Gallery: Behind the Sweets: Nellcôte's Nate Meads Makes Pain Perdu

Pain Perdu
Pain Perdu

Part of the reason I love this dish is that I could stand to eat embarrassingly large amounts of any one of these components on its own: the crème Chantilly, or fresh vanilla whipped cream; the diced apples swimming in a thick and deeply flavored caramel sauce; and of course the brioche, soaked in a caramel custard and fried to such an irresistible shade of golden brown.

Flour for Brioche
Flour for Brioche

Nate uses brioche in so many dishes at Nellcôte (the bread service, bombolini, baba au rhum, even as the breading on the halibut) the running joke is that it's the only thing he knows how to make. The dough starts where many bread doughs start: with sugar, yeast, water, eggs, baking powder, and a mix of bread flour and the restaurant's house-milled flour.

Windowpane Test
Windowpane Test

After all of the ingredients have been thoroughly combined and spend some quality kneading time with the massive dough hook, Nate checks the gluten development of the dough with the windowpane test. He should be able to stretch it into a thin enough sheet that you can see light through it. When he can successfully do this, this means it's time for...

Adding Butter
Adding Butter

...some hearty quantities of cold, cubed butter.

Sticky Dough
Sticky Dough

After more kneading and scraping down the bowl and kneading and scraping down the bowl, the dough is ready to be formed into loaves and rise before getting either baked off or frozen for later.

Rolling Dough
Rolling Dough

Nate cuts off half-ounce hunks of brioche and palms them against the table in a swirling motion to form them into perfect little spheres of dough. These are then placed in mini-loaf pans for bread service or larger loaf pans for a number of other uses.

Cutting Down Brioche
Cutting Down Brioche

The pain perdu is most often made with brioche baked off the day before for bread service, but the day I visited, there was no leftover brioche. Instead, Nate cut the crust off of a large loaf and then whittled the thick slices down into logs

Making Caramel
Making Caramel

Nate developed a somewhat unique way of making caramel at a previous job when he didn't have time to babysit sugar and water while it caramelized. He heats the pan until it is smoking hot, then adds a bit of granulated sugar to test it. If the sugar immediately melts and begins to caramelize, the pan is hot enough and he adds the rest of the sugar. Just after it starts to caramelize, he starts to add the cream in several batches. Once it's nearly done, he adds a bit of kosher salt. The result is a thick caramel sauce for some apples he had picked up the day before at a farmer's market.

Caramel Custard
Caramel Custard

The brioche is soaked in a custard that starts out the exact same way as the caramel sauce. Sugar is melted down and caramelized before getting doused with cream. Nate then strains the mixture and cools it over an ice bath before adding the eggs. One trick Nate picked up from chef Joho when he worked at Brasserie Jo was how to crack an egg. After cracking and adding the egg, he takes his thumb and cleans out any extra white still stuck inside the shell.

Homemade Vanilla Extract
Homemade Vanilla Extract

As the kitchen goes through vanilla beans, Nate stuffs the husks into to a bottle to marinate with a little rum or brandy. He uses this homemade vanilla extract in the fresh whipped cream.

Whipping Cream
Whipping Cream

I was impressed when Nate started to hand-whip the cream, but he admitted what I was seeing was a rarity. Any other time this would be a delegated task.

Plating
Plating

Some of the caramel sauce is added to the plate first as a base for the freshly fried brioche. The rest is added to diced apples right after it comes off the burner so they soften up just slightly. The fruit garnish changes with the seasons. When the dish first appeared on the brunch menu, it was garnished with strawberries. Later peaches made an appearance. The next time a complementary fruit is available, it will change again.

Freshly Fried Bread
Freshly Fried Bread

The logs of brioche are soaked and fried to order. After just a couple minutes in the fryer, they come out crispy on the outside but still tender and moist on the inside.

Cross Section
Cross Section

Though this is not exactly what one might call a "light" breakfast, the bread is not heavy or dense. Instead it yields easily to the side of a fork and the interior is airy and still dripping with caramel custard.