A pale golden color and a uniform puff lure unsuspecting buyers to second-rate croissants. This disguise simulates the classic good looks of the famous flaky French pastry. The smell of lightly salted butter and fresh yeast encases a real, handmade croissant like an alluring halo of authenticity. Its color ranges from warm brown to a golden yellow — a palette only possible when eggs are mixed with white fours and real, pale yellow butter. As you might expect, real croissants are made by hand in small batches — part of the morning process for bakers around France and other pastry-centric countries such as Austria, where the croissant originated. (It was modeled after a popular pastry from Vienna, the kipfel.) When you bite into a factory-made croissant, no flavor emerges. No buttery melt, no peaks and valleys of fresh yeast flavor, no slightly caramelized base. These good-looking impostors are machine-made with shortening (i.e. trans fats).
A real croissant looks a little rougher, and its flavor is a burst of buttery sunshine. Despite the similarity in appearance, no trans-fat pastry can deliver the incomparable flavor of pure butter. Croissants made with European-style butter (Plugra and Challenge are good ones*), local butter or high-quality organic butter offer even more stylized flavor. To make sure you get the best croissants, take matters into your own hands.
The croissant lives in a family of French pastries called “laminated doughs,” along with its cousins, the Danish and puff pastry. Croissant dough relies on fresh yeast, an important factor in creating a true croissant’s layered texture and flavor. Rich bread dough made from white flour, butter, yeast and water is lightly kneaded together, then folded around a square of pure softened butter. Through a series of careful folds, intercut with long periods of “resting,” where the dough sits idly in the fridge, layers of dough are “laminated” with layers of butter. Once the chilled, lacquered dough is ready to shape, it is cut into long triangles that resemble the Eiffel Tower. Then each piece is rolled up to take the familiar crescent shape, allowed to “proof” or puff up as the yeast starts its work. The croissants are then carefully painted with eggwash and baked.
In Wayne Gisslen’s “Professional Cooking,” the textbook used by the keeper of the torch of French culinary techniques, Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, croissants are given a two-page spread. The recipe below is a simplified version. The process of chilling the dough for 20-minute intervals along the way does not have to dominate the day. Instead, it can be part of a productive kitchen session. The novice baker might be intimidated by the many steps and time lapses, but with some planning, the croissant-making process is easy — and freshly baked croissants at home are rich reward.
The reason that most readily available croissants (the ones you buy in the grocery store; the ones your favorite deli probably uses to make a croissant sandwich) are made with shortening instead of butter is very simple: Shortening is cheaper. Some pastry chefs find it easier to work with because it holds its shape at room temperature more easily than butter, but no pastry chef would ever declare the cheap croissant superior to the all-butter, rich one.
- Split the butter into 2 sections: one 8-ounce (2 sticks) section and the other 1½ ounces (about 3 tablespoons). Place the larger section of butter in between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and mash it into a thin, flat square (about 8 by 8 inches).
- Next, scald the milk and allow it to cool for several minutes, then pour it into a bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir with a whisk. Next, add the sugar, the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter, and the salt. Sprinkle in the bread flour, a few ounces at a time. Switch to wooden spoon or silicone spatula as the mixture turns into a dough. Mix dough in the bowl until all the flour is incorporated and it is a smooth, soft dough. Shape it into a large rectangle (about the size of a halfsheet pan) and allow it to rest for 20 minutes in the refrigerator.
- After it has chilled, place the butter square (also known as butter block) over two-thirds of the large rectangle, remove the plastic wrap, then fold the dough like a business letter (unbuttered; one-third into the center, followed by the unbuttered one-third).
- With a rolling pin, roll the dough back to the thin, large rectangle shape and allow it to rest another 20 minutes in the refrigerator. Dust your workspace with bread flour, and repeat the letter fold-roll-and-rest process 3 more times. Finally, use a ruler to measure and cut 10 large triangles in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. Trim the center, removing an inch or two of dough between the endpoints. Stretch each triangle out a little, then roll it up starting at the base of the triangle. Then adjust each piece into the classic crescent shape.
- Allow to “proof” or risen a warm, moist spot. Brush each croissant with egg wash, the bake at 400 until all the shades of golden brown imaginable have developed (about 25 minutes).
* Clover is a fine brand, but watch out for the organic butter from discount stores such as Costco.
Susie Norris is a confectioner, cookbook author and chef/instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
Photo: Croissants. Credit: istockphoto/Jack Puccio