You always hear about how much butter goes into a croissant but it wasn’t until seeing it in action that it truly registered. It is an astounding amount. However, properly made and freshly baked croissants are also one of the most delicious things ever and are completely worth every gram of butter.
Croissants require advance planning – to impress Sunday morning brunch guests with freshly baked breakfast pastries requires starting the dough on Saturday morning. The first step is pretty quick – mixing together milk, yeast, flour, sugar, and salt. You have to triple wrap it in saran wrap but not too tightly or it will explode all over your fridge. Like most things with French baking, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. On Saturday night, it is time to pound the butter and the dough into thin and flexible rectangle mats. The trick is a bare minimum of rolling or the gluten will make the croissant more like a brioche, without the characteristic flakes. It’s actually pretty fun to pound on the butter with your whole body weight and challenging to make it into a rectangle rather than a map of France.
The most interesting part was seeing how you create hundreds of layers of flaky dough. There is a specific way to fold the dough once you have put the butter mat on top of it – first like an envelop and then like a book, multiple times. The dough manuscript then goes in the fridge again overnight before it will be ready to shape and bake.
The easiest part of making the croissant is actually rolling it up. We cut the dough into triangles, split the bottom so that we had an “Eiffel tower,” rolled it up (not too tightly), and sealed it with egg wash. Next the croissants have to “proof,” or rise again, before they are finally ready to fully egg wash and put in the oven with a steam bath.
The smell of baking bread and butter is pretty intoxicating and I struggled to wait for the croissant to rest (which lets the layers separate fully) before digging into the hot, flaky, buttery, crusty roll of perfection.
Making pain au chocolate is basically the same as making a croissant, except that the shape is different – we placed sticks of chocolate inside rectangles of dough before rolling them up. It was a tough competition between warm, melty, chocolaty croissants and the plain ones. My solution was to eat both.
We also made two other pastries from the same dough: pain au raisin and raspberry jam danish. Both required a classic creme patissiere, a base custard that is used in many French pastries once it is doctored up in specific ways. The custard was light and airy and pretty straightforward to make: boiled milk, sugar, and cornstarch with eggs whisked in and fresh vanilla beans and butter added at the end. We also learned about ways to use the leftover vanilla pods: soaked in rum to make vanilla extract or ground with sugar to make vanilla infused sugar, which I bet would be amazing in coffee. Booze was also a crucial ingredient for the raisins – they have to be soaked in it before baking or they will pull all the moisture out of the pastry.
While the adorned pastries were wonderful, nothing could compare with the pure, buttery joy of my first homemade croissant.