Pain d’épices: A soft, decadent, sweet honey loaf packed with spices. That’s how I remember it from my childhood spending time in Alsace at my parents’ friend’s house. As a kid coming from Brittany, this gustative journey seemed very remote from the usual buttery and salty delicacies we were fed on after school. The mix of cinnamon, clove, ginger and aniseed, to this day, reminds me of Alsace.
No one would argue against pains d’épices having strong roots in Alsace and each region in Europe has its own version, but historically, the two cities of Reims and Dijon were the ones associated with this delicacy in France. Reims, thanks to the quality of the honey harvested in the Champagne area, was the main production center until World War Two, after which the industry stopped.
Dijon then slowly came up as the capital of pains d’épicesand is still to this day. Between 1850 and 1940, Dijon was home to roughly 12 factories. In 1956, the city outputs 4500 tons a year. Production will however drop in the 60s as the traditional process is too labor intensive and not economically viable. Today the tradition is still going strong thanks to a handful of passionate and dedicated artisans.
A Process true to its origins
Definitions found in various dictionaries from the 17thCentury through to the 19thCentury indicate that the pain d’épices from Reims was traditionally made of honey, rye flour and spices. Its equivalent in Dijon was based on wheat flour and enriched with egg yolks. Both recipes involved a mother dough made of honey and flour that was left to rest for months before being added to the final dough. Some artisans to this day are still using the same process. They are doing so not only because of traditions, but also because this technique contributes to taste and shelf life of the final product.
It is easy to imagine why our ancestors came-up with a honey-flavored loaf. Honey was abundant and used as a main sweetener. It seems natural to have incorporated it into a dough. Acting as a natural improver, it was a great way of extending the shelf life of the end product.
Honey, combined with the various medicinal and antiseptic qualities of spices contributed to market pain d’épices as a healthy product. It was also often fed to kids as a snack, for breakfast and as a mean of hiding the taste of medicine in the 19thCentury.
Pain d’épices is a typical example of what excites me within the world of baking. A product that has gone through history, which has probably seen it’s recipe altered across the years, but has managed to come out of it alive and still true to its origins. It is fascinating to think that, although we live in a world of digitalization, where faster is considered as better, some artisans are still using the same methods as the one used centuries ago, where a shortcut is not an option.
So humble it could be Finnish
The most stripped-down version of pain d’épices, the most traditional also, and the most exciting in my opinion is the version from Reims. This could have been from Finnish origin. With no addition of egg or fat, this loaf is humble, packed with rye, filling and yet yielding that feeling of comfort food we are all craving for during winter time. Similar to cardamom in pulla, the spice mix used in pains d’épices is here to remind us of warmer climates. It bursts on the tongue into an explosion of flavors and gives us hope that one day soon the sun will rise again before tea-time.
Essentially, honey and rye flour are mixed in roughly equal proportions by weight. This mother dough is left to rest for months, even years. Because of the lack of water, fermentation does not really occur although the PH will drop within the first weeks. This increase in acidity, combined with the activity of the pentosanases enzymes present in rye flour, will contribute to changing the viscosity of the dough and impact the texture and digestibility of the final product.
After the resting time, which should be of a minimum of 6 weeks, it’s time to add spices and bring the dough to the required hydration level with water before pouring the batter into prepared molds and cooking at lowish teamperature.
I am currently in the process of testing the formula from Thomas Teffri Chambelland’s excellent book Traité de Boulangerie Au Levain and will report later on this year about progress.
Happy baking to all!
Traité de Boulangerie Au Levain by Thomas Teffri Chambelland