The Perfect Croissant (A Saga)

I thought I would start this post with a sarcastic-but-playful quote about how damn hard it is to make a perfect croissant (from scratch, by hand, with no sheeter and no proofer in sight). Google, I knew, would speedily find such a quote from the archives of the online universe. Julia Child, maybe. But no!

Why are there no pithy quotes about this feat of epic proportions? Maybe it’s a secret agreement among croissanteurs not to discuss the trials and tribulations, in the same way you’ll never really know why French women stay so gloriously sylphlike.

Google is, however, happy to investigate the top quotes of “why is it so hard to…say goodbye; forgive; love; trust; be happy; apologize; move on.” You get the idea. Good luck with that, Google. Let’s stick with croissants. I will warn you that this post will not contain the recipe, so if you’re (understandably) just looking for that without my travel notes, look to the next post. But if you’re curious about what makes or breaks a croissant, let me do that research for you – keep reading!

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The patisserie where I cut my pastry teeth (hold on to your hats, ladies) got their croissants from Sysco. Spare me your gasps of horror because, to be quite honest, even our snobbiest customers couldn’t tell that they weren’t made from scratch. We would defrost a tray overnight, shape and fill in the morning, proof (let rise) in our fantastic industrial proofer, and bake to perfection. They were amazing croissants, partly due to the excellent chocolate and almond cream that we used as fillings, but even the plain ones were phenomenal. I still don’t quite understand it. But I knew that, as my own bakery, I was determined to make the real thing.

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Living proof!

For two months I’d been trying to perfect my croissant game. A fantastic local coffeeshop has been kind enough to carry Pies & Pinups pastries on Sundays, and what could be a better Sunday morning accompaniment than a croissant? But I wanted them to be great. The first batch I made, from a King Arthur Recipe, turned out pretty well, but they weren’t nearly puffy and flaky enough. When I tried that recipe for the second time, the croissants were grumpy and dense (maybe they knew I was skeptical).

 

So I moved on to a second King Arthur Recipe, because the croissants in their photo – those were what I wanted! Burnished honeycombs of pure croissant, yes. But the croissants I made with that dough fell literally flat. It did, however, make gorgeous puff pastry – which I think should have been the proper title of the recipe. And it rewarded me with some beautiful blueberry lemon curd pockets, and cinnamon toast twists.

 

Every weekend at our local farmers market, I would ask the in-house Croissant Man (who churned out trays of glorious creations like clockwork) about what was wrong with my dough. He was always willing to listen and give advice, and I learned from him that puff pastry isn’t meant to carry the weight of dough rolled on top of itself, like croissants. It does better as a single layer. Ironic, given that the dough is made of a hundred million universes of layers. Not really. It’s just a thousand, in true puff pastry. Juuuuust a thousand layers.

My next attempt was this recipe from Fine Cooking. Honestly, until I found the final HG (holy grail) croissant recipe, this one intrigued me the most. But it still wasn’t right. Butter leaked out of my croissants while they proofed and/or baked, and I was left with hopeful looking layers, but too-crisp and brittle shards of croissant. The worst part was, each croissant would still have a stubborn lump of cool dough in the center, even after baking to an uneven dark copper.

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Recipe No. 3

At this point, I’d probably gone through fifteen pounds of butter and only had a single semi-successful croissant to show for it. I was ready to throw in the towel, and the rolling pin, and the bench knife, and the croissants. So I took a break. Serendipity took pity on me, and my boss at the time told me about a Nancy Silverton recipe in an old Gourmet, for croissants using brown sugar in the dough. I decided to give it one more try before this became a full blown sabbatical from croissant-making.

AND IT WORKED.

The dough was pillowy and flexible through every fold, turn, chill, and roll. I didn’t feel like I was going to break my forearms or take out a loan for a sheeter. When I proofed and baked the dough, the crumb kept almost all the butter sealed inside its tiny cathedrals.

It’s always going to be a work in progress. The weather, the temperature and humidity of the kitchen, the whims of the oven…all of these are factors that I’ll never be able to control. But for now, my search for the perfect croissant is over. Having a dough that I trust makes it much easier to adapt and troubleshoot during the other steps of the baking process.

The last time I spent this much time and effort on a single project, it was trying to learn and memorize Ravel’s Sonatine in two weeks before my college junior recital. I practiced it for hours a day. I listened to it while I walked. I carried the score around with me. I wrote character sketches about the different movements. I practically slept with it under my pillow. It was worth it, absolutely, but exhausting.

So before I take you through the actual recipe – I need some coffee. See you in the next post,

Pies & Pinups

 

p.s. – please enjoy this excerpt from a hilarious article about what a croissant ought to be to merit an hours-long pilgrimage.

Guardian staff comments ranged from “it tastes like a knob of butter” to “could be more buttery.” Views at the Guardian changed somewhat when the ham and gruyere croissants, and the almond croissants, were broken out. These were judged as being worth between one and two hours wait, dependent on cravings. Meanwhile the pecan pie croissant, which costs $11 and is rich enough to feed a family of 15, was judged to be worth camping out overnight for.

 

 

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