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What Is a Café Au Lait?

Ever gone to a coffee shop and seen something on the menu you didn't recognize but always wondered about? Probably. The coffee world is a great big one, and chances are you've been to a cafe where you've read the menu, seen an item, and thought to yourself, "Huh, wonder what that is." But, if you didn't ask the barista for clarification, you probably never had the chance to realize that it's likely the item you were confused about, is something you already know of (it's just called something else — or rather, it's in a different language). Prime example? Café Au Lait: A common coffee menu item you may have seen and thought you didn't know what it was — except you definitely do. It's one of the most simple coffee drinks, but it sounds a lot fancier than it actually is, likely because the name is actually French. "Cafe" translates to "coffee" and "au lait" translates to "with milk." So, quite literally, a café au lait is a coffee with milk. What makes it different than a regular coffee with milk? However, unlike a regular coffee with milk, a café au lait is always, always served with hot milk, and it differs depending on where you order it. In most of America, it's generally made with a drip or a French pressed coffee base and topped with steamed milk. In New Orleans, it's actually made with a drip coffee base and topped with scalded (not boiled or steamed) milk. And, in Europe and Spain, it's topped with steamed milk but can also come with an espresso base — in Spain it's called "café con leche." So, despite these subtle differences, at its core it's just a hot coffee with hot milk. Regardless of where you're ordering it, if you like your coffee to be as warm as possible, you'll love a café au lait. And, the next time you see something on a coffee menu you're unfamiliar with, just ask the barista. Chances are, you already know exactly what is.