Just as I dedicated the bagel pages to the person who started me making bagels again, I am dedicating this page to Tiff Wick. She told me, though not in so many words, that she'd never had a good croissant. And I was so shocked, I started making croissants again. Thanks Tiff!
Let's start with what a great croissant is, and what it should taste like.
It should have the flavors and aromas of long fermentation. It should not be a quick dough.
It should have the tastes and smells of high quality butter - fresh butter, high fat butter, unsalted butter.
It should have a deep golden-brown color - the baking that brings out the color will also bring out the tastes of the croissant. Too many croissants fall down right there - they are woefully under baked!
Most importantly, a croissant should be light and flaky. The thin delicate crust should be in balance with the honeycomb interior.
The weight of the croissant should be fairly light compared to its size, and the many layers of dough should be clearly visible along the rolled edges of the croissant.
I'm not there yet, but I am getting closer. And I'll keep updating this page with observations and guidelines until I get there... at which point, I suspect there will be some new recipes on this web site. I am shooting for at least three different croissant recipes. And while they have been inspired by other recipes, they will be my own. So, sit back and enjoy my travels.
The process of making croissants sounds simple, but as with many seemingly simple things, each step must be executed with great care and attention to detail. As I read the different books that have the one true way of making croissants, I am struck by the fact that they are all different. Sometimes significantly so. In this discussion, I will focus on making croissants by hand, using a rolling pin. In commercial bakeries, a device called a reversible sheeter is used. It is a motorized and adjustable rolling pin that makes rolling out even difficult doughs very easy. However, they take up lots of room and are very expensive. I haven't had one since I owned a bakery, and don't think I'll have one any time soon. Similarly, I don't think that a person interested in making an occasional batch of croissants will buy a sheeter. Still, working by hand changes some of the process, and I will mention these changes in passing.
All the recipes agree that you start with a rich dough and chill it. They also agree that the dough should not be allowed to rise too much until the final stage of the process. The dough is rolled out, using either a rolling pin or a commercial dough sheeter. Then the dough is partially covered with butter, folded over to enclose the butter, rolled out to thin the dough and butter layer. The dough is again folded over, increasing the number of layers of butter and dough. Then the dough is covered to protect it from drying out, refrigerated to chill the butter, and then rolled out and folded again. The refrigeration, rolling and folding is repeated a number of times, each time the number of layers is increased.
Once there are enough layers, usually after 3 or 4 folding operations, the dough is allowed to rest again, rolled out, cut into triangles, and then rolled into the distinctive crescent shape. The dough can also be cut into other shapes and used for other purposes, such as the famous little chocolate breads the French call petite pans au chocolate, to make devastating cinnamon rolls and much more. But, we'll concentrate on Croissants, at least for now.
Once the dough is rolled out, it is allowed to rise, baked and then cooled.
Each of these steps can be elaborated at great length. When the dough is being made for hand production, care must be taken not to overdevelop the dough. If the dough is too strong, it will become too elastic and not allow itself to be rolled out. A sheeter can handle stiff dough with aplomb, but we need to be more sophisticated. Bread flour and high gluten flours are not good ideas here. People seem to be split between using all-purpose flour or a blend of bread flour and cake flour. Next, the dough is not highly developed - it is given just a few minutes of kneading, whether by hand or machine. The rough dough will smooth out and be developed during the rolling and folding process. The other part of making the dough workable is to let it rest as needed.
Preparing the butter is a major source of conflict. My ancient copy of the Joy of Cooking suggests kneading the butter under ice water until it is soft through kneading, but not from heat. I am reluctant to knead butter in ice water..... many other sources suggest cutting the butter thin slices, flouring them lightly, putting the slices between sheets of waxes paper and rolling them out. Another source suggested grating the butter. Chris and Becky were heretics and had a simple answer - they had me use room temperature butter for the first step, however, the butter and the room need to be lower than 80F. Each rolling needs to have a gentle touch. If the dough and butter are rolled out too firmly, the butter will shatter and the laminated layers will not work correctly.
The rolling and folding is carried out 3 or 4 times, with about an hour's chilling time between the passes to make sure the butter is cold and won't run out of the dough. When the dough has been rolled and folded enough, it is allowed to rest in the refrigerator for 2 hours or so. Then it is rolled into a strip about 10 inches wide, 1/4 inch thick and as long as possible. If the dough won't roll out, cover it and let it rest in the refrigerator until it is easier to handle. If the dough is too thick, the croissants will be too large, and it will be difficult to bake them all the way through and get the outer layer the way you want them.
Once the dough is rolled out, the edges are cut off and set aside. The edges aren't usually well laminated, so they are not used to make the bulk of the croissants. This suggests that you don't want to roll the dough out much past 10 inches, or you'll waste dough. Now, the baker marks the dough every 7 inches along the long side. Another set of marks are made on the other side of the dough, also 7 inches apart but offset 3 1/2 inches from the first set. These marks define the triangles. If there is any flour on the dough, it should be brushed off at this time.
Some people will put a piece of the leftover, or scrap, dough in the 7" base of the triangle, partly to make the croissants plumper, partly to not waste the dough. Some people will put a bit of almond paste at that spot to make almond croissants. Now, the triangles are rolled from the 7" side towards the opposite point. As you roll the dough, pull the point slightly to insure that the dough rolling is fairly tight. Curl the rolled dough into the crescent shape and set aside on a baking pan that has been greased and floured or covered with bakers parchment. Enough room needs to be left between the croissants to allow them to triple in size. When the pan is full, the croissants should be brushed with an egg wash. Some people use egg and water, others egg and milk, others egg whites and either water or milk. Then the croissants need to be covered with plastic wrap and allowed to rise.
The croissants must be raised at something close to room temperature because if they get much above 80F, the butter will melt, and leak out of the rolls, be absorbed by the dough, or both. Either problem will reduce the number of layers in the croissant. Once the croissants have risen, they are uncovered, given another egg wash and baked. And then, if everything was done well, the results can be enjoyed. I'll be filling out this document with pictures and more details, and - perhaps - an explanation of the contradictions.
Some Croissant References
In preparing this, I have tried recipes from many sources. All of them are
good sources. These include:
Bernard Clayton's "The Breads of France" ISBN 1-58008-389-7,
An ancient and battered copy of the Joy of Cooking
A number of newsletters from the San Francisco Baking Institute, especially the Spring 2005 and Fall, 2004 issues.
Numerous emails from nice folks whose names I'll add in the next day or twelve.
And last, but far from least, coaching from Becky Bathje, my former pastry chef, and Chris Coady the incredible pastry chef who trained Becky and whose skill and generosity leave me in awe.
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