I honestly thought it would take me at least three tries to get it right. The fact that my first croissants turned out perfectly is in large part thanks to Briony from Cook’n With Class, a boutique cooking school in the Montmartre area of Paris.
It was a brisk Saturday morning when four travellers and I crowded around a kitchen island to learn the secrets of croissant making from Briony, an expat Australian pastry chef with an impressive résumé. The croissant class was not a demonstration – it was a hands-on experience so that we could feel the texture of the dough, the coldness of the butter, and get a good go with the rolling pin. At the end of the three hour session, we were rewarded for our hard work in the cold kitchen with a mountain of croissant, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins (my favourite), and danish.
I know what you are all wondering – did I stop loving croissants after learning how much butter is needed? Of course not! In fact it really isn’t that much butter when you do the math. One batch of croissant dough makes about 24 croissants. A half batch (12) is paired with just one cup of butter (half a block or two sticks). There is no butter in the dough itself. So really, each croissant contains less butter than your average piece of pound cake. Who knew math could be so useful!
Croissant is made of a leavened dough containing very few ingredients – flour, sugar, salt, milk, yeast. Where the magic comes in, is when cold butter is sandwiched between layers of dough, to create the flaky multi-layered pastry. At the end of the entire process, you will end up with 40 distinct layers with alternating dough and butter, which will then be flattened, cut, and shaped into crescents.
The three phases of the croissant process can be divided up over two days because the first and second phases involves 8-24 hours of rest time.
Refer to the next post – Croissant Recipe for the recipe for a half batch of croissants (12). For a full batch, double everything!
Phase 1 is the easiest – you proof the yeast in milk, mix in the flour until smooth. However, if like me, you don’t have a stand mixer, it takes a bit longer and a lot more muscle power. It will make all that butter worth it.
The trick is to emulate the dough-hook with your fingers, and twist the dough without kneading it. Pretend you are perpetually twisting in a light bulb and you just happened to exist in a substrate of dough, and don’t stop until (you need a break, or) the dough is smooth and elastic, and the dough pulls away from your fingers. Have you ever eaten a really good croissant that tugs back at you when you try to pull out its’ horn? Like the dough is stretchy? This is what we are trying to create in this first step.
After sitting in the fridge for at least 8 hours and no more than 24 hours to do its’ thing (I’m picturing all the little yeast bacteria having a huge party and making lots of babies in the fridge), you can take it out and beat it into submission. I am not joking.
Phase 2 is when we are creating the 40 layers of dough and butter – the technical term is “laminating”. Essentially, one large flattened piece of rectangular dough sits under one large flattened piece of square cold butter, and the lot is folded over and over again and flattened over and over again.
But first things first. The butter. To get the butter into its’ required square shape and thickness of around a quarter of an inch (less than one centimetre) without it melting on you, requires a cold kitchen, quick work, and raw arm strength.
Take your 500g block of butter straight out of the fridge, cut in half lengthwise (so it’s a rectangle, and not a cube), and coat in flour. To keep the butter cold, you can wash your hands in cold water first and dry thoroughly. Place the butter fat side down between two pieces of parchment, and bear down on it with your rolling pin parallel to your work surface. Just go at it up and down, turn it and flip it once in a while with more flour so it doesn’t stick, until the butter is flexible like a plastic placemat when you pick it up. At that point, you can roll the butter (always start from the centre and roll outwards and stop before you reach the edge) until the required thickness and square shape. If at any point the butter starts to melt, put it back in the fridge.
The reason why the butter is beaten first with the rolling pin, is that you can’t roll cold butter – it will break. At the end of this process you will want a solid piece of butter that is still cold, but flexible like plastic. Once finished, place it in the fridge to rest. (You will need two of these if making the full batch of croissant).
Then, onto the dough. Take out the dough from the fridge (use half at this point if you made a full batch), and sprinkle some flour on the surface of the dough before you place it down. To get it into the required thickness and rectangular shape, you guessed it, we beat it like we did with the butter until flexible, and then roll it out. Be careful with adding flour to your surfaces though, too much will mess with the dough. You will want the width of the dough piece to be about two centimetres longer than the square side of the butter.
The reason why the dough is beaten here is that we don’t want to the rolling action to toughen the dough. Hopefully, by the end, your dough will still be cool to the touch, because the next step is putting on the butter layer.
Instead of trying to describe the process, here is a video showing how the layers are made. After half an hour of searching the net, I couldn’t find a video that shows the way I was taught, so you’ll have to bear with me!
Laminating requires that the dough and the butter is the same thickness and consistency – flexible and cold.
Lightly flour the work surface again, and lay out your rectangle of dough with the short side closest to you (portrait, not landscape). Place the butter on top of the dough, almost flush with the short edge closest to you. The butter edges should not hang outside of the dough, and the surface area of the butter should take up 2/3 of the dough exactly. If the butter is bigger than it should be, you can cut it down to size.
The first fold is a letter fold, which means the dough is divided into three portions. First, take the edge of the dough that is the furthest away from you (top of the letter) and fold it towards you. It will cover half of the butter square. Then, lift the new edge that is the furthest away from you and fold towards yourself again. You now have 2 layers of butter sandwiched between 3 layers of dough.
Pinch together the short edges of the dough so that the butter is fully enclosed. Pinch together the long “seam” of the dough too.
Flour your surface again, and beat the dough into a rectangle again, about a quarter of an inch thick.
The second fold is a book fold. Position the rectangle this time so that the long edge is closest to you (landscape). Take each of the short side of the dough from the left and the right, and fold towards the centre. The two short edges should meet and hardly touch the centre line. Then, fold in half from left to right again. You will have made three folds, making 20 layers (4×5).
The third fold is a book fold again. Beat the dough out again into a rectangle again. This time, by placing the long edge closest to yourself, your folds will be perpendicular to the second fold. At the end you will have made another 3 folds.
After all this beating and folding, phase 2 is finally over! Wrap your beautiful log in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for another 8 to 24 hours. (If you are making a full batch, you will have to do this all over again with the 2nd half of the dough)
Phase 3 can be done the next day, for example, on a Saturday or Sunday morning. This last phase is when you will finally see the fruits of your labour and enjoy them too!
Take your dough log out of the fridge, and cut it in half on the short side. You will be able to see the lovely layers in there – if you can’t see layers… then the butter must have melted into the dough, which will turn out cakey instead of flaky.
Use your rolling pin and beat your cube-ish dough into a rectangle, and cut out isosceles triangles that have their bases along the long side of the rectangle. The two equal length sides should be about twice as long as the base. A Briony tip: make the triangles with blunt tips to avoid the tips burning in the oven! (In the math world, triangles with blunt tips are actually trapezoids)
And here is when a video is finally available – how to shape the croissants! The full video is also quite amazing and I would recommend watching the whole thing. Croissant rolling is at 4 minutes in. (Note that he is a professional baker and uses a machine to laminate his croissant dough! Wish I had one!)
Let the croissants rise in a draft-free area for 30 minutes, and then brush croissants with egg wash (one egg with a tablespoon of milk). Bake in the upper third of the oven at 400F. Watch that they don’t burn – they are done when the tops are golden. While in the oven, the butter in the croissants will leak out and form a pool – that is perfectly normal so don’t worry!
Cool the croissants in a cooling rack and enjoy!