With its rich, fluffy crumb and soft crust, pain au lait is the perfect breakfast delight, for kids and grown-ups alike. Add some cheese for a savory snack. Or fill it with chocolate for a breakfast that will definitely help you get out of bed! And if you are intimidated by yeast, this is the perfect starting recipe. Pain au lait is really easy to make and incredibly therapeutic to shape! Well, unless there are kids nearby who called dibs! I have to warn you though. Once you know how to make pain au lait, you won’t be able to stop making it!
Pain au lait is composed of flour, milk, butter, eggs, sugar, salt and yeast. We will be making today Christophe Felder’s recipe (from his book Pâtisserie) which is simply amazing and uses all-purpose flour, convenient for all. I’m going to break down every step of the process for you. So even if it’s your first time baking with yeast, you’ll know exactly why you are doing a particular step. If you do not wish to read all the explanations, I’ve included a table of contents so you can just skip ahead to the section that interests you.
What Yeast To Use
The original recipe calls for fresh yeast (also called compressed yeast), which has a crumbly texture. It can sometimes be found packaged in cubes in the dairy section at the supermarket. Professional bakers will usually recommend this type of yeast. It has a short shelf life however so you would have to purchase it when you need it, which can be slightly inconvenient for home bakers.
Dry yeast, on the other hand, will last a very long time and can just be stored in your cupboards. You will find two types: active dry yeast and instant yeast. Instant yeast, as the name implies, acts faster and is always my go to. It will be written on the packaging whether or not it is instant. But if in doubt, look at the size of the granules. Instant yeast granules are very small and don’t need to be dissolved before adding them to the dough.
Active dry yeast has to be dissolved in a warm liquid before being mixed with the rest of the ingredients. In this recipe, I will use instant yeast but will show you how and when to dissolve it so you can easily use the yeast you prefer.
In terms of proportions, if a recipe calls for fresh yeast, you can multiply the amount by 0.5 (or divide by 2) for active dry yeast. And by 0.35 for instant yeast. The original recipe for pain au lait calls for 10 g of fresh yeast. You can use 5 g of active dry yeast, or 4 g of instant yeast. You can also check the packaging of the yeast you have in hand. It should be written how much yeast you should use for 500 g of flour.
Pain Au Lait Process Explained
There are several steps when making pain au lait. Most of them don’t require any action from you. You simply have to wait. I personally like starting the process the night before so I can just refrigerate the dough and use it for breakfast.
1) Mixing The Dough
The first step consists in mixing the ingredients. How to mix the dough is up to you and how much arm strength you have! The original recipe calls for mixing using a wooden spoon and your fingers. You could use a stand mixer (fitted with the hook attachment) if you like. The dough will wrap around the hook, however, and you have to regularly stop the mixer, remove the dough and start again.
All the ingredients, except for the butter, are added to the yeast that has been dissolved in warm milk.
Why isn’t butter added from the beginning? Because it interferes with gluten formation, which is essential when making bread. While too much gluten is undesirable when making tarts, a strong gluten network will hold the gas bubbles created by the yeast, helping the bread to rise. Gluten is formed when two proteins (glutenin and gliadin) in flour are in the presence of water. Gluten gets its strength (or tenacity) and elasticity from the glutenin and its stretchiness (or extensibility) from the gliadin. If butter is added too early, it will coat the flour proteins and keep them away from the water, leading to an insufficient amount of gluten in the dough.
If you are following the baking calendars, you might remember the sanding technique when making pâte brisée and pâte sablée. To minimize gluten formation, we first rub the flour and butter together, before adding any liquid.
Once the dough looks homogeneous, softened butter is added. The dough is mixed until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
Mixing will contribute to the development of gluten. To determine whether the dough is ready, try stretching it. If the dough breaks, not enough gluten has been formed yet. Keep mixing.
2) First rise
The dough is left to rise at room temperature until it doubles in volume. This step is also known as fermentation. The yeast will start to leaven the bread by producing carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. The gluten will also become smoother and more elastic during this step.
3) Punching the dough
After the dough has doubled in volume, you should deflate it gently before reshaping it. I always wondered why we had to deflate the dough after waiting more than an hour for it to rise! Well, according to Gisslen1, when you punch the dough, several things happen:
- The carbon dioxide produced by the yeast is expelled leading to a finer crumb (the holes in the crumb aren’t large).
- The yeast is redistributed in the dough which will allow for even more growth during the second rise. Why? Because the yeast runs out of sugar to feed on nearby. By redistributing it, you are giving it a new environment where it can find more food.
- The gluten (responsible for the elasticity of the dough) is relaxed which will make the dough easier to work with.
- The temperature of the dough becomes more uniform.
4) Chilling the dough
After deflating the dough, it is shaped into a ball again and refrigerated for 2 hours, or until firm. Depending on the mixing bowl you use, you might need to slightly oil it before chilling the dough in it. When I used a plastic bowl, the dough was a bit hard to remove.
If you want to make this recipe over two days, this is the perfect place to stop. Just leave the dough in the fridge overnight.
5) Shaping the dough
The dough is weighed and then divided into equal amounts. When making pain au lait, 50 g is a good size. You can eyeball this step if you prefer. Just make sure that they are more or less the same size so that they finish baking at the same time. Once you’ve divided the dough, shape it into round balls first and then into pain au lait.
6) Second Rise
This step is known as proofing. This is when your nicely shaped pain au lait will double in volume.
How to know if the dough is properly proofed? If it springs back slowly when you gently touch it, it’s ready! If it bounces back too quickly, it’s underproofed. And if it doesn’t spring back and the dent made by your finger stays in the dough, it’s overproofed.
Last stage before enjoying amazing pains au lait! The shaped pains au lait are brushed with an egg wash to give them a shiny surface, and then scored with a knife. And in the oven they go!
Making Pain Au Lait
I’ll admit that making pain au lait takes a little bit of time. But this doesn’t mean you will have to work a lot! That part is actually quite short. What takes long is waiting for the dough to rise and the chilling time. But if you prepare it the night before, you can just refrigerate the dough before going to bed and forget about it! Then simply take it out early in the morning and before you know it, you’ll be enjoying a wonderful breakfast!
Mixing the ingredients
- Warm the milk to about 43°C (110°F). It should feel very slightly warm to the touch.
- In a large bowl, stir the yeast and warm milk with a spoon.
Yeast will start dying at around 54°C (130°F). Be sure to always test the temperature of a liquid before adding it to the yeast.
- Pour the flour first, covering completely the yeast mixture.
- Add the sugar on one side, and the salt on the other side.
- Add the egg and mix everything until fully combined, 1 to 2 minutes.
The yeast shouldn’t come into contact with the salt or sugar in the beginning of the process. Salt slows down the activity of yeast while sugar speeds it up.
- Add the softened butter and keep mixing until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. This will take about 10 minutes.
Testing the dough
The dough is ready when: 1) it pulls away from the sides of the bowl. 2) It doesn’t rip when you pull it and stretch it.
Testing the elasticity of the dough is probably my favorite part! When the dough starts pulling away from the sides of the bowl, stretch the dough every now and then. In the beginning, it will immediately rip. As the gluten network gets stronger, the dough will become more elastic.
- Once you get to that point, shape the dough into a nice ball. You can do this by pulling the edges towards the bottom to get a nice surface.
First rise: Let the dough sit, covered, for about 90 minutes or until it doubles in volume. This might take more or less, depending on how hot your kitchen is, how long you mixed etc. If your kitchen is very cold, place the dough near a heater, or in a turned off oven with the light on. If your kitchen is too warm, try finding a cooler spot in the house. The ideal temperature is 25°C (77°F).
Punching the dough and chilling it
- Once the dough has doubled in volume, gently punch it down and deflate it. Reshape it into a ball and return it to the mixing bowl. Refrigerate it for 2 hours, or until firm. When taking the pictures, I completely forgot to chill the dough. It was quite soft and became a bit greasy as the butter melted. It’s best to chill the dough first. But if you absolutely can’t wait, you can just shape the dough at this stage.
Shaping the pain au lait
- When the dough is firm enough, flatten it into a disk and cut into equal sized pieces, ideally 50 g each (about 10-11 pieces). It’s best to weigh the dough.
- Shape the dough into balls to get a smooth surface and facilitate shaping the pain au lait: Take a piece, flatten it with the palm of your hand. Then start folding the edges towards the center as shown in the pictures. Pinch the edges together a little and then roll in the palm of your hand to smoothen the surface and form a ball. Repeat for all the pieces of dough. Refrigerate for 10 minutes.
This 10 minute chill time will relax the gluten, making the dough easier to shape into a pain au lait. It will also help firm up the butter if your kitchen was too warm when you were shaping the dough into balls.
- Take a ball of dough and place it on a work surface with the seam facing up (the smooth surface, which is at the bottom will become the top of your pain au lait). Press it down with the palm of your hand. Then bring the two edges together towards the middle and pinch them. Roll the dough to get a smooth surface.
Sticky dough? Remove one ball at a time from the refrigerator so the dough stays firm. If the dough feels too sticky, try placing it on parchment paper to roll it out. Make sure the parchment paper isn’t creased or it will leave marks on the dough. Otherwise, you can add just a little bit of flour to your hands and work surface. If you add too much, the dough will dry out and you won’t be able to seal the pain au lait. It will crack open during baking.
Chocolate pain au lait
I initially decided to make pain au lait instead of a dessert to reduce my chocolate intake. But somehow, I completely missed the point and ended up stuffing the pain au lait with chocolate! If you’re like me and just need your chocolate hit, then this one’s for you!
You can of course bake the pain au lait and then cut it open and fill it with nutella. But as my son said, it’s best to eat the chocolate pain au lait straight out of the oven rather than have to wait for someone to cut it and fill it!
Use whatever chocolate you like. I used dark chocolate that was conveniently shaped into rectangles and milk chocolate. And I added nutella. I got a bit too greedy initially and overfilled the pain au lait which burst open! Not that anyone minded the chocolate leaking everywhere! But if you want something a bit tidier, make sure it will fit inside the pain au lait.
- Start off with a ball of dough, like before. Flatten it (seam side up) with the palm of your hand.
- Fill the middle of the dough with a teaspoon of nutella. Don’t put too much or you will have trouble folding the dough. Place a chocolate bar and slightly push it down.
- Fold one side of the dough over the chocolate then cover well with the other side, making sure the fold stays up. Don’t just pinch the dough as we did before or it will crack open. The second side should come over the first one and cover it. Try to stick the dough with your finger then roll the dough to get a smooth surface.
- Place your shaped dough (folded side down) on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Make sure to leave about 5cm (2 inches) between each pain au lait as they will puff up quite a bit. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for about 90 minutes, or until they puff up.
Baking Pain Au Lait
You’re almost there! The baking step is the shortest! It only takes about 12 minutes to bake them!
- Slightly beat an egg with a fork and lightly brush the pain au lait. Avoid dripping on the sides. The egg will give a nice shine to the pain au lait. In the featured image, I couldn’t be bothered cracking an egg and used milk instead but I wasn’t too pleased with the result.
- Using a knife, cut three parallel incisions on the surface of the pain au lait. I had a bit of trouble doing that. One tip I read about but haven’t tried is to dip the knife in cold water first.
- Bake in the middle shelf of a preheated oven at 170°C (338°F), convection setting (or 190°C/374°F, conventional setting) for about 12 minutes, or until golden brown.
And that’s it! These pains au lait really taste amazing with anything. I made some without chocolate and filled them with turkey, cheese and lettuce and they were so good! I can’t wait for you to try them! Let me know what you fill them with!
In case you missed it, head over to the easy bread calendar to see what else we will be learning this month.
1Gisslen, W. (2005). Professional Baking (4th ed.). Wiley.
2Felder, C. (2014). Patisserie: Mastering the Fundamentals of French Pastry (4th ed.) Rizzoli.