Piping hot, straight out of the oven, the fresh, flaky taste of rich butter and sweet chocolate is worth the hard work croissants take.
Croissants are a true labor of love. A two-day process involving successive folding, rolling and relaxing of the dough, the simple butter and flour mixture needs a lot of attention to turn into the perfect pastry sidekick for your morning cappuccino. This isn’t an everyday recipe, and enough local bakers produce quality croissants that it’s one of the few items generally acceptable to purchase on a regular basis. But there is something soothing in making this dough every once in a while, and adding it into your repertoire is sure to up your baking ante.
Croissant dough is similar to puff pastry; a yeast-leavened dough is wrapped around butter and folded several times to create layers in a process called lamination. When the dough bakes, the butter melts, creating air between the dough layers, causing the end product to puff up. My first real memory of making puff pastry comes from my time working as a pastry cook at Spago Beverly Hills. Puff pastry was in high demand- it was regularly used for a savory foie gras tart on the garde manger station, a dessert trio for large parties, and for dessert specials, like a farmer’s market fruit tart with champagne sabayon. That meant that making puff pastry was an important task: At any given time the dough was being made, chilled or rolled out on the bakeshop’s large sheeter- a machine that gently pushed the dough back and forth, making the process of rolling an extra-large batch slightly easier.
After my first few months of working the dessert station at Spago (and getting my butt kicked plating dishes every night), one of the older pastry cooks showed me the ropes of making puff pastry. He went through the recipe step-by-step, clearly explaining how to make the dough, how to shape the butter, and how important it was that each fold be made in exactly the same way. I took scrupulous notes, knowing how much the bakeshop depended on the dough, and how important it was to do it right. I had seen the results of batches of poorly made dough- the product baked uneven, it wouldn’t puff up at all.
After my first lesson, every time someone made puff pastry, I stood nearby, watching, taking notes, and making sure I was ready for the task. And then one day, the dough was written on my list of things-to-do. It was my turn to make puff, a big responsibility for the bakeshop. I carefully measured out the ingredients, made my dough, and waited the set amount of time before starting my folds. After a few hours into a busy night of service -plating desserts and making other recipes- I came back to my dough to attempt my next folds. And a few hours later, I realized my mistake.
Oh no, my mistake! I had done the folds all wrong, ruined my first attempt at puff pastry. I was devastated. Just then, Chef Sherry came walking in, asking, “How’s everything going?” I was so upset I had ruined the dough that I started crying as I explained my mistake. With a smile and a nod, she calmly told me to not worry, it was just dough after all. She helped me with my last fold, reminding me to always have the seam of the folded dough- or the smile- facing my stomach. And we hoped for the best. The next day we baked some of the dough off. It wasn’t the best puff pastry, but it rose. I hadn’t completely ruined it.
Making puff pastry, or croissant dough, in my home kitchen, isn’t quite the same as the many batches of dough I made at Spago since that day. My home batch is considerably smaller, and I have to do all the dirty work- the rolling- without the big sheeter of the bakeshop. But whenever I make the dough, I still remember to position the smile, or the seem, towards my stomach, so I don’t ruin my folds.
Croissant Dough, adapted from Gourmet, 2000, and The Kitchn, February 2011
1 ½ cups whole milk, heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit
¼ cup sugar
2 ¼-oz packages active dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 sticks cold, unsalted butter *It’s important that you use high quality butter for puff pastry, it will ensure a better product. I suggest a European style butter such as Plugra.
2 large eggs
1 tbsp milk
1/2 cup dark chocolate cut into small pieces
1. Combine the warmed milk, sugar and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let stand for five minutes, until foamy (If it doesn’t foam, discard and start over). Add flour and salt, and mix with dough hook on low speed for about 7 minutes, until the dough is soft and sticky.
2. Transfer dough to a workspace and knead by hand for two minutes, adding more flour if necessary, until dough is smooth. Form the dough into a rectangle, approximately 1 ½-inches thick and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, for one hour.
3. After dough has chilled, line sticks of butter horizontally so that their sides are touching, on a work surface. Using a rolling pin, pound butter to soften slightly, and then cover with a sheet (or two if necessary) of plastic wrap. Turn over and cover the other side. Roll the butter out, keeping the shape, into a uniform 8-by-5 rectangle. Return to refrigerator while rolling out dough.
4. Lightly dust your work surface with flour. Remove dough from the refrigerator and unwrap. Roll out, lifting and stretching dough as necessary, into a 16-by-10-inch rectangle. Arrange so that the short side is nearest you (facing your stomach). Place the butter in the center of the dough, so that the long sides of the butter are parallel to the short sides of the dough. Fold over the sides of the dough like a letter, top to bottom, on top of the butter and brush off any excess flour with a pastry brush.
5. Turn the dough so that the short side is nearest you, and roll out by making uniform horizontal impressions, rolling just to, but not over, the sides. Create a 15-by-10-inch rectangle, by continuing to add even pressure to the dough. Brush off any excess flour. *Do your first fold* Fold in thirds like a letter, folding the top third down towards the center, and then the bottom third on top of that. Re-wrap in plastic wrap and chill one hour.
6. Do two more folds, repeating the above instructions, making sure to turn the dough 90 degrees between each turn. If any butter oozes out while rolling, sprinkle with flour to prevent sticking. After the third fold, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 8 hours (but no more than 18).
7. After dough has chilled, remove from the refrigerator and roll out into a ½-inch thick rectangle using the same technique as above. Using a sharp knife, slice it lengthwise in smooth, one-motion cuts, into 6-by-4-inch rectangles. Cut these on a diagonal to create triangles.
8. Divide the chocolate between each triangle, placing it on the dough near the long end. Roll up the triangles, starting at the wide end. Transfer each triangle to a sheet tray lined with parchment paper or a silpat, spacing them about 2 inches apart.
9. Let the crossiants proof, or rise, in a warm area, until they are about double in size. They should look puffy. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and whisk together the egg and milk in a bowl. Brush each of the crossiants with a thin coating.
10. Bake croissants for 30 minutes, rotating trays once halfway through, until they are a deep golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes and enjoy!