Pain au lait – literally, ‘milk bread’. I first became aware of this soft buttery bread very early on in my career, but it never really entered my repertoire. And then I transitioned into restaurants, and my bread interests were eclipsed by the world of plated desserts. For some fifteen years I just never got much of a chance to exercise those bread skills.
But the urge to put my hands into dough from time to time never went away. It was working with bread that unexpectedly pulled me over to the dark side of professional cooking. It was the sartorial moment I realized bread dough is a living thing; the baker is merely a facilitator, creating the right conditions for a humble lump of flour/water/yeast/salt to transform itself into the very staff of life. The variability of what we can coax from their sum, let alone the fact that it becomes anything edible at all, makes the head spin. It’s easy to imagine, therefore, how a young mind could be seduced by the mechanisms of bread into the wonders of food and cooking at large. As I continued to move away from the day-to-day rigors of the professional kitchen, it made sense in recent months to refresh that repertoire and expand it. When I pick up a smooth ball of dough, sensing its stage of development, shaping it into the loaf it will become, I discover physical memories apart from those of the mind. Just like riding a bicycle, or tying your shoes, your body remembers those movements without thinking. When you fall out of practice with anything, revisiting it feels awkward for a few moments. But it comes back.
My interest in pain au lait was rekindled after hanging out in the kitchen at L2O in Chicago, which has perhaps one of the most impressive restaurant bread programs I’ve come across. I struggle to describe the flavor and texture of pain au lait – the best I’ve come up with is to say that its like a cross between brioche and well made biscuit – light and tender, not too rich. The formulation mirrors brioche in ingredients, but in different proportions. And its lightness is due in part to further lamination – rolling and folding the dough. The result is a consistency that allows for rare precision in portioning and make-up to create a striking, uniform size and shape.
Though I’ve seen larger loaves, I think pain au lait is best expressed in small format. Well-rested after a third single-turn, the chilled dough is rolled and portioned with the aid of a ruler. After a gentle proof, the top is brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with coarse salt to produce a striking individual piece.
This return to bread has inspired a new discipline of near daily regimen of baking sessions – only a week in, I’m having a blast!
Below, my formula for pain au lait:
Just a few of many, many favorite bread resources include:
Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, by Jeffrey Hamelman
Special and Decorative Breads (The Professional French Pastry Series)
Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson
For general inspiration:
Dan Barber, at the MAD Symposium, 2012
Peter Reinhart’s TED talk, 2008
And in case you haven’t heard, the Modernist Cuisine lab is currently at work on their own exploration of bread – with Francisco Migoya and Peter Reinhart on the team, I’m beyond excited to see how that project develops!