Tuesday, August 10, 2010

'Petits Pains au Lait' (Little Milk Breads) from France

If you've ever gone to Europe, or just visited a local bakery with more than standard fare, no doubt you have encountered some variation of 'milk rolls'. These smallish dinner rolls, completely round with a crispy crust and soft interior are perfect for sopping up gravy at dinnertime. They are also ideal for sandwiches since the soft interior helps to showcase the toppings, while the slightly chewy crust holds it all together. From the baker's point of view, one of the biggest advantageous is that they are simple to make. Don't be put off by the long rise - 4 to 5 full hours! Let them rise slowly overnight in your refrigerator or other cool place. The enhanced flavor is well worth the wait. These rolls go by various names, from 'milk rolls' in America, to 'Petits Pains au Lait' in France, which literally means "Little milk breads". It just sounds fancier in French, doesn't it? Either way, these are easy to make and make great sandwich rolls for just snacking or even with dinner.

Here's what you'll need:
4 to 5 cups AP flour
1/2 cup nonfat dry milk (or substitute)*
1 Tbs. active dry yeast
2 Tbs. sugar
2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups hot water (120 F or around 50 C)
1 large egg, at room temperature
5 Tbs. unsalted butter or margarine
1/2 cup cornmeal or semolina for dusting

Here's what you'll need to do:
1. Combine the 2 cups of the flour and the other dry ingredients (the dry milk, the yeast, the sugar and the salt) in a large bowl or in the bowl of an electric mixer. Then add the hot water and the egg and beat vigorously for at least 2 minutes.
2. Cut the butter or margarine into pieces then beat them into the batter. Finally add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough is formed.
3. Remove the dough from the bowl to a floured surface and knead (to develop gluten) for 4 or 5 minutes. Only lightly dust the surface to prevent sticking, but be careful not to add too much flour. This will make the dough heavy, and we want light fluffy rolls, remember?
4. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn to coat, then cover with plastic wrap. Put the bowl in a cool place, (the refrigerator is ideal) and let it rise for 4 or 5 hours until doubled in bulk. You can leave it overnight if you want it will only improve the flavor. After this first rise, deflate the dough, then set it out to rise again, about 1 1/2 hours. If it was in the refrigerator, doubling will take a little longer, say 2 hours.
5. After the 2nd rise, deflate the dough once more. This time divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Then divide each piece into 5 pieces, 20 pieces in all. 
6. Shape the small pieces into small perfectly round rolls. To do this, lightly cup the pieces in your palm then roll them on an un-floured surface lightly until they form the round shape. Place the rounds onto a greased baking sheet (or use parchment paper to avoid the oil).
7. Arrange the rolls so they just touch in rows but separate the rolls by about 2 in. (5 cm). Let them rest, lightly covered with plastic wrap, for about 30 minutes.
8.About 20 minutes before baking time preheat the oven to 450 F, or 230 C (if using a baking stone), otherwise to 400 F, or 200 C. If you use a baking stone, place the baking sheet directly on the stone, then reduce the heat to 400 F immediately. 
9. Bake the rolls for 12 to 15 minutes until nice and golden brown. They will have a nice crisp crust but, because of the high temperature, be soft on the inside. 
10. Cool on a rack, if your guests are waiting, pile them, still warm, into a basket and serve. Yum!!

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