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What is Cafe Au Lait?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Cafe au lait is a French term which means “coffee on milk.” It is used to refer to a beverage made with strong, fresh coffee and hot milk. Many former French colonies offer this drink as a staple accompaniment to breakfast, as do regions with large French populations. The beverage should not be confused with a latte, a drink made with espresso, not strong coffee. This can lead to confusion in a coffeehouse especially, so do not be afraid to be specific about what you are asking for.

To make cafe au lait, milk is scalded and poured into a cup simultaneously with coffee. Because the two are poured together, rather than layered, the resulting drink is thoroughly mixed. It can be drunk plain or sweetened, depending on personal taste. In some regions, chicory is mixed with the coffee beans for a characteristic bitter bite. This is especially common in Louisiana.

Many nations have a variation of the cafe au lait, which is in an intermediate zone between brewed black coffee and blended coffee drinks. All of the variations mix fresh coffee with hot milk, and the name usually indicates this. In Germany, for example, it is known as Milchkaffee, or “milk coffee.” Some coffee shops refer to the beverage as a misto, or blend.

The characteristic rich brown color of cafe au lait is also used to refer to complexion. Many people of mixed race have creamy brown skin hinting at their varied ancestry. In dermatology, the term is used to refer to a particular type of birthmark. While these spots can be harmless, they can also indicate that someone is at risk for neurofibromatosis, a disease characterized by the formation of numerous small tumors throughout the body and on the bone.

To make cafe au lait at home, brew a pot of strong dark coffee. While the coffee is brewing, scald milk for the beverage. If you have a home milk steamer, you can use that. Otherwise, use a heavy saucepan on medium-high heat to bring the milk to a frothy almost boil. Remove the milk from the heat and pour it into a generously sized cup, along with a stream of coffee. You may want to place a sweetener at the bottom of the cup before you begin. The coffee can be consumed plain, or garnished with mint or lemon for an unusual flavor. It is also a superb accompaniment to breakfast pastries such as croissants.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lighth0se33 — On Oct 29, 2012

@OeKc05 – My sister had a big cafe au lait birthmark on her neck. She had it removed after college, and it only took a couple of treatments to make it disappear.

She had to wait 6 weeks in between sessions. She said it didn't hurt much at all. She said it felt more like being popped with a rubber band than cut with a laser!

They did ask her if she wanted them to numb the area. Just keep in mind that this is an option, if you are afraid of how it will feel.

By OeKc05 — On Oct 28, 2012

Does anyone here have cafe au lait birthmarks? I have a big one on my cheek, and I would love to get rid of it.

How effective is laser therapy for this? Does it hurt very much?

By Oceana — On Oct 28, 2012

I never thought about using hot milk. I have always just added cold milk to my coffee instead of creamer, and it helps cool it down so that I can drink it right away.

However, hot milk would probably give the coffee a different flavor, especially since it would mix in with the hot coffee so much better. I've been drinking out of cafe au lait cups that actually have the words painted on them, so it seems only right that I should try the real thing in them at least once!

By DylanB — On Oct 27, 2012

I am concerned with cafe au lait calories, so I always use 2% reduced fat milk. Since I drink one every day, I want to make it as low fat as I can, and since I hate the taste of skim milk, I go with 2%.

By anon260446 — On Apr 11, 2012

"Café" means coffee. "Au lait" or "con leche," means literally "with milk" in French or in Spanish.

Café con leche and café au lait are synonyms, one used in France (and the rest of the French-speaking world) and the other in Spain (and the rest of the Spanish speaking world).

The kind of milk you use is irrelevant.

By stolaf23 — On Jul 26, 2011

I used to work in a coffee shop. We rarely had people asking for cafe au lait- the big thing was already huge mochas with way too much chocolate and whipped cream (after that I didn't order a drink with whipped cream from a cafe for about 5 years).

When we did make it, we used either 2%, skim, or soy milk, and we steamed the milk (similar to the scalding referred to here, at least I believe so).

The grossest thing to me, though, was once when a man ordered a Breve- Similar to a cafe au lait, but instead of milk you use half and half. Way too rich for my taste.

By turquoise — On Jul 25, 2011

@ddljohn-- I don't think it matters, coffee and whole milk together are also called cafe au lait.

Maybe back in the day, how cafe au lait was made was very specific. But I think there are more options now. For example, cafe au lait is usually made with equal proportions of black coffee and milk. But if you like, you can put more coffee and less milk and vice versa. It will still be cafe au lait.

And yes, cafe au lait is traditionally topped with steamed milk froth.

By ddljohn — On Jul 25, 2011

@Sunny27-- That's interesting, I didn't know that if it is made with whole milk, it is called cafe con leche. I make my cafe au lait with whole milk at home because I think I like a creamier consistency. I also put lots of sugar and pour it from cup to cup several times to create more froth.

Am I still making cafe au lait or something else? Does cafe au lait traditionally have froth?

By Sunny27 — On Jul 25, 2011

I think that café au lait calories are slightly lower than the calories in café con leche which is similar to a café au lait recipe but it usually contains evaporated milk or whole milk which gives it the richer creamier taste.

I think that most coffee stands sell both variations because they are so popular. Here in Miami, you tend to see more café con leche which means coffee with milk which I actually love especially at the end of my meal whenever I go to a Cuban restaurant.

I prefer this to any dessert out there.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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