Le Pain au Chocolat
In North America the French pastry treat most commonly known and consumed is the croissant. This little flaky “sweetmeat” is consumed by the tens of thousands across urban America daily with morning coffee or a mid-afternoon snack. And although quality can vary immensely, the gourmands can feel that with every bite they are sharing in some little way, the cuisine of France.
And yet in France itself, the preferred delicacy is the “pain au chocolat” or chocolate bread. This little treat which is usually made of puff or flaky pastry (although sometimes made with a brioche dough), is part of the French daily routine. Its combination of a buttery flaky dough and dark chocolate, baked together and giving off a deliciously seductive aroma is completely irresistible.
But where did this little “viennoiserie” originate? Ironically, the French refer to these types of pastries as originating in Vienna. (The word “viennoiserie” can be loosely translated as “Viennese thingy”). The croissant, for instance, at least some say, symbolizes the victory of Vienna over the Turkish forces. The bakers there made their pastry in the shape of a crescent (which appeared on the Turkish flag). It’s an interesting story but perhaps not accurate. Who knows?
As for the pain au chocolat…the origin remains shrouded in mystery. No legends, no romantic tales and no heroic stories. Perhaps, it was only an happy accident or experiment with the insertion of some chocolate into a flaky dough. But that’s how some great things are created, through happenstance. And we have it just as it is, a wonderful treat.
There are as many kinds of pain au chocolat as there are boulangeries (bakeries) in Paris. And I would be willing to bet that in each one the recipe is slightly different. There is in fact no set recipe for this viennoiserie.
A few years ago Le Figaroscope, the week-end supplement to the Paris daily Le Figaro conducted a blind taste testing of Parisien pains au chocolat. The head of the jury was master baker Gontran Cherrier. The panel was composed of food and restaurant journalists.
They surveyed “pains” from 25 of the most reputable bakeries and examined them in detail before tasting them; cutting them up examining the appearance, flakiness of the pastry, the chocolate and interestingly, the bakery itself – its appearance staff and welcoming atmosphere.
According to Cherrier, the way the pastry is made as well as the taste is important, since the former affects the latter. Has the proper yeast been used? Has the dough risen correctly? Has the flakiness been correctly done and does the finished product with its many layers, look and feel the way it should? Furthermore, the quality and taste are affected primarily by the quality of the ingredients, the butter, flour and chocolate. As far as the chocolate is concerned: does one use one bar or two, large or small, light or dark?
The judges were looking for an attractive colour and flakiness. Flaccid and lifeless pains were definite losers! The aroma needed to be pleasing and almost seductive. After some heavy-duty testing and tasting they declared the winner to be boulangerie Julien, a family-run boulangerie on the rue St. Honoré. In fact this bakery had already claimed the prize as having “the best croissant in Paris in 2005”.
Well, what does the owner Jean-Noel Julien say about these delicacies? What’s his secret? No secret! No magical ingredients! In order to make the best product, you have to start with the best ingredients, he says. They use flour from the Moulins de Chars ( a mill founded in 1904 northwest of Paris) and butter from Pitou-Charentes region of west France. A strict quality control is required to produce a high quality product consistently. Patience is also of the essence. It requires 24 hours to produce the “pains”. The dough requires proper kneading and fermentation with yeast to bring about the proper texture and taste. It also takes several hours to prepare the chocolate correctly. This is definitely not a fast food item!
Jean-Noel Julien adds that the best viennoiseries can only be made in bakeries and not at home. The problem he says is the ovens. They are not equipped properly to heat the dough and require a “hot plate” or direct heat source upon which the pastry sits. The end result can be tasted early each morning preferably just after the petits pains come out of the oven. If you’re in Paris, check it out. And if you’re not, do try it at home. Even if the oven is not exactly the correct one, my guess is that with a little patience and quality ingredients, those little viennoiseries will taste just great!
This article was adapted from one published in French in the audio magazine “Champs-Elysee”.
Gontran Cherrier is a noted master baker, and contributer to many magazines and TV shows about food. He has published several books on baking including : “ Les bons plats de Gontran”, “Ultra Chocolat” and “Pains”, his latest.
Here is a link to his website: http://www.gontran-cherrier.com