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Exploring pan au lait, or milk bread

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Let's try it without a bread machine...

The last several articles on this column shared ideas and recipes for making bread in a bread machine. While it's been fun to play around with my machine, it's also been a bit of a challenge to get the perfect result. Yeast is the problem child in the formulas , too much and the bread hits the top of the machine and collapses just before baking. Too little and it never rises to its full potential.

Actually the biggest problem is that there's only so much bread a two-person household can eat. One can only eat so much bread.

Today, I am trying a different approach. Rather than making a recipe in the bread machine and hoping for the best, I am making the bread the standard way -- in a mixer, and tracking the timing of the various stages.

With this data, it should be a bit easier to adapt the recipe for success in the bread machine -- should being the operative word.

Pan au lait recipe

The recipe du jour comes from "Professional Baking" by Wayne Gisslen; this is a cookbook that countless aspiring bakers and pastry chefs use in culinary school. Pan au lait, which translates to bread with milk, is today's choice because I am after a lovely, soft bread to contain my fresh roasted turkey sandwiches. Weighing in at over four pounds, this is a rather sizeable batch of dough from which I expect to make sandwich bread and something else fun, likely cinnamon rolls.

  • Crumb: Medium-fine crumb, great for sandwiches
  • Density: Medium density, it is neither too thick nor too thin
  • Texture: Firm, yet spongy
  • Staling: Stays fresh for a couple of days, edible for 3-5 more
  • Crust: Chewy, sturdy, satisfying. Burns easily due to high sugar content
  • Molding: over 5 days before it shows signs of molding

As always, scale your ingredients in metrics for the best results, but if all you have is measuring cups, the equivalents are listed as well.

Ingredients:

  • 500g Whole organic milk (2 1/8 cups)
  • 100g Cane sugar (1/2 cup + 1 Tablespoon)
  • 20 g Salt (2 1/4 teaspoons)
  • 30g Dry Active Yeast (2 Tablespoons + 2 teaspoons)
  • 100g Eggs (2 large eggs)
  • 1000g Bread Flour (8 cups)
  • 150g Butter, soft or whipped (5 ounces or 1 1/4 sticks)

Mise en place:

  • 5 quart or larger mixer with dough hook
  • Scale
  • Measuring bowls (1 for each ingredient)
  • Soft Spatula
  • Small-medium sized saucepan
  • Extra-large bowl for proofing, buttered
  • Damp Towel
  • Buttered baking pans (loaf, sheet pan, etc.)
  • Bench flour

Notes, tips 'n tricks

Total proofing time comes out to 120 minutes. If you want to make this in a bread machine, cut the recipe in half and check the settings on your machine. Choose the cycle with proofing time that is closest to 120 minutes.

It's important to use bread flour for this recipe. I used regular flour augmented with vital wheat gluten, and it wasn't enough. The bread still came out delicious, but never developed the smooth texture I wanted.

If you adapt this to a bread machine, make sure to mix the yeast, milk, egg, butter and sugar a little before adding it to the machine. Then add the flour and the salt on top of that. You may need to increase the yeast by 25-50% so that it fully rises before the baking cycle kicks on.

This recipe lends itself very nicely to sweet rolls like sticky buns and cinnamon rolls.

The Cookbook
The Cookbook Wendy Lincoln

The Cookbook

You'll find this cookbook in use at many culinary schools. What's great is the recipes are tested and reliable, and all presented with weights, not volumes.

Whipped Butter
Whipped Butter Wendy Lincoln

Whipped Butter

Oh whipped butter, how lovely you are. In this trial, I used whipped butter for fun. Because the ingredients are scaled, it's fine to use whipped butter instead of standard stick butter.

Steps 1 & 2
Steps 1 & 2 Wendy Lincoln

Steps 1 & 2

1. Warm the milk until it is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degree Celcius)
2. Lightly beat the eggs. Let them warm to room temperature.

Trick: Put the eggs in a small bowl in the pan you're using to warm the milk. Both ingredients will warm together...but don't let it get to hot, for you'll end up with scrambled eggs

Step 3
Step 3 Wendy Lincoln

Step 3

3. Combine the milk, yeast, eggs, sugar and butter in the mixer. Blend gently and let it sit in the mixer, unbothered, for 10-20 minutes to activate the yeast.

Step 3 (continued)
Step 3 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 3 (continued)

Just another angle on things. On the right is the mound of whipped butter, and on the left is the sugar. The odd-looking bubbles are eggs, and the grainy looking stuff is the yeast.

Step 3 (continued)
Step 3 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 3 (continued)

3. After mixing, it will look like this. Normally you'd want the butter to be melted, but if you're using whipped butter it will melt just fine due to the heat from the fermentation process

Step 4
Step 4 Wendy Lincoln

Step 4

4. Wait until it is a bit foamy and you observe slow, but active, bubbling. It's kind of fun to look at it and watch it bubble!  You're literally creating a living organism when you make bread...it's a little ironic that you'll have to kill it (by baking) to eat it.

Step 5
Step 5 Wendy Lincoln

Step 5

5. Fold in the flour. Mix it in slowly*, then mix for about 10 minutes, or until the dough stretches about an inch without too much protest (tearing and breaking).


*Note: If you're using measuring cups, you'll likely need to adjust either flour or liquid. If it clings to the side of the bowl, add flour a couple tablespoons at a time until it clings together. If it's horribly dry and not coming together, add a couple tablespoons of milk or water until it does. Don't add too much too fast -- let each addition blend completely and observe the results.

Step 6
Step 6 Wendy Lincoln

Step 6

6. Scrape out of the mixer and onto a nice flour-sprinkled counter. Knead by hand for 3-5 more minutes until it is smooth and soft.  Remember to sprinkle with flour to keep it from sticking.

Step 6 (continued)
Step 6 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 6 (continued)

This is what it should look like after kneading. Soft, pretty smooth and shapes easily into a ball. Remember to test it by pinching a bit, and pulling it about an inch. If you see more than a bit of tearing, you need to knead more. Or, double check that you've used "bread flour"

Step 7 & 8
Step 7 & 8 Wendy Lincoln

Step 7 & 8

7. Proof -- let it rise-- for 30 minutes in the buttered bowl. Cover with a damp towel and place in a warm, draft-free place. (Not too warm, between 75-100 degrees; an unheated oven with the light on is usually a good place)

8. Punch it down and flop it out onto a floured countertop. Knead for a couple of minutes, then divide into two equal parts.

Step 9
Step 9 Wendy Lincoln

Step 9

9. Shape each half however you please. To make a sandwich loaf, roll it out into a long shape that is fairly flat on one end, and curved on the other. Try to keep the width about the same as your loaf pan. Roll it from the curved end, and seal it with the flat end. Pinch the ends and tuck them into the seam. Pinch it all together. ( See the gallery for some helpful pictures)

Step 9 (continued)
Step 9 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 9 (continued)

After pinching the ends, it looks like this.

Tip: Dampen your fingers with a little water, run them along the parts to be sealed. Then pinch and gently pat until it hold together.

Step 9 (continued)
Step 9 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 9 (continued)

See how the end result is about the same size as the pan? By the way, that's an 8 x 5-inch loaf pan, it's perfect for a 2-pound loaf of bread.

Step 9 (continued)
Step 9 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 9 (continued)

When using a loaf pan, make sure the bread fits neatly into the pan. It shouldn't have to be pinched and squished to make it fit. While it's not the end of the world if you have to do some maneuvering to make it fit, making it the right size does help create an evenly-sized loaf.

Step 10
Step 10 Wendy Lincoln

Step 10

10.  Proof 90 minutes. It should triple in size. Even if you do a really good job of sealing the seams, you'll still see a bit of evidence of the roll as it rises.

Step 10 (continued)
Step 10 (continued) Wendy Lincoln

Step 10 (continued)

When it's risen to almost full potential, you can score the top of the loaf to help it rise a bit more. Try adding small pats of butter in the scores, and use a very sharp knife to cut the soft dough. Give it 15 minutes or so to rise after scoring.

Steps 11-13
Steps 11-13 Wendy Lincoln

Steps 11-13

11. Don't preheat the oven; instead, put the bread in a cold oven. Set the heat to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for 10 minutes. Lay a foil sheet over the loaf after about 5 minutes.
12. Reduce heat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and bake another 20-40 minutes, or until the bread sounds hollow when you knock on it.
13. Let it cool for a bit and invert the pan to release your treat.

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