The Café au Lait

The Café au Lait

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The café au lait is the little black dress of the coffee world. Simple and easy, available in countless variations, and ultimately stunning in its effect. It uses just two ingredients, milk and coffee, and some very basic techniques to create a smooth, creamy coffee that is perfect for luxuriating over.

It’s also been around for quite awhile, and it was on the specialty coffee menu well before the third wave of coffee, ushered in by franchises like Peet’s and Starbucks, made us all into coffee connoisseurs.

Another one of café au lait’s virtues is that it pairs delightfully well with pastries. Sitting down to an afternoon café au lait with a croissant is probably the fastest and most affordable way to feel like you’re in France for a little while.

What is a café au lait?

The name, refreshingly, leaves nothing to the imagination. Quite simply, it’s French for coffee with milk. What makes it different from just a regular white coffee is that the milk is heated before it’s added to the cup.

How much difference does steaming the milk make? Lots, it turns out. Applying heat caramelizes the lactose in the milk, cranking up the sweetness and creaminess and making the drink warmer and richer than a brewed coffee with cold milk.

Another element of the café au lait that distinguishes it from its everyday counterpart is its size. Café au lait is traditionally served in very large cups, and often actual bowls. In other words, this is a beverage for when you want to dive in and almost literally immerse yourself in a fragrant, warming, milky coffee. The bowl also serves a practical purpose—it lets you dunk your pastry, even the widest, flakiest pain au chocolat, with ease and refinement.

Its size also makes it a bit more of an indulgence, so whether you’re having café au lait with your breakfast, brunch, afternoon snack, or after dinner, make sure to “leave a little room” for it.

To sum up, what defines café au lait and why you should make it a mainstay of your brewing repertoire:

It’s a sweet, milky coffee perfect for daily drinking. It’s elegant enough to serve as a specialty coffee. It stays warm, thanks to the heated milk, so you can linger and savor every drop. It’s simple to make. It goes amazingly well with pastries.

Where does café au lait come from?

Café au lait is drunk pretty much everywhere in Europe. Spanish have their own version, cafe con leche, Germans have milchkaffee, Portuguese and Brazilians have café com leite…the list goes on.

A notable variation is the café au lait served in New Orleans, where a third ingredient is introduced: chicory. This spin on the drink arose during the American Civil War, when coffee was available in limited supply. Chicory, which has a strong, bitter taste, was mixed in with coffee to make it stretch further. New Orleans also flips the café au lait script slightly by using scalded milk instead of steamed milk, the difference being that scalded milk is brought to just below boiling point over a source of heat.

This all results in a café au lait that has a higher than average bitterness, which is also why in New Orleans, café au lait is traditionally served with sugar-dusted beignets.

How can I get started brewing café au lait at home?

One of the best things about the café au lait is how easy it is to make at home. It requires little to no specialty equipment and it’s a very forgiving process, requiring none of the timing and precision that espresso-based drinks do. Proportions are also flexible, so it’s really the ideal coffee beverage for folks who want a top-tier, cafe-quality drink without obsessing over the details.

If you’re a purist, you’ll likely want to stick to using a French press to brew a strong, dark coffee and a milk frother or the steam wand from an espresso machine to heat your milk.

If you don’t have any specialty coffee equipment, you can still make café au lait at home. In our step-by-step guide below, we’ve provided simple instructions for making café au lait with just a mason jar and a regular drip coffee maker or French press.

What you need:

  • Ground coffee
  • A coffee maker (drip machine, French press, or pour-over set-up will do)
  • Milk
  • Milk frother or the steam wand on your espresso machine
  • Large cup or bowl for serving

How to make café au lait step by step

As with all hot coffee beverages, we recommend pre-warming your cup (or in this case, bowl) so that your drink stays hot for a longer time. We also recommend getting everything ready to go on your countertop so that once you set the brewing process in motion, it’s a smooth, seamless workflow with no downtime for your coffee to cool down or go stale.

When making a café au lait, the prep work is minimal but still key:

  • Pre-warm your serving cup or bowl by filling it with hot water and then dumping it out
  • Pre-warm your espresso machine, if using
  • Grind your coffee beans
  • Measure out your milk into the frother or pitcher for steaming
  1. Brew a strong cup of coffee using your preferred method and pour it into your pre-heated serving vessel.

  2. Steam your milk using a frother or steam wand.

  3. Pour the steamed milk into the coffee. You can serve it with just the tiniest dollop of foamed milk on top, if desired.

  4. Enjoy your café au lait. Pair it with a classic pastry to enjoy the ultimate French coffee-drinking experience.

Bonus: How to make café au lait without a milk steamer or frother

If your home brewing methods are basic and bare bones, you can still make a café au lait, pas de problème. This foolproof technique uses a Mason jar and a microwave to create the perfect steamed milk.

  1. Measure out your milk in a Mason jar.

  2. Screw the lid on the jar and shake it for about a minute. The agitation aerates the milk, introducing volume and froth. Stop when you’ve got about double the amount of milk you started with.

  3. Remove the lid (very important step since you don’t want a metal lid getting nuked) and put the jar in the microwave.

  4. Microwave the milk on high for 30 to 45 seconds. Keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn’t overheat and zap all the frothy goodness you just worked up.

  5. Remove the milk from the microwave and pour into the hot brewed coffee, reserving the foam for spooning on top of the beverage, if desired.

Et voilà, you’ve now joined the ranks of coffee lovers across Europe and the Americas as a maker and drinker of café au lait. Don’t forget to log this experience into the Good Fika app to mark this milestone on your coffee journey.