What better way to experience Paris’ finest pain au chocolat than on a scooter at 3am in the freezing cold? (No, I mean it, that really is the best way.)
It was my 30th birthday awhile back and my bestest partner in crime surprised me with the ride of my life to taste test one of my childhood favorites: the pain au chocolat.
Let me take a few steps back to explain just why this was the best birthday excursion ever: pain au chocolat’s were what I looked forward to every morning when I woke up as a kid. But it breaks my heart to say that I have a hard time finding a good pain au chocolat in Geneva these days. Older generations might say the drive down in quality happened long ago, but in my lifetime, I can trace it back to the late 1990s when the bakery chains took over our beloved local, individual owned shops. (Pouly and company be damned!) This pushed me to acknowledge, finally, that the best pain au chocolats very well might be in France (whither my Swiss pride…).
So IMAGINE my glee when my 30th birthday turned out to be all about tasting Paris’ finest pain au chocs! The mission? Finding the pain au choc I have come to idealize in my memories: a good pain au chocolat to me is buttery, a bit flakey on the outside, a bit doughy in the middle, and with two strips of dark chocolate cooked “al dente” – in this case meaning that the bars are pretty consistent, keeping a slight bite to them, and not just two strips of smudged chocolate as I see so often nowadays.
The Safari kicked off at the ungodly yet oh-so-savory hour of 1am, when bakers around Paris are up and at ’em stirring up and baking the stuff our tastiest dreams are made of. The fine folks of Boulangerie Pichard had been asked (and cordially agreed) to let us two mere mortals observe them as they artfully rolled up croissants, folded over pain au chocolats, layered gallettes des rois, and confectioned fruit tarts. So in the middle of the night, after a sweet cocktail, we boarded our safari vehicle of choice – a scooter – and zipped through the streets of Paris to Boulangerie Pichard, guided by the light of the Eiffel tower and the whiff of baked goods.
Frozen as our bodies were upon arrival, my oh my was it worth the icy cold scooter trip over there. For two hours, Pichard Jr took us around, showed us the ropes, told us about how the industry has changed over the years, how they are the only bakery in town that gets the kind of butter they get (which of course makes ALL the difference!) and the best way to roll a croissant so it has space to puff out, but not so much so that it unrolls. We even got to help roll them out after a few tips (and apologies to the next day’s clientele who surely observed some oddly shaped croissants as a result).
Official ingredients of any good cooking: butter, butter and moooore butter!
rollin’ with a pro
Bakers they may be, but pastry chefs too! Their apricot pies were layed out on decadent looking almond paste and flakey puff pastry…
The experience was a dream, and I can’t wait to try to make the pain au chocolat at home. In the meantime, we zipped back on our scooter through the cold damp dawn to get a few hours of sleep before we headed back out on the scooter for the pain au chocolat safari, consisting of four stops at Paris’ finest award winning bakeries.
First stop, Boulangerie Pichard again! (What do you expect, we HAD to taste the magical little pastries we had just made). This time we went in through the front door and got to see the shop front in all its golden glory.
King’s cake! (or galette des rois, which Pichard sends out to half of Europe in January…)
1. Boulangerie Pichard
The pain au chocolat at Boulangerie Pichard was perhaps the nicest dough we tasted – it was so buttery and flakey, a bit doughy on the inside, and had a nice herby/flowery perfume in it that must have come from the butter itself. Indeed, irreplaceable! Only complaint was the chocolate, which tasted great, but just did not have the consistency I look for.
Two turtle doves of baked deliciousness
2. Dominique Saibron
From Pichard, we scooted over to Dominique Saibron
. Here, the chocolate bar was bigger and had more of a bite to it, which made my inner girlie girl giggle with delight. The dough didn’t have quite the character we tasted at Pichard, but it remained beautifully flakey.
Dominique Saibron’s good pain au choc, but not the best
3. Du Pain et des Idées
After Saibron, it came time to have some “real” food, which involved a stunningly good lunch at Anne Sophie Pic’s restaurant, La Dame de Pic… but I digress. The pain au choc at Du Pain et des Idees
required us to wait for a good 20 minutes in line, in the humid cold. We didn’t eat this one until we got back to the hotel, so the goods may have been a little shell shocked from the long scooter ride home…. nonetheless, the dough was the most flakey we had had so far, with lovely layers, crisp on the outside… almost like a flakey pie crust. In flavor however, it also could not match the flowery creamy taste of Pichard’s.
Du Pain et des Idées… frencher than french!
Du Pain et des Idées
4. Blé Sucré
Last but not least, we stopped by Blé Sucré to try out their pain au chocolat. Here, we found the best consistency and taste in the chocolate – substantial and dark and with just a little bite to it. The pastry however paled in comparison to the previous four. But let’s be honest, it was still a great pain au choc by any measure.
And the winner is…… anyone you want! My personal favorite was either Pichard’s or Du Pain et des Idees, but honestly, you would love breaking the bread off any of them. Bon app indeed!