Mother’s Day Croissants (Julia Childs’ Recipe)

My mother loves croissants, so for every special occasion I get my mother croissants for breakfast.  I always pop them in the toaster oven to warm them, always wrap them in a white linen napkin, and always put them in the same straw-woven basket.  This year, for Mother’s Day, I wanted to do something a little more special, though.  So, I decided to make her croissants.

Making croissants is a difficult process, but it’s even harder when you’re making them as a surprise for someone living under the same roof.  For the three days it took to make them, I had to operate in complete secrecy.  Luckily, we have two refrigerators, so I managed to hide the dough in the garage fridge.  Unluckily, my mother is almost always in the kitchen, so I had to ask my trusty sidekick (my father) to get her out of the house.   I started the croissants on Friday and kept rolling and folding all the way till 5:00am on Sunday morning.  I highly recommend planning out any croissant-making well in advance, as it’s impossible to eat them the same day you start making them.  Especially if it’s your first time making croissants (as this was for me); you’ll want to watch videos.  A lot of videos.

JULIA CHILDS CROISSANTS:

Yields 4 large croissants, or 8 smaller (this recipe is halved from the original)

Recipe:

  • 1/2 lb and 1 oz unsalted butter (cold)
  • 1 5/8 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/4 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/6 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp water
Directions:
Day 1:
  1.  In the bowl of a stand mixer (I use a Kitchen Aid), add your flour, yeast, salt, and sugar.  Then add your milk and mix on low speed using the hook attachment until ingredients are mixed (if the dough looks too dry, add a little more milk.  You’ll know when it’s enough when there’s no more dry flour at the bottom of the bowl.  But, you don’t want your dough becoming too sticky and wet, so make sure to give the mixer some time to do its magic before you start pouring in more milk)
  2. When your dough is mixed, take it out of the bowl and either hold it or place it on a clean bit of counter.  Turn your mixer back on and add your dough back into the bowl bit by bit.  Increase the mixer’s speed (medium-high) every time you add in a piece of dough, and reduce a bit before adding in the next piece.
  3. When the dough is all in the mixer again and unified, take it out and show it who’s boss.  Roll it into a ball and pound it a couple times on your counter (not too hard, you’re not trying to beat it to death), punch it, roll it with your hands, and knead it some.  Do this a couple times (it helps gluten form to give your croissants structure and airiness).
  4. Shape your dough into a nice ball and wrap it in plastic.  Put the wrapped dough into a large, sealed plastic bag.  Let it rest at room temperature for half an hour or so.
  5. While your dough is resting, change your mixer’s attachment to the paddle and take out your butter.
  6. Toss your butter in the bowl with add 2 tablespoons of flour and beat on a high speed.  Keep an eye on it, you don’t want to overwork your butter and turn it into oil. Beat it until just fluffy and malleable (it should still be chilled).
  7. Take the butter and squeeze it between your palms to push all the air out.  Pack and shape it into a ball (it’s better if it’s more bar-of-soap shaped than perfectly spherical), being careful not to handle it too long.  Wrap your butter in plastic and place it in the refrigerator until your dough is done resting.
  8. Then, put your butter and dough into the same large plastic bag and place them both in the refrigerator overnight.
Day 2:
  1. Flour your counter (or a marble slab) with flour for rolling (keep the flour nearby, you might need more as you get going)
  2. Take your dough out of the fridge (keep your butter in there though) and put it on your floured surface.  Roll your dough out evenly and patiently.  The key to rolling dough is never to force it, slow and steady keeps your dough from tearing and from rolling out crooked.  But make sure you’re firm, otherwise your dough is not going to move. Try to keep your dough in a roughly rectangular shape.  To make sure your dough is even, bend down to eye level with it and look across the surface to see if one side is higher or lower than another.
  3. When your dough has been rolled out, take your butter out of the fridge (if you have a very cold fridge, you may want to take the butter out a minute or two in advance so that it’s not rock solid).
  4. Unwrap your butter and place it in the middle of your dough.  Fold one side of your dough over the butter, making sure the sides of the dough line up (pinch them to make the dough stay, instead of shrinking back towards the butter).  Then, fold the other side over the butter to completely cover it (again, line up the sides and pinch to make the dough stay)
  5. With your rolling pin, beat the butter down, starting from the middle and working first to one side and then, when finished, the other. Continue beating firmly, but not aggressively, until your butter is evenly spread throughout the dough.  If your dough tears and the butter peeks through, just patch it up with any spare bits of dough (I just tore off little bits that didn’t get the butter beaten into them) or pat a little flour on it.
  6. Now, roll evenly, making sure you’re not forcing the dough.
  7. After it’s been rolled out to a rectangular shape, place your dough on a lightly-floured shallow baking pan (or a high-sided cookie sheet) and cover it with plastic wrap.   Stick the whole thing in the fridge for a couple hours (anywhere from 2-6 ought to do it)
  8. After it’s rested, take it out, and roll it out on a floured surface.  Sprinkle some flour over the top of your dough so that your rolling pin doesn’t stick (press an extra bit to any spots where butter peeks out).
  9. Roll your dough out again, evenly, patiently, and firmly.  Keep it in a rectangular shape.
  10. Fold into three (first bring one side to the middle, then the other, like folding a letter).  Before folding, brush the flour off each surface of the dough with a pastry brush (even a clean paintbrush will do).
  11. Then, put back onto your pan/cookie sheet, cover it all up with plastic wrap, and stick it back in the fridge for 1-4 hours.
  12. When you take it out this time, repeat the rolling, flouring, etc. you just did.  After you’ve folded it, roll it out a bit and fold it again, just the same way.  Roll it to make it even and place it back on the pan/cookie sheet.  Cover it and refrigerate for 1 hour (feel free to leave it in overnight, that’s what I did)
Day 3:
  1. Take your dough out of the refrigerator and cut it in half widthwise to give you 2 square pieces of dough.  Stick one back in the fridge and roll out the other on a floured surface (try not to let the dough warm too much while working with it).
  2. When your dough is about the length (and a little wider) than an average sheet of paper, cut diagonally across to make 2 triangles with approximately 4″ bases.
  3. Hold a triangle at the base and lengthen it by pulling (gently) on it (this step will help your croissant puff up as it bakes).
  4. Starting at the base, roll your triangle up by using your palms.  Pinch the two ends of the croissant together (they’ll come apart as it bakes, but it’ll help give your croissants a classic crescent shape).  Place your croissants on the pan/cookie sheet with the point side down (otherwise it likes to unstick).  Make sure to lay down a sheet of baking paper if your pans/cookie sheet aren’t non-stick.
  5. When you’ve finished rolling all your croissants and placing them on the pan/cookie sheet, make your egg wash (1 egg white + 1 tsp of water, whisk together until combines) and brush it over the croissants lightly.
  6.  *** Proofing: *** All the croissant recipes I’ve seen call for a proofing step (basically creating a humid environment between 75-80°F to help your pastry rise a final time before baking).  The recipe I followed says to turn the oven light on, stick a pot of boiling water in the oven and let your croissants sit in the oven (door closed) for 3 hours.  This method didn’t work out very well for me, so I suggest trying the method from Martha Stewart’s croissant recipe.
  7. When you have proofed your dough, take them out of the oven (if this is where you proofed them) and turn set it to 350°F.  Bake for 15-20 minutes or until they turn a nice golden brown (keep a careful eye on them, they cook fast towards the end)
Tips:

Watch a video and look at step-by-step pictures to help visualize the rolling, folding, and cutting.  It’s simple once you see it done, but difficult to understand from just a written recipe

If your dough tears as you roll it out and butter comes through, pat a dab of flour on it or patch it with some butter-free dough (if you have any bits).  Don’t keep rolling over it without patching or flouring because it will stick to your rolling pin and make the tear worse.

Be careful when you take the pan out of the oven as there will probably be liquid butter in it (butter drains from the croissants as they cook).  Remove the croissants from the pan as quickly as possible or they will get greasy from sitting in the butter.

Review:

These croissants were amazing.  The fact that they turned out at all is incredible, after my “proofing” almost melted them (I think there was too much steam so they essentially got rained on).  I cannot put into words the heartbreak seeing my beautiful croissants, all my hard work from the past three days, mushy and flattened when they had gone in so perfect and proud.  I sat in front of the oven and tried not to cry.  I’m not sure what made me try to bake them anyways, but I’m glad that I did, because my wonderful little croissants recovered somehow.  The proofing step was my only complaint with the recipe, otherwise everything else turned out perfectly.  Each time that I took the dough out of the fridge, rolled it, and folded it, I was in awe that I had managed to make it thus far.  Croissants are supposed to be hard, but these weren’t.  Even after melting, they still puffed admirably, forming a perfect, professional-croissant crust and beautiful flaky layers inside.  The tops were crispy, and the golden inside was buttery and divine.  Somehow, magic happened, and I made croissants, real, French, honest-to-goodness croissants.  The best part?  My mother adored them.
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Baking Science II – Flour

Courtesy of Google images
Flour is one of the pillars of classical baking.  As a kid, it was my least favorite ingredient.  Everything tasted so wonderful until my mother went and dumped in two cups of flour and the whole thing went to pieces.  The batter got all thick and tasted grainy, the eggs, butter, and sugar were so sadly overwhelmed, all my delicious batter was slowly losing its perfection and still, she kept on pouring in flour.  You can see I was staunchly pro-batter as a child (I still am); nothing ever tasted half as good baked as it did raw.

I still love batter and dough, but I’ve learned to appreciate the final, baked product a lot more, and I’ve come to terms with the necessary addition of flour.  There is a  reason, a very good, scientific reason, that none of my early experiments baked very well (despite tasting heavenly as batter).

I. The Anatomy:

Flour is made from finely ground cereal grains, most commonly from wheat.

It contains three key molecules that are essential to its role in baking: starch, glutenin, and gliadin.

Starch – is a large glucose (sugar) complex.  It’s a polysaccharide (a long carbohydrate molecule) also known as “amylum”.  Human digestive systems have a very difficult time processing and digesting starch unless it is cooked.  Starch is commonly found in plants and provides rigidity to plant cell structure; it does the same thing in baking, creating structure in pastries.

Glutenin – the major source of protein found in wheat flour.  It is a protein complex with high molecular weight and low molecular subunits.  It combines with gliadin to form gluten.

Gliadin – is a prolamin (a group of plant storage glycoproteins) found in wheat and other grasses.  It is only soluble in alcohol and can serve as a method for transporting fragile enzymes by protecting them from digestive acids.  It acts as a leavening agent and gives pastries their structure.

Gluten – a protein complex found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley.  It is formed when glutenin combines with gliadin and forms molecular sub-networks.  This combination happens when you knead flour into dough. When gluten is leavened with sugar, carbon dioxide forms bubbles, causing the dough to rise.

II. Baking:

Flour is a true multi-tasker.  It makes dough elastic, helps build structure, and acts as a leavening agent.

Kneading flour creates gluten, and the more the batter is mixed, the more the gluten builds up (thats why over mixing baked goods like cookies can lead to an overly-tough final product). Gluten adds chewiness and that’s why tougher baked goods (like bread) use flour with higher gluten content than more tender baked goods, like pastries.  Fats and sugars prevent gluten formation (thereby increasing tenderness and decreasing structure rigidity).

Flour is a toughener; the more flour, the more proteins, and the more proteins, the stronger the structure of the pastry becomes.  Baking hardens gluten, which forms the structure in pastries.  Flour is integral in the formation of structure (that’s why flour less cakes are often soft, ‘fallen’, and/or flatter) as well as in the leavening process.  Without flour, you can get your pastry to puff up, but you won’t be able to get it to stay up.

Carbon dioxide is released from several chemical reactions (sugars fermenting, catalysis of chemical reagents like baking soda, etc.) during the baking process.  The carbon dioxide bubbles are trapped by the starch and gluten in flour, making the batter/dough rise.  However, the networks created by this process absorb water, leading to a drier pastry.

Too much flour and your pastry will be too dry and crumble, however, not enough flour and your pastry will fall (or with cookies, they’ll spread uncontrollably).

III.  Tips:

All-purpose flours have varying protein content, which means that they will each affect your pastry differently.  The higher the protein content, the tougher the baked good, and the less protein, the more tender. To test the protein of your flour, scoop two cups of flour into one cup of water and stir.  Flour high in protein will absorb the water and become dough very quickly, flour with less protein won’t combine until you add more flour.

Cake flour is high in starch, low in protein, and is very finely milled.  It’s specially made to carry large amounts of sugar and fat without collapsing.  It’s also been heavily bleached to make it lighter in color and to break down the protein.  To make cake flour yourself, mix 3/4 cup of bleached all purpose flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.

To make your pastry lighter, you can sift your flour.  The idea is that during shipping and packing, flour compacts, which means that you might use too much on accident and that, if the flour is packed too dense, it won’t lift your pastry properly.  It’s also considered an important step for better dispersing your leavening agent (ie. baking soda).  However, some bakers maintain that sifting your flour doesn’t actually help distribute the leavener any better.Courtesy of Google images