I was 16 when I tasted my first pain au chocolat. I had the good fortune to go to a private high school where foreign travel was considered part of the curriculum. For the French speakers, there was a choice of either a homestay in one city, or the around-the-country bike tour known as SeaCliste (a play on Seattle and bicycliste). Because I wanted to see as much of the country as I could, I opted for the bike tour.
We got full credit for our three months there which coincided with spring trimester. We only had to keep a journal in French, speak French the whole time, do the job assigned to us (like be a medic or a mechanic), and complete the trip which, on certain days, was easier said than done. I will never forget riding my touring bike in the Île de France (the region right around Paris) with a side wind so profound that I was literally blown off my bike several times. Or spending almost an entire day riding up a snowy mountain road in the Alps only to find that, once we reached the top, someone had made a wrong turn and we had to go right back down again. Or sleeping in a tent in a supermarket parking lot and being thrilled with the choice because we were under cover from the driving rain.
Of course, I will also never forget feeling the sun on my face for two weeks straight in Corsica. Or how beautiful it is to take a paddle boat out on Lake Annecy. Or the kindness of the French people who, all over that amazing country, took pity on the crazy American teenagers in their bike helmets and allowed us to take over their restaurants, homes, and – yes – supermarket parking lots. And I’ll never forget that first pain au chocolat.
Our starting point for the trip was the medium-sized city of Nantes which is at the easternmost edge of Brittany. We had a three day homestay with French families but we all met in the town center after getting settled. One of our group had a French step-father and, since she had spent a fair amount of time in the country, she volunteered to go to the boulangerie to get us some treats. Always a chocolate lover, I made an immediate dive for the pain au chocolat. I didn’t know what I was in for, I just could see the chocolate and that was all I needed.
And this is where writing fails me. How do you describe something so perfect? The shatter of the pastry and the warmth of the chocolate (because, these many many years later, I still remember the chocolate in that first one was warm), the perfection of the combo…it was an emotional moment for me. I spent the rest of the trip trying to re-create that initial first bite. Oh yes, and sampling everything else on offer in each boulangerie that we stopped in which is why I gained 15 pounds, in spite of putting 1500 miles on my bike.
This pain au chocolat is not the one I ate in Nantes. It is not any of the many I ate throughout France. But I made it myself and it took about 25 minutes total. I impressed my children and my husband with this pain au chocolat. And for now, that’s pretty good.
One Year Ago: Apple Tartlets with Cinnamon Balsamic Syrup and Butter-Toffee Ice Cream
Petits Pain au Chocolat
I couldn’t trust myself with 24 of these things lying around so I halved the recipe and only used one sheet of puff pastry. I also used one 4 ounce bar of Ghiradelli bittersweet chocolate. I cut each square in half and it seemed to be the perfect size for the pastry square.
2 sheets frozen puff pastry (one 17.3-ounce package, thawed), each sheet cut into 12 squares
1 large egg beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water (for glaze)
4 3.5-ounce bars imported bittersweet or milk chocolate, each cut into six 2×3/4-inch pieces
Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush the top of each puff pastry square with egg glaze. Place 1 chocolate piece on edge of 1 pastry square. Roll up dough tightly, enclosing chocolate. Repeat with remaining pastry and chocolate. Place pastry rolls on baking sheet, seam side down. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover pastries with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Cover and refrigerate remaining glaze.)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush tops of pastry rolls with remaining egg glaze. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake until pastries are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.