Over Thanksgiving, we stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Seattle where every morning we were treated to fresh-baked croissants - yes, those buttery, flaky, delicious French pastries. Our hostess and her daughter made them every day, right there in her kitchen.
The more I thought about it, I had to give it a try. Where else can you go after making pies?
I have been working with a great book called "The Secrets of Baking," by Sherry Yard. What I like about this book is that she teaches you some basic recipes, and then tells you the variations on it to be creative.
Croissants are part of her chapter on puff pastry.
If you're going to consider puff pastry, you are going to be working with butter. Puff pastry is a laminated dough - that is, just like plywood, it's layers of dough separated by layers of butter, rolled ever and ever more thinly. The dough is called the dêtrempe. The butter is called the beurrage.
Croissants take a while to make, but the beauty of it is that you can make the dough and divide it in portions and freeze it. Then you can take it out when you're ready to bake, and it's easy.
Unlike pate feuillette, Croissants are made with a yeast-raised dough. The dough recipe is simple:
1 cup of chilled milk (she says whole milk, I used 2%)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups flour (she mixes 2 cups bread flour with 1 cup all-purpose flour)
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons of salt
1/4 pound, or one stick, of cold unsalted butter
In a standing mixer, dissolve the yeast in the milk.
Combine the dry ingredients.
Cutting the butter into tablespoon-sized slices, work the butter into the dry ingredients - as you would for pie crust, until the butter particles are about the size of peas. I used my pastry blender.
Add the flour and butter mixture to the yeast and milk mixture. Knead it and pull it together into a ball - don't work it too much.
Pull it together on a floured surface into a ball, and use a sharp knife or razor to cut an x-shape into the ball of dough, going halfway through. Then, wrap it in plastic or foil and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When you're ready to work with it again, take the dough out of the fridge and while you're waiting for it to warm up a bit, make the beurrage.
You'll need 3/4 of a pound of butter, or 3 sticks. That's right, you heard me. With the 1/4 pound that went into the dêtrempe, and the beurrage, this recipe requires a pound of butter.
You form the butter into a block about five inches square by about 3/4 inch thick. I cut our west-coast style stubby butter blocks in half lengthwise and then put them together in a kind of mosaic. Use a couple tablespoons of flour to work it all together, pounding it with your rolling pin as though you were working with clay. Don't let it get too warm.
Put the ball of dough on a floured surface and roll it out in an x-pattern - letting the lobes from the x-shaped cut you made expand out into a kind of four-leafed clover shape.
Place the beurrage in the center of the dough, off-set in a diamond shape.
This picture and the one above are from two different batches.
Fold the four lobes of the dough over the butter, sealing it in.
Like a package. Take your rolling pin and gently pound down on the package, sealing the places it's folded over and flattening it to about an inch thick. All the time you're working, keep a bit of flour available to dust the surfaces and keep the dough from sticking.
Then roll it out into a rectangle shape. What you're doing here is sandwiching the butter between two layers of dough. The rectangle should be about 10" by 20".
Then, fold each side of the dough to the middle, into thirds, like a business letter. This is what is called the first "turn."
Now you have three layers of butter sandwiched between six layers of dough. Roll the dough out once again into the same rectangular shape, and make the same fold again. This is the second "turn."
Now you have eighteen layers of dough and nine layers of butter sandwiched together.
You should never let the dough get too warm, so after this turn, the dough has to rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. The book says to wrap the dough in plastic wrap, but I find that the buttery dough prevents the wrap from clinging. I wrap it in foil and seal it inside a large ziplock bag.
After the rest in the refrigerator, take the dough out and make another "turn." Here I get a little confused between the various recipes I read. Yard says you should make at least four "turns" the first day you work with the dough, and a total of six "turns" all together. Professional bakers mark the dough to keep track of the number of "turns" - here above I've marked the dough with four fingerprints - this dough has been "turned" four times.
After the first four "turns" the dough can rest overnight in the fridge, or even be frozen for a couple of weeks. When you take it out, let it come to room temperature, and pound it gently with the rolling pin to get it workable.
Once more, roll it out into a rectangle, and perform two more "turns." Note that each with each "turn" the dough becomes more and more layered with butter.
It's boggling now to even calculate the number of dough layers and butter layers. What is it, now, 120 layers of dough and 72 layers of butter? I've lost track.
If it's too warm, let it rest in the fridge for a few minutes.
Now you're ready to make the croissants. Here, I diverge from Yard's instructions, because I have a small family. After the last "turn," I cut the dough in half crosswise, and wrap one piece and put it in the freezer, to use another time.
Now I have a piece of dough that's a short rectangle. I roll it out so that it's about nine inches wide by 20 or so inches long, and about 1/4" thick. If it seems too thick, I make the rectangle longer, not wider.
I mark the dough along the top of the long edge of the rectangle at 5" increments. I do the same at the bottom edge, but off-set it by 2.5". Then, using a pastry wheel (mine is fluted but it doesn't seem to matter in the end), I cut triangles that are 5" on one side and around 9" on the other 2 sides.
Starting from the wide end of the triangle, roll it up, then turn the point under and curve the whole thing like a crescent.
Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Cover with plastic wrap or foil, and let rise, or "proof," at a warm room temperature for between 1 1/2 and 2 hours, until puffed.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Break an egg into a bowl, mix with about 1 tablespoon of water, and brush the egg wash onto the surface of the croissants.
Bake for 12 minutes, then turn the pan around so they bake evenly for another 12 minutes. Let cool a little while and enjoy.
They look complicated, don't they? But really, they're not. You spend one day working it all up, and then you put it in the freezer. The next time you take it out, it's easy. The only hassle is making time for the final proofing of the rolls once they're on the pan, but you can figure that part out.
The only drawback? You gotta use a lot of butter. I'm willing to put up with that part, though. What do you think?