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The Croissant Challenge

A couple of weeks ago, when Vera and I were planning the brunch menu, the last thing I needed was a baking challenge. The menu was already ambitious and required two full days of proofing dough and baking, but I just couldn’t resist… Flaky, buttery croissants that crackle as you bite into them… Even more butter on top with homemade plum jam… Chocolate dripping from half of the batch… you see where I’m going with this? Once I start dreaming of a baked good, there’s no turning back.

As luck would have it, on one of those nights filled with croissant dreams, I came across Jacques Torres’ cooking show. He was baking croissants! It was then that I seriously started thinking this was a sign from the universe. The universe was clearly telling me to start beating that pound of butter right away. Plus, Jacques made it look as easy and effortless as baking a batch of cookies. So I stopped worrying and started reading the croissant recipe from Dorie Greenspan‘s award-winning book “Baking with Julia”.

You can see the result above. Considering this was my first time, don’t they look great? What can I say – I’ve learned from the best.

Needless to say, I owe much of the success to Dorie’s clear instructions. No one tells it as good as Dorie. With a teacher like her holding your hand, every first trial is a hit. So were these croissants.

The first step of the recipe constitutes preparing the butter and the dough the night before. And that is the easiest part. You just beat a pound of butter with 2 tablespoons of flour and wrap it in plastic. Done! Then the dough comes together. Wrap it up and put them into sleep. Sounds easy, but I came across the first hurdle after beating a pound of butter at the highest speed of my KitchenAid mixer. The bowl got stuck.

Talk about signs from the universe… How I wished Dorie was there helping me release the bowl as well. But I guess I shouldn’t be that demanding. And she was busy decorating her new kitchen anyways…

After a few blows with the hammer (at 2 AM I must add), the bowl was back in the game. A quick wash, and then the dough came together in 10 minutes flat.

Everything was packed and ready, but I was left with so many questions. Why not just use an already chilled pound of butter? Why cut into cubes and beat with two tbsp of flour?

I got the answers after I watched the videos of the original show “Julia Child: Lessons with Master Chefs” with Esther McManus and Julia Child. It turns out, the flour added to the butter absorbs some of the water and cutting it into cubes helps the paddle work faster and this way the butter stays chilled even after beating.

If you’re planning to take on the croissant challenge, I recommend that you first read the recipe from start to finish and then watch these videos before you start beating that butter.

Here’s the dough after its first turn the next day:

And here it is after the last turn, also known as “the wallet”. The dough cracked a little, but Dorie says not to worry.

And here they are shaped and ready to rise:

It goes without saying that the result was well worth the time and energy I’ve put into this challenge. The croissants were so tender and flaky.

I had a bit of difficulty rolling the dough after the second turn. Wish I watched the videos beforehand. Esther advises not to force the dough if it’s being a little stubborn. Me? I fought with it.

So, another dream realized. I wonder what’s next…

CROISSANT RECIPE

Recipe from “Baking with Julia: Savor the Joys of Baking with America’s Best Bakers”

Ingredients

For 20-24 croissants

For the dough:

  • 1 ounce compressed fresh yeast
  • 3 3/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup milk

For the butter:

  • 4 1/2 sticks (1 pound 2 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 tbsp unbleached all purpose flour

For the egg wash:

  • 1 large egg beaten with 1 tbsp cold water

Method

Preparing the dough:

Put the yeast, flour sugar, salt and 1 cup of milk into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook. With the machine on its lowest speed, mix for 1 to 2 minutes, until a soft, moist dough forms on the hook. If the dough is to dry, add more milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. In most cases if the dough does need more liquid, it won’t need more than about 3 tablespoons, but check carefully as you want all the flour to be moistened. Stop the mixer and look into the bowl. If the hook has not picked up all the flour from the bottom of the bowl, add a few more drops of milk.

Set the mixer to its highest speed and work the dough until it is smooth and elastic, no longer sticky and close to the consistency of soft butter, about 4 minutes. To make certain that all the ingredients are perfectly blended you can remove the dough from the mixer after 3 minutes, and then with the mixer on high speed, return plum size pieces to the bowl. The pieces will remain separate for a short while, then come together, at which time the dough is ready.

Remove the dough from the mixer, wrap it in plastic and put it in a plastic bag, leaving a little room for expansion. Keep the dough at room temperature for 30 minutes to give the gluten time to relax; then refrigerate the dough for 8 hours or overnight.

Preparing the butter:
Attach the paddle to your mixer and beat the butter and flour on the highest speed until smooth and the same consistency as the croissant dough, about 2 minutes. Reach into the bowl and poke around in the butter to make sure that its evenly blended – if you find any lumps, just squeeze them between your fingers. Scrape the butter onto a large piece of plastic wrap and give it a few slaps to knock the air out of it. Mold it into an oval 5 to 6 inches long and 1 inch thick. Wrap it tightly and refrigerate until needed. At this point the dough and the butter can be frozen; defrost overnight in the refrigerator before proceeding with the recipe.

Incorporating the butter:
Place the croissant dough on a generously floured large work surface (marble is ideal) and sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with flour. Using a long rolling pin, roll the dough into an oval approximately 10 inches wide and 17 inches long. Brush the excess flour from the dough. Center the oval of chilled butter across the oval of dough and fold the top and bottom of the dough over the butter to make a tidy package. Gently and evenly stretch the folded layers of dough out to the sides and press the edges down firmly with your fingertips to create a neatly sealed rectangle.

If you own a French rolling pin (one without handles) now is the time to use it. Hold one side of the dough steady with your hand and strike the other side gently but firmly with the rolling pin to distribute the butter evenly. As you hit the dough you will see the butter moving out into the crevices. Strike the other side of the dough the same way. After pounding you should have a 1 inch thick rectangle about about 14 inches long and 6 inches wide.

Keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured, roll out the dough. If this your first time working with croissant dough, you may want to roll out the dough just a little to distribute the butter, put it on a baking sheet lined with flour-dusted parchment paper, cover it with plastic and chill it for 1 to 2 hours first; this way you wont risk having the dough go soft or the butter seep out. (Each time you wrap the dough, make sure its well covered – even a little air will cause the dough to form an unwanted skin.) If you are experienced, feeling courageous or have dough that is still well chilled, go on to make your first turn.

Rolling and folding:
Roll the dough into a rectangle 24 to 26 inches long and about 14 inches wide, with the long side facing you. (You may feel as though your rolling the dough sideways-and you are.) Brush off the excess flour and, working from the left and right sides, fold the dough inward into thirds, as you would a brochure, so that you have a package thats about 8 inches wide by 14 inches long.

Carefully transfer the dough to a parchment- lined baking sheet, mark the parchment “1 turn” so you’ll know what you’ve done, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. You can freeze the dough after this or any other turn. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before proceeding.

Second turn:
Place the dough so that the 14 inch side runs left to right. (The dough needs 2 more turns; you’ve given it one quarter-turn already.) Making sure the work surface is well floured at all times, roll the dough as you did before into a rectangle 24 to 26 inches long by about 14 inches wide . (When doing the second and third turns, you may find that the dough has cracked a little. That’s natural; its a result of the yeast. Don’t worry, just flour the dough and work surface and keep going.)

As you did before, fold the dough in thirds. Place it on the parchment, mark the paper “2 turns”, cover and refrigerate continued in part 2 for at least 2 hours.

Third turn:
Start again with a 14 inch side running from your left side to your right. Roll the dough into a rectangle 24 to 26 inches long by 14 inches wide. Fold the left and right sides of the dough into the center, leaving a little space in the center, and then fold one side over the other as though you were closing a book. This is the famous double turn, also known as “the wallet”.

Chilling the dough:
Brush off the flour, wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours. At this point the dough is ready to be rolled, cut and shaped into croissants. Storing: The dough can be frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw overnight, still wrapped, in the refrigerator.

Rolling the dough:
Generously flour a work surface. Position the dough so that it resembles a book, with the spine to your left and the opening to your right. For easy handling, cut the dough in half horizontally so that you have two pieces about 7 inches long and about 6 1/2 inches wide: wrap and chill one half while you work with the other half.

Flour the dough and roll it into a rectangle thats 24 to 26 inches long and 15 to 18 inches wide. This takes a lot of rolling. Keep the work surface and the dough well floured and have patience. If necessary turn the dough so that the long side runs from left to right along the counter. Carefully fold the top half of the dough down to the bottom. The dough is now ready for cutting.

Cutting the dough:
Working with a pizza cutter or a large, very sharp knife, cut triangles from the dough. This is done most easily by making a diagonal cut on the left hand side to get the pattern started; save the uneven piece of dough. Measure off a 3 to 4 inch base and begin cutting the triangles, always cutting from bottom to top. You’ll have another scrap when you reach the other end-you’ll use these scraps when you shape the croissants. Unfold each pair of triangles and cut them in half to separate. You should have 10 to 12 maybe 14 triangles; set them aside while you clear the work surface of all flour. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Shaping the croissants:
Moisten your hands with a wet towel. Working with one triangle at a time, gently stretch the base to widen it slightly, then, holding the base of the triangle in one hand, run the fingers of the other hand down to the point of the triangle. Use your thumb to pull and stretch the dough until its almost twice the original length-have courage and tug; the extra length is what allows you to make a large croissant with sufficient rolls to show off its layers of dough.

Place the triangle, point toward you, at arm distance on the work table this will give enough space to roll the croissant into shape with-out having to lift it in mid-roll) Pull off a little piece of the reserved scrap dough, mold it into a small football shape and center it on the wide top part of the triangle-this will help make the “belly” of the croissant plump. Fold about 1/2 inch of this wide end over itself and press the ends down once to secure. With you palms and fingers positioned over the flattened ends of the croissant and the heels of your hands on the flat work surface, roll the croissant toward you-try to keep your hands moving down and out to the sides as you roll- ending with the point of the triangle tucked under the croissant. A well shaped croissant-and it takes practice to achieve one-will sport at least six clearly accountable sections, or ridges, from rolling. Place the croissants on one of the baking sheets, leaving room for them to triple in size without touching one another. Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Glazing and rising:
Give the croissants a last gentle plumping, carefully turning the ends down and toward the center to produce the classic croissant shape. Brush the croissants with egg wash and allow them to rise, uncovered, at room temperature for 3 to 4 hours, until tripled in size and spongy. (Reserve egg wash, covered in the refrigerator.) The ideal place for rising is a turned off oven (one with a pilot light is fine) containing a pan of hot steamy water. To test that they are properly risen, wet your fingers and squeeze the end of a croissant:It should offer no resistance and feel almost hollow.

Baking the croissants:
Arrange the oven racks to divide the oven into thirds, and preheat the oven to 350 f. Brush the croissants once again with egg wash and bake for 12 minutes. Rotate front to back and bake another 4 to 6 minutes, until the croissants are deeply bronzed. Cool on racks. As tempting as they are croissants should not be eaten as soon as they come from the oven. The dough-and the layers within need time to set.

Storing:
The croissants are best eaten the day they are made. If you must keep them, freeze them, wrapped airtight. Thaw the croissants overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature and reheat in a 350F oven for about 8 minutes.