I don’t bake croissants very often. Not because we don’t love them (oh, how we love them!!), but because I am always trying out new recipes for our cooking school, and with just two of us eating, it’s hard to justify making a batch of croissants when I know we really can’t eat more than a few at a sitting… Freezing the rest just seems so sad! All that delicious butteriness, that perfect flakiness, FROZEN? Being a bread and pastry purist, I never freeze my desserts or breads unless I really don’t have a choice (like a sudden trip or WAY too much food in house).
Unlike most people who are signing up for gym memberships and vowing to eat less in the New Year, this week we decided that New Year’s Day was the perfect time to indulge in homemade croissants, and that freezing a few uneaten croissants was better than not eating any at all. Even if the thawed croissants would be a little less perfect than the fresh-from-the-oven croissants, I would make peace with that.
Making croissants at home is not difficult, but requires a bit of time and patience. The techniques used are drawn from bread-baking (the dough is yeasted) and puff pastry-making (the butter is layered between sheets of dough and the dough is turned repeatedly). The resulting croissants (when properly made) are a beguiling combination of crisp, bread-like exterior and soft, flaky, buttery puff pastry interior. Hence, I categorized them as both bread and dessert on this blog: they are either a very rich bread or a somewhat lighter pastry… your call.
For best flavor, it is absolutely essential that you use good quality, unsalted European butter rather than domestic butter. French, Italian, and Danish butters all work well (they have a higher fat content than American butters and a deeper, creamier flavor). We tasted several imported and European-style butters last year, and determined that Lescure from France was our favorite brand. So before making croissants, seek out a good European butter; it will make a huge difference.
One more thing: All of the recipes (with just one exception) I have ever seen for croissants call for the dough to be made with milk. I have made croissants with both water and milk and we have decided that the flavor of the butter is more pronounced when water is used. Feel free to try milk, or half milk and half water, instead of water as below, and see what you think. Milk croissants will brown more quickly in the oven, due to the sugars in the milk.
Makes 10 medium croissants (or 6 large croissants if larger shapes are cut from the dough before baking)
For the dough:
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for the counter
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
- 3/4 cup room-temperature water
- Butter for greasing the bowl
For the butter paste:
- ¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 12 tablespoons (1 and 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted European butter (our favorite brand is Lescure)
- 1 large egg, beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water
Make the dough: Mix the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl. Pour in the water and mix quickly until you have a soft, sticky dough; the dough will be ragged and not smooth. Don’t overmix or the dough will be tough; 1 minute is long enough. You don’t need to knead the dough, just gather it together. Place in a buttered bowl, turn to coat lightly with the butter, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 4 hours (but no more than 12 hours), as the dough is easier to handle when cold.
Make the butter paste: Pour the flour on a counter and place the chilled butter on top of the flour. Using a metal pastry cutter or dough scraper and working quickly to avoid melting the butter, cube the butter and incorporate it with the flour; be sure to avoid touching the butter directly with your hands or the butter will melt. Use the scraper to break up the butter into tiny pieces; any hard lumps will ruin the texture of the dough and force it to tear. When the butter is soft but not melted, there are no lumps or hard bits remaining, and it is uniformly mixed with the flour, shape it into a 5-inch square. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and place it on a lightly floured counter. Do not knead it or work it, or it will toughen. Using a rolling pin, roll it into a 12-inch square. Place the butter on the central portion of the dough at a 45 degree angle so it looks like a diamond on top of a square. Fold the corners of the dough over to enclose the butter perfectly: you will now have a diamond-shaped package of dough encasing butter. If needed, wet your fingertips lightly with water to help seal the edges properly. No butter should be visible or oozing out of the dough package.
Turn the dough diamond so it sits like a square on the floured counter. Flip it upside down so the seam is underneath.
Using the rolling pin and working quickly so as not to melt the butter, roll out the dough into a 1/4-thick rectangle, about 20 inches long by about 4 inches wide. Flip the dough over a few times as needed to prevent sticking to the counter and dust lightly with flour as needed.
Fold the left third of the dough towards the center and then flip the right third of the dough over, to cover. Make sure the edges line up nicely and brush off excess flour with a dry pastry brush.
To ensure a proper texture and plenty of puff, do not roll the rolling pin beyond the edges of the dough, or you will inadvertently seal the layers together and crush them, preventing proper puffing.
Turn the package 90 degrees so the spine (the closed edge) of the dough sits at the left. Roll out again into a 1/4-thick rectangle, about 20 inches long by about 4 inches wide. Fold again into thirds as before, then wrap the resulting rectangle in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours (or up to 8 hours). The dough has now been turned twice and has 9 butter and flour layers.
Place the rectangle of dough on the counter so that the spine of the dough sits at the left. Repeat the rolling out and folding process two more times, for a total of 4 turns. The dough now has 81 layers of butter and flour.
Wrap the resulting rectangle in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or as long as overnight.
To bake: Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Lightly dust a counter with flour and roll out the dough into a rectangle that measures about 21 inches x 7 inches; it should be 1/4-inch thick. Working quickly so the butter does not melt, trim the edges as needed (use the trimmings to make other pastries, such as almond croissants, as below) and cut into 10 triangles (to make 6 larger croissants, cut into larger triangles).
Dust off excess flour with a clean, dry brush.
Cut a small slit in the middle at the base of each triangle; this will help you get a better curvature to the finished croissants and will allow you to elongate the corners.
Gently stretch each triangle, especially at the base and tip. Roll each triangle, starting from the wide end and working towards the point, into a log, keeping the layers tight.
Fold the two corners down to create a crescent shape. Place the croissants on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, about 2 inches apart (they will rise dramatically in the oven so they need room to expand, or they will bake up pale and soft instead of golden and crisp if they are overcrowded).
Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature at least 2 hours, or until the croissants are almost doubled in bulk. If your kitchen is cold, the dough will rise more slowly; don’t rush the proofing step or the croissants will end up heavy rather than feather-light.
When the croissants are noticeably bigger, brush with the egg wash.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325 degrees convection.
Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until golden all over and crisp; if underbaked, the croissants will be soggy in the center. Remove to a cooling rack.
Enjoy within minutes of baking if possible (or at the very least, within hours). Croissants can also be frozen once cooled, double-wrapped in plastic wrap and then sealed in freezer-safe plastic bags; to reheat, remove the plastic wrap, place on a baking sheet, and bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until defrosted all the way through and crisp.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PROOFING
Take a look at the two photos below: one batch of croissants was left to proof until doubled in bulk before baking, and another was proofed just until the croissants grew about 50% of their original volume. The difference in the lightness of the layers is amazing once baked: the top photo (fully proofed) shows light, flaky, distinct layers, while the bottom photo (underproofed) shows undistinct, cakey, thick layers.
WHAT TO DO WITH LEFTOVER SCRAPS? ALMOND PASTE CROISSANTS AND MORE…
And remember the leftover scraps and dough trimmings? Gather them gently, roll out into rectangles, and fill with a few pieces of bittersweet chocolate, some apricot jam, savory items like Gruyere cheese and sauteed spinach, or (our favorite) a combination of almond paste, butter, and sugar (I beat 1 and 1/2 ounces almond paste with 3/4 ounces butter and 1 tablespoon sugar until creamy and smooth to fill 3 rectangular croissants). Spread the filling of choice on the dough, leaving a wide border all around, and wrap to enclose in thirds. Place seam side down on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, then proceed as above for glazing with egg wash twice and baking.