Bragging Rights : The Perfect Croissants

July 2009 – Croissant: 0 , Me: 0 – An Opportune Introduction

In a one-round-about farming town that barely appears on google maps I had the opportunity to make croissants under the supervision of a man in the biz – real life French pâtissier Pascal Mouesan. I suppose, in hindsight, it was quite a coincidence that the patriarch of my assigned host family made a living doing the one trade I’d always fancied, but I was young and un-serious and didn’t seem to realize how cool this was at the time.

In a lost-in-translation moment, Pascal bought me a Che Guevara shirt (modeled above). Also, we made croissants.

I do know, however, that from the very beginning of the program, I begged Pascal to show me how to bake something (sounding, I’m sure, absolutely pathetic in broken, mispronounced French).  And finally, a week before I was set to pack my bags, Pascal relented and taught me a hard lesson about patisserie: you’re going to have to wait. Over the course of my last few days under his roof, he showed me how to craft the perfect croissant. I took notes, drawing pictures of what I thought he might be trying to explain in French, and tucked them away with my other valuables from the trip.

I’ve attempted to make croissants (both with Pascal’s recipe and with others I’ve found online) about twelve times since I set foot back in the States and it typically ends in a frustratingly buttery mess. I’ve made deflated croissants, cakey croissants, croissants that self-fried in their own oils, puffy, dense croissants and absolutely inedible croissants.

July 2011 – Croissant: 12, Me: 1 – A Fattening But Delicious Victory

Peering into the oven last night to discover flaky, layered, perfectly browned croissants, I could hardly contain myself. I fluttered around the kitchen, called my housemate in as a

witness and exclaimed a few curse-filled phrases of astonishment. After many croissant failures (one of which occurred just the week before when I somehow produced an item as dull as the Pillsbury pop can crescent rolls) I’d finally done it right. And now, with only one croissant left of the original dozen and a blog post ahead of me, I’m wondering if I’ll be able to recall exactly what I did correctly, much less repeat the process again.

Croissants are a complicated mix of only a few basic ingredients: milk, water, eggs, yeast, flour, sugar, salt and, of course, butter. In the process of making, re-making and throwing away dozens of inedible croissants, I have learned a thing or two about these ingredients that are helpful to understand from the beginning.

1. Yeast is extremely sensitive and not all types are created equal. To ferment properly and at a manageable pace yeast need moisture (water and milk), warmth (ideally between 80 and 90 degrees), and food (sugar).

2. Proofing is difficult, but necessary. In order to get the air bubbles in the dough that result from mixing and fermentation to grow and expand, you once again need an ideal temperature of about 80 degrees. I don’t know of any commercial ovens that can be set to a temperature of 80 degrees, and if you risk it and proof the dough at a higher temperature it will bake and collapse instead of expand (I have done this many times). I’ve found, however that you can create a pretty ideal environment in your oven without ever turning it on. For these croissants I proofed them for about 20 minutes in an oven with the light on and a pot of water that I’d just boiled on the rack below. Allowing your dough (and formed croissants) some time to puff up is key, but it takes both practice and patience.

3. No wonder drug dealers use scales. Weighing ingredients requires only slightly more dedication but ensures that your baked goods will turn out consistently and allows you to make adjustments without worrying about the proportions. Measuring cups, teaspoons, etc. are really just eyeball measurements — no way to tell if you’re using the exact amount of an ingredient you need. And so, for this croiss-periment I dug deep into my pockets and purchased a postal scale from Office Depot (only about 20 dollars). I am not sure if this accuracy made the difference or not, but it’s worth mentioning.

Phew, ok so. Let’s begin.

I started by putting 325 grams of flour (about 2 1/3 cup), 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of granulated sugar into my mixing bowl. After a quick incorporation, I added 25 grams (about 1/4 of a stick) of softened butter and 1 egg.

Next I heated 115 mL of milk and 30 mL of water in a saucepan until it was about the temperature of a baby’s bottle. You’re right, that reference means nothing, I just heated it until it felt warm but I didn’t come close to burning my finger. Next I added 7.5 grams (about 1 teaspoon) of dry active yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar to the warm milk water and gave it a quick stir. In 2-3 minutes my yeast had (clearly) been activated and was bubbling in the bowl.

I added the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mixed on medium speed with dough hook attachment until the ingredients formed a tight ball. I placed the dough in a lightly oiled, heat proof bowl, covered it with saran wrap and proofed it (see left) for 20 minutes, until it doubled in size.

Next I punched it down, which was way fun, returned the saran wrap and let it cool in the fridge overnight.

The next day, I rolled the dough out into abouuuuuut a 20 inch by 8 inch rectangle on a floured surface. I didn’t really measure, I just used the space that I had clean and available

on my counter and it amounted to a little over this much. I spread the remaining 175 grams (apparently around 6 and 1/8th oz) of butter onto the left two-thirds of my rectangle (with the longer side on the top and bottom).

Now here’s the origami-like part that is best explained with my hand drawn pictures.

1. With 2/3 buttered, I did a simple fold, bringing the unbuttered side onto the middle 1/3 of the dough and folding the left (buttered side) over the top. Then I chilled the folded dough (saran wrapped) for about an hour. (Sigh)

2. Then I rolled it out to the same size as before and did a double fold. Which looks like this:

And refrigerated the dough again for an hour.

3. Then I went to bed, but when I woke I did another double fold, and chilled the dough.

4. And after work I did a final single fold (same 1.) and chilled the dough one last time.

5. And finally, I rolled the dough on a very floured surface (because the butter was so thin by now that it was prone to sticking) and worked very quickly to cut large triangles. I spread a thin wash of egg and cream over the inside of the triangles, cut a little slit into the smallest side and began to roll the croissants.

6. After placing the rolled croissants on a baking sheet, I proofed them using the same method described before until they puffed up significantly and baked them at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes.

And boy, were they delicious.

Ps. For variation, almond paste can be inserted inside for an almond croissant, or dark chocolate for a pain-au-chocolat. Or other stuff for other types of croissants.

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6 thoughts on “Bragging Rights : The Perfect Croissants

  1. Anyone who knows anything about baking would nod to your victory, a well-made (not to mention hand-made!) croissant is an elusive success indeed! Congrats Nan, look forward to reading more!

  2. thats a ton of work (and patience) for something so deceptively simple in design.
    If your yeast doesn’t give you the right rise on the proof, is there a method of salvage?

    • No, Pops, no method of salvage. The proofing is just an extended method of letting the yeast aspirate, so if it’s not rising, you didn’t create the right environment for the yeast from the beginning. The method also varies depending on what kind of yeast you use (instant, dry active or fresh). Instant and fresh yeast can be incorporated with the dry ingredients without letting them bathe in a lukewarm solution, while dry active must be activated (hence the name) for 2-3 minutes in a warm liquid with some sugar before it is mixed. If you follow these rules and still can’t get the yeast to rise, it’s probably just gone bad. Dry active yeast should be stored in the refrigerator after opening and the other two are alright at room temperature.

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