A Love Affair with French Bread

What are French bread recipes doing in a book entitled English Breads and Yeast Cookery? Makes you wonder. Perhaps the editors forgot the full stop: English Breads. And Yeast Cookery? Then the French bread would fall under the generic category Yeast Cookery. Yet, I really don’t think the editors got it wrong. It is a book about English traditional breads – part historical account, part recipes – by Elizabeth David, being reviewed by the blogging cookbook club, The Cookbook Guru this month.

According to Elizabeth David, the English have had a love affair with French bread since the 13th century. Perhaps that statement justified her inclusion of French bread in this book? Or, perhaps she couldn’t help herself? After all, it was Elizabeth David who introduced a myriad of colorful Mediterranean and Continental cuisines to a rather bland post-WWII British food scene. Surely, she wouldn’t be content without introducing a few Continental breads in this book – evidence her chapters The Pizza and Pissaladiére, French Yeast Cakes and Notes on French Bread.

In the chapter on French bread, David mentions a type of bread popular in England during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) – “Light bread known as French bread” that also went by the delightful name of puffe (or pouf). One major historical difference where English bread makers deviated from the French was in the leavening agents. The French used the natural leavening method (that is, what we know as a sourdough starter) while the English adhered to ale or beer yeast – not surprising in a nation of beer and ale drinkers. As she explains, these methods were, perhaps, adaptations to the types of flour produced in the two countries – softer in France, harder and higher gluten content in Britain.

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Petite Pain au Chocolat
These rolls are different from what we know as chocolate filled croissants – more a bread roll with a chocolate filling. In fact, Elizabeth David is quite scathing about the coissant-type of pain au chocolat: “How would one want a pillow of pastry, sticky rather than flaky, wrapped around a very sparse little piece of fast congealing chocolate, and for breakfast into the bargain?” Instead, she fondly reminisced about eating the bread roll type, still warm from the bakery during her pre-war years as a student in Paris at the Sorbonne. Although, she also indicated that this method was considered an old-fashioned way of making pain au chocolat, all but nonexistent at the time she was writing English Breads and Yeast Cookery in the 1970s. So…she came up with her own recipe.

Makes 8

  • 1-1/2 cups (approximately 200g.) strong bread flour – see notes below for a discussion of flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon active dried yeast
  • 1/4 cup (2 fluid oz.) warm milk
  • 1/4 cup (2 fluid oz.) warm water
  • 200 g. good quality 70% dark chocolate – one of the chocolate brands Elizabeth David recommends is the Swiss chocolate, Lindt
  • Milk

Glaze:

  • 1 Tablespoon warm milk
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar

In your mixer with a dough hook, add the flour, salt and yeast to the bowl. Warm the mixed milk and water and add to the dry mixture. On medium speed, process the dough until it forms a ball or is completely wrapped around the hook and no dry flour is left. It may take around 5 minutes for the flour to completely hydrate (absorb the liquid). The dough will be stiff – according to Elizabeth David, much stiffer than regular bread dough. Form into a ball.

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Place the dough ball into a lightly greased bowl and cover with clingfilm. Let it sit in a warm place to rise. Timing for the rise is dependant on ambient temperature, and also a firmer dough will take longer to rise. It may take as many as 3 to 4 hours to double in volume. It has risen properly when it exhibits a domed appearance, a few bubbles forming at the surface and feeling soft and spongy to touch. I noticed that Elizabeth David carefully left out of her instructions exactly how long it would take to rise!

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Prepare a baking tray by lining it with baking parchment. Break your chocolate into 8 equal portions (preferably as large as you can get them). Set this aside while you turn the dough out onto a board. Cut the dough in half, then those halves in half, and so on until you have 8 equal-size dough pieces. Form these into rough balls, but do not compress.

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Take one dough piece and roll it out so that it is roughly rectangular in shape and is large enough to enclose one of the portions of chocolate. Place the chocolate in the center, fold the short ends up and over the chocolate ends. Seal it by pressing where dough meets dough. Then, do the same with the long sides, making sure the dough is securely sealed by pinching the seam shut.

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Place seam side down on the prepared baking tray and so the same for the other seven pieces.

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Let the rolls sit for 1 hour to 1-1/2 hours to relax their shape and rise a second time. Elizabeth David only suggests a 15 to 20 minute rest, but by allowing for a second rise, you get a softer, fluffier bread. In addition, the seals along the seams hold together better and reduce the chance of the melted chocolate seeping out. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Just before putting the baking tray in the oven, brush the rolls with a little milk which helps keep the crust soft.

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Place the tray in the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile, warm the milk and sugar for the glaze so that the sugar dissolves. When the rolls come out of the oven, immediately brush on the glaze. Place them on a cooling rack.

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If you are going to eat them right away don’t let them completely cool as these are best eaten warm so the chocolate is still soft. Elizabeth David recommends that if they have cooled, warm them up in a low oven for a few minutes.

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Notes & Evaluation
It was a toss up between this recipe and a French plum galette in her chapter French Yeast Cakes, but I figured you can’t go wrong with chocolate. (And, I was right!) As Elizabeth David indicates, they are nothing like the croissant-type pain au chocolat. For one thing, they are not as sweet. Yet, they do make a very good treat for a lazy weekend breakfast – with a big cup of frothy café créme. Since they warm up again quite easily and retain their softness (particularly if wrapped in foil before being placed in the oven), they can be made the day before. I also suspect that, with the selection of quality flavoured continental chocolates now available, variations could be produced. A hazelnut chocolate might even give Nutella a run for its money.

On flour:
In making these, I’ve used strong (bread) flour as listed in her recipe, although a softer flour such as plain flour or all-purpose is closest to the French bread making flour, Type 55. It is this softer, lower gluten flour combined with the steam baking ovens that Elizabeth David indicates are the keys to the unique texture and flavour associated with French baguettes – something she says can only be approximated, never replicated, in an English domestic kitchen. So, best not to attempt, or so she advises. I did a test batch of these pain au chocolate using plain flour which resulted in hard, tough rolls – certainly not what the recipe intended. British bread baking, uses strong bread flour that has between 12 and 16% protein content per 100g. This protein content is usually listed on the packet. The strong flour I used contained 14.9% protein – as apposed to the 11.4% of the plain flour used in the test batch. It is important to check your flour labels – and to use the best organic brands you can find. The finial versions of the petit pain au chocolat bread was soft, had a fine crumb and was generally a light bread (in spite of the firmer dough) – just like puffe!

On the comparison between English and French bread:
I love Elizabeth David’s description of English store-bought bread (compared to French bakery bread with its large holes, chewy texture and crunchy crust) at the beginning of the Notes on French Bread chapter. I couldn’t resist including it.

… according to English bakers, bread’s chief function is as a vehicle for butter (what makes them think that the clammy and flannelly stuff they sell sliced and wrapped can be buttered? Just try spreading cold butter on a slice of damp blanket).

Perhaps this opinion is why, in the rest of the book, she compensates, showing how excellent traditional English breads can be made in the domestic kitchen. Of course, it goes without saying that many English bakers have moved on in the last 30+ years since she wrote those words – producing wonderful crusty and tasty artisanal loaves and have rediscovered old traditional breads. But, for those of you who are nostalgic for a soft white slice on which to slater butter, those clammy flannel breads can still be found on the supermarket shelf.

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28 comments

  1. You may just have inspired me to make them. The pictures are super helpful and make the process less intimidating. And your writing, oh your writing! I absolutely love it. It is so interesting and informative and well, well-written. I always feel smarter after reading your posts! 🙂

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    • They were good (notice past tense). If you make them, pay careful attention to your flour and also I would advise adding a bit more liquid. When I make them next, I’ll be aiming for a dough that isn’t quite so firm, and might even use just milk rather than a milk/water combo. Thanks for the compliment – I know writing these posts has improved my creative writing and I’m really loving the whole process.

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  2. What a wonderful post. You beat me to the the pain au chocolad… this was definately on the list as a must make for me with 2 chocolate fiends in the house! They do look wonderful and delicious! I’ll repost on the weekend for you 🙂

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    • No reason not to make them…chocolate fiends will be disappointed. I know, I have a few in this household. Next time I make it, I’m going to increase the amount of liquid a little. Love reading ED and her opinions.

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  3. Oh, my giddy aunt! I’m a sucker for pains au chocolat and would dearly love to bake them based on the recipe you have here, but it’s late summer here in the tropics so it’s just too hot! Alas, sadly, store-bought ones just don’t measure up. 😦

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    • When you do get around to it, play around with a good bread flour and perhaps add a bit more liquid to the mix. Elizabeth David indicates that a firm dough is required, but I thought it was a bit too firm. The initial ball of dough was quite rubbery! And, it took ages to double. However, they were good!

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  4. Wonderful post Deb. Ms David really is a gem with her outraged opinions and delicious recipes. Your notes on protein levels in flour is interesting too as well as your assessment of the pain au chocolat made with the different flour types. It helps reinforce the importance of choosing the correct flour type. Elizabeth and I have also been playing in the kitchen today too.

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    • I think she would have been a lot of fun to work with in the kitchen – outrageous and perhaps tasking, however. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Even though the chocolate lovers in the house have now scoffed up the pain au chocolat, I think next time I make them, I will hydrate the flour a bit more. The dough was a bit too firm – even though ED explains that it is necessary to have a firm dough to work around the chocolate.

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    • Very different from the flaky pastry versions, but very good. At least you can control the quality (and amount) of chocolate. It’s more like good gooey chocolate slathered on bread.

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  5. Upon my first (and so far only) visit to France (with my high school French 4 class), I was so excited to try the famed “pain au chocolat,” only to be grossly disappointed by the large square of puff paste with one little stick of rather grainy, quickly hardening chocolate in the center. I feel like pain au chocolat simply DEMANDS a chocolate with a high cocoa butter content so that it stays somewhat melty, even at room temperature. After all, it is chocolate and pastry together – why not go all out?

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    • I think you and Elizabeth David would have got along – her very thoughts on the current state of pain au chocolat! She also went on quite extensively about using quality (continental) chocolate which I didn’t comment on as the post was getting a bit long as it was! Her version of pain au chocolat is very different – think bread and good quality chocolate rather than flaky pastry.

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  6. I imagine she would have been a hard taskmaster but a real hoot at the same time. (Mayhaps due to a glass of wine or two?) These are an interesting take on the original. I remember eating absolutely buttery, flaky pain au chocolat in France with a bitter, rich nub of chocolate inside. I equally remember eating cardboard variations of the same from patisseries here, so these look like a great ‘doable’ version to make at home.

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    • Very opinionated was ED. The book is peppered with all sorts of diatribes or emphatic statements. I’m sure a glass of wine (or two) featured in her prep kitchen. It does in mine, but most of the time, I forget it is there. It’s a kind of prop for the kitchen stage. These pain au chocolate are chocolate (as good as you can get) encased in an unsweetened bread roll – so, very different from pastry versions.

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  7. Reblogged this on The Cookbook Guru and commented:
    Create something delicious as a Sunday treat this weekend and exercise your yeast baking skills with these fabulous Pain Au Chocolat from The Kitchen Witch and Elizabeth David.

    Enjoy,

    Leah

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  8. Hi Debi, I am with ED on damp blankets. I hate, with a passion, the plastic bread you find in supermarkets. There are a lot of gems in ED’s book. I am working on another of her creations.

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    • Hi Glenda, Can’t wait to see what you come up with from ED’s book. What I find amazing is those damp blanket breads are still available on the supermarket shelves even though I’ve never seen anyone buy one. I wonder how they stay in business?

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  9. I love the ‘clammy and flannely’ description! Yes this lady sounds quite interesting. I love how you have shown the process. I’m thinking this bread would be much appreciated in my household.

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    • Definitely appreciated in this household. Am trying for a fluffier bread next time – more liquid in the dough might do it. Elizabeth David is very funny and very opinionated!

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  10. Les pain au chocolate are one best reason to wake me up! Despite I love this kind of vinnoiserie , I’ve never tried to do it by myself… I’ve noticed that there’s no butter… that’s great!

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    • Elizabeth David’s version of pain au chocolat is more like bread and chocolate, so less sweet and not as buttery as the pastry versions. Very good, nonetheless. I need to work on the recipe to get a softer bread – perhaps hydrating it more.

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