One of the things I discovered when I first moved to France several decades ago, was the fact that although the French love their food, and although it is normal to sit down to eat long meals together, the French rarely snack. Snacking is widely recognised as being the best way to put on those unwanted pounds, and until recently it simply isn’t in the culture.
There is however a moment in the day, when it is totally acceptable to eat between meals, and that is the ‘sortie de classes’, or the end of the school day. In all the years when I used to collect my kids from their school gate, I rarely turned up without some small energy booster for them to nibble.
I was fascinated to discover that the most common afternoon treat for French school-kids was the Pain au Chocolat. Often still warm, as it was picked up from the boulangerie on the way to collect the kids. And of course the bakers know about this, and they do a special ‘fournée’ or oven bake timed just right for the 4 pm snack.
Interestingly, some mamans chose the alternative route of a piece of fresh bread folded around a stick of chocolate – and that’s pretty tasty too.
The name of this pastry has long been a topic of debate among the French people, with most calling it pain au chocolat while in the south-west of France, the name chocolatine is favored. Whatever you like to call it, it remains a firm favorite nation-wide and beyond.
When it comes to choosing the perfect bakery, every discerning French foodie has their preferred spot. Some boulangeries are renowned for their buttery, flaky croissants, while others specialize in crafting the perfect pain au chocolat. It’s all about finding the right balance of flavors and textures to satisfy your taste.
However, the most critical decision when enjoying a pain au chocolat is how many chocolate sticks to savor. Whether you prefer a single or double serving, the rich, velvety chocolate inside the flaky layers of pastry is a sensory experience that is hard to resist. With every bite, one can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia and an appreciation for the artistry that goes into crafting this exquisite pastry.
If you’re feeling tempted to try baking your own, you can’t go wrong with this recipe from our regular magazine contributor Franck Schmitt:
Preparation time: 40 min plus 3 hrs resting time
Cooking time: 20 min
BRIOCHE PUFF PASTRY
1 ½ cups (150 g) softened butter + 1 ½ tbsp (20 g) for the pan
1 tbsp (15 g) fresh baker’s yeast
½ cup (10 cl) warm milk
1 cup (250 g) flour
1 tbsp superfine sugar
Pinch of salt
1 whole egg
¾ cup (200 g) dark baking chocolate, broken into eight squares.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. Pour the flour and salt into a bowl, then add the egg, sugar and milk-yeast mixture. Knead and form a ball. Cover it with a cloth and let it rest for one hour near a heat source (see tip below). The dough should double in size.
On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a four-pointed star. Shape the butter into a square the same size as the center of the dough. Place the butter in the middle of the dough, and fold the four branches of the star over the butter.
Roll out the dough into a long rectangle with a rolling pin and fold it into thirds. Turn the dough a quarter turn counterclockwise and roll it out again. Repeat, turning the dough a quarter turn, rolling it out before folding it into thirds again. You have completed two rounds. Let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator and repeat the operation by making two more turns. Set aside for another 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
On a floured work surface, roll out the dough, and cut it into eight rectangles with a knife. Place a square of chocolate on top, then roll the dough onto itself to form the buns. Cover with a clean cloth and let rest for one hour on a buttered baking sheet. Preheat oven to 395°F (200°C).
Bake for 20 minutes.
Gourmet tip: Add praline or 1 tablespoon frangipane with the chocolate when inserting into the dough.