (ideally on an eco setting if you have it). If you don't want to bake them all immediately, put some in plastic tubs in the freezer.Place the tray of pastries – maximum 6-8 pastries depending on the size of your tray – on top of the oven and cover with a tea towel. You may want to open the oven door to really warm the room.
- Leave the pain au chocolat to proof for an hour, then check on them. If they are soft and jiggly, they are ready to bake. If not, leave them for a bit longer. If there is any butter leakage, bake them straight away, quickly brushing the beaten egg all over the tops and edges.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes depending on the size of your pain au chocolat. They will continue to rise and turn golden and crisp. Remove from the oven when they look just like the pastries you see in bakeries!