Wednesday, June 8, 2011

an education in bread and chocolate

For a month during my time in Paris, I didn't attend class.

I promise this wasn’t poor attitude on my part. I didn’t go out clubbing and sleep through morning lectures. I didn’t meet any charming locals who urged me to cut class and go on madcap adventures. I didn’t even get sick with something lingering and unpleasant, like mono, and spend my days in bed.

I didn't attend class because my classes weren’t in session. The semester I spent in Paris was during the year that the French government tried to push forward the contrat de premiere embauche, a sort of provisional contract intended to make it easier for employers to give younger workers a trial period before hiring them on permanently. Backlash was immediate and furious. The students rioted, the Metro workers went on strike, and the universities shut down. It was all very French.

I suppose I acclimatized easily, because not having class suited me quite well. Higher learning, French-style, is more about self-directed learning than formal instruction. Lecture attendance isn't strictly required, and indeed, the content of the lectures often has little or no bearing on the content of reading lists or - more importantly - the content of the final exams. And so, for the better part of a month, I made my own schedule.

Some days I spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale, paging through brittle copies of 1920s food industry periodicals in search of useful sources for my independent research paper. Some days I camped out in my program office and typed up notes on the history and evolution of the French language.

And some days, days when the weather was unusually nice, I took advantage of not being stuck in a classroom, found a nice park, and did my nineteenth-century French literature reading on a quiet bench. By mid-afternoon, having had enough of Hugo - Notre-Dame de Paris is a hefty volume - I'd make my way to the nearest patisserie for a snack. 

I enjoyed all the usual suspects: brioche and pain au chocolate and croissants aux amandes. I ate palmiers and religeuses and eclairs and tartes aux fraises. And I developed a taste for viennoises au chocolat.

A viennoise au chocolat isn't quite as eye-catching as some of the other delights you'll see in the window of a patisserie. Shaped much like the humble baguette, it can't really compete with the graceful whorls of a palmier, or the pleasing roundness of a brioche à tête. It doesn't look any fancier beneath its unassuming crust, either: just a fine white bread studded with chocolate chips.

No-one (at least no-one in their right mind) ever bought a treat from a display case just to look at it, however. Taste-wise, the viennoise au chocolat can easily hold its own. Frankly, I think that if a chocolate chip muffin grew out of its sweetness and moved to France, it would be a viennoise au chocolat. The bread is soft, a little chewy, and only faintly sweet, and the slight resistance of the chocolate chips provides a textural contrast quite unlike that of the melting heart of a pain au chocolat or the voluptuous stickiness of a tartine au Nutella.

Maybe it's just me, but the viennoise au chocolat also seems conducive to learning: I found sitting on a park bench while tearing bite-size pieces off a viennoise au chocolat and pondering Hugo's thoughts on architecture a very effective study method. I think that Notre-Dame de Paris may even bear few chocolately smudges as proof. 

Viennoises Au Chocolate

(Makes two half-baguette-sized breads.)

In a mixing bowl, combine two hundred and fifty grams all-purpose flour, one teaspoon instant active yeast, a half-teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoons sugar. Add a hundred and fifty mililitres of warm milk. Stick your hand in the mixture, and stir until you have a soft, lumpy dough.

Turn the dough out on a clean countertop. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, then work in four tablespoons of unsalted butter, one tablespoon at a time. Continue to knead until the dough is soft and very smooth in texture.

Knead in three ounces of chocolate chips. Place back in bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place to proof. (One to two hours.)

Deflate the dough. Shape it into a tidy ball, pulling and tucking any stray bits underneath. Gently squeeze this ball until you have a long sausage of dough. Cut this into two equal pieces, and gently squeeze each piece into a long, skinny length.

Arrange the two lengths on a parchment-lined baking tray. Cover lightly with plastic wrap; allow to proof in a warm place for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400F.

To make the glaze, beat together one egg yolk with a tablespoon of milk and a tablespoon of powdered sugar. Brush the glaze on the baguettes.

Right before baking, take a straight razorblade or very sharp knife, and cut angled slashes along the top of each baguette.

Bake until golden brown in color, about twenty to twenty-five minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Enjoy plain or with coffee for an afternoon snack.


Cakelaw said...

I love your new blog header - very nice. I can see why the viennoise au chocolat is conducive to learning - it would be conducive to almost anything - yum!

adele said...

Cakelaw - Thank you! I'm glad you agree with my views on learning! :)