For several years my husband, who is not, despite what you may think, a very demanding person when it comes to my cooking*, has wondered why it is that I’ve never made croissants. I have always had a very tidy answer to this question: “I’ve never made croissants because it is a giant pain in the ass.”
I try to avoid making things that are a giant pain in the ass to make. Beef Wellington, for example: I have zero plans to make beef Wellington. My husband would love it if I did (he’d love it more if he made it, since then he’d have bragging rights), but I’m not gonna do it. I also have no plans to make a Buche de Noel, though I admit that every December I think about it (and then think better of it as I do not own a jelly roll pan and have no plans to buy one). Friends have assured me that it is not so hard to make a Buche de Noel; to them I say, How Jolly For You. I’m not making one (yet).
There are two elements of a recipe that can turn me off it, just speaking categorically, and they are: huge expense in terms of ingredients, and the stakes in terms of failure. If you fuck up a Beef Wellington, you’re out a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of money. This is more than I can bear, and so, no Beef Wellington.
But look. This year, I made Black Cake, which really IS a GIANT pain in the ass, and it was a considerable success, such that — despite my initial protests I would never do this again, I have already made and discussed publicly plans to make Black Cake again in 2018. I am already making my shopping list, and I have people asking to be on the list of cake recipients next December. And as I write this, it is New Year’s Eve. I mean, we are all seriously planning ahead. So despite the considerable expense for the ingredients, and the considerable time it takes to make Black Cake, and the general mental energy required to make Black Cake, and — this is huge — despite the fact that I only kind of like the stuff myself, I know I’m going to make it again. I did it in 2017 after thinking about it for nearly 25 years. I can do it in 2018.
Along similar lines: It was last Sunday when I thought to myself, “You know, I could make croissants. If I can make Black Cake, I can make croissants.” Croissants do not require fancy ingredients. It’s just a regular dough, and rather a lot of butter. But it’s not even that much butter, as these things go. So I set about reading croissant recipes for about thirty minutes. I gleaned that I would have to make the dough and set it aside for quite some time. Like 24 hours. So I quickly mixed up a dough, basically combining the recipes I read in the Joy of Cooking with stuff I read online from, I forget, David Lebowitz maybe and someone else. I used less yeast than any of the recipes called for, because I’m cranky that way, but otherwise I was pretty good about doing what I was told. All the recipes are pretty much the same. You make a yeast dough with some butter in it and you set it in the fridge to sit for a while.
In my case, “a while” means two days, because I lost track of time on Monday. Bear in mind, please, Monday was Christmas Day. I had a lot of stuff going on Christmas Day. Cooking for Christmas Day was its own special affair and the last thing I needed was to figure out how to make croissants in the middle of it.
So it was Tuesday, Boxing Day, when I finally tackled the hard part of making croissants. Seven in the morning found me standing in my pajamas at the kitchen counter with my big long rolling pin.
[Side note: I fortunately own the kind of tapered rolling pin that is recommended for this sort of thing, and I’d urge you to ditch your old-fashioned wooden one with handles and get one of these tapered ones, too, because they are just better. If you can spend the $15 or whatever, do it. I say this as someone who contentedly, for years, used a wine bottle as a rolling pin. I think spending real money on rolling pins is stupid. However, after years of hating rolling things out with the handled pin I eventually acquired through a tag sale or something, I finally broke down and bought this tapered job, and let me tell you, it changed my baking game significantly. I am now someone who has no fear of rolling out cookies or dough. Or, it turns out, whacking butter between two sheets of wax paper at seven in the morning on Boxing Day.]
It would have been a very pretty scene had I been standing at the counter in my pajamas rolling out dough for, say cinnamon rolls — I’m sure my family would have liked that a lot, come to think of it! So placid and cozy-sounding, right? But no. I was standing there whacking at chunks of butter that I had arranged carefully, like a monochromatic Mondrian painting, between two sheets of wax paper. It was loud. It was dramatic. It was seriously not placid at all. My daughter, eating her oatmeal, looked warily toward the kitchen. My husband, drinking his coffee, looked at me thoughtfully and then turned to our daughter and said, “I think Mama’s finally lost her mind.”
“I have not lost my mind,” I said. “I am making croissants!”
My husband clearly had doubts about this but kept quiet.
I pounded the butter into roughly the correct size of parallelogram and put it in the fridge so it would stay that way. I opened the Dutch oven full of dough, which had been sitting on the counter since six a.m. It was still very cold. This meant it would be somewhat difficult to work with, but I was unfazed and began the extremely tedious process of rolling it out to form a rectangle measuring some specific thing; I don’t know how big it was, I can’t remember. I floured my pastry cloth (e.g. my favorite old cotton tea towel) and got to work. It was not easy. This was a tough dough, and it was cold, and it was by this point twenty after seven and I had not had enough coffee and for god’s sake, it was all lunacy. Because no one needs homemade croissants.
You have to roll the dough out to a certain size such that you can then place the big flat butter slab (which is supposed to measure something by something, exactly, a perfect square) into the middle of the dough. Then you’re supposed to take your big perfect square of dough and fold the dough up around the butter. No butter can be visible afterwards. It needs to be sealed into its dough envelope flawlessly, or you have invited disaster into your home. You have to know this at the outset: it is very easy to fuck this up royally.
Having achieved dough-butter-envelope perfection, you then place this flat object, wrapped in wax paper, in the fridge to let it (sorry) chill out for a while. Like 20 minutes or so.
Here’s the big problem with making croissants, people: it’s not that any one step of it is so difficult. It’s that the process requires endless stop-and-wait things. It’s like a Hollywood set, full of hurry-up-and-wait, but with a lot more butter. So very annoying. This is, I’m sure, why I’m not a Hollywood movie star, or a pastry chef.
You take the dough-and-butter from the fridge and put it on the pastry cloth again and now you start the really exciting part: Laminating the dough. This does not involve sheets of plastic or weird epoxies (thank god) but it does involve rolling the dough out to just-so dimensions and then folding the dough over itself, like you’re folding a letter, and then letting the dough rest (again, and yes, again in the fridge) and rolling it out again. You have to do this four times. Well, some recipes say three times. Some say four. I did four. There’s some PERFECT NUMBER of layers that are achieved, people say, in a perfect croissant, and the humber of turns you make determines the number of layers. Whatever these numbers are, they are large and daunting and really more than I want to think about. The point is, you make these turns, you keep resting the dough and rolling it out and making these turns, and it’s all, as I said at the beginning of this essay, a giant pain in the ass.
Eventually you reach a stage where you have to cut the dough into sections and roll it out and make little triangles which you then roll up and shape so they look like croissants. Because I’m an idiot, I rolled eight or nine croissants thinking, “These don’t look right,” before I realized that I was taking my isosceles triangles of dough and rolling them up from the wrong side, resulting in strange-looking pastries. Fortunately, this dough was forgiving and it let me unroll and re-roll each and every croissant. Then they looked nice. Well, reasonably good anyhow. (I now realize I forgot to cut an all-important notch into the dough to allow for the dough to curve just so as I was rolling.) The croissants were placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet (some recipes said to use buttered pans; I said “fuck that”), splooshed some egg wash on them, and then set them to rise. I was advised to let them rise in an environment where the temperature was some very specific thing — something between 85° and 115°, I remember reading somewhere. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said cheerfully, as I preheated the oven and quickly got it to 90°. I put the pans in to the oven and closed the door thinking, “Ok, I’ve got to start to clean up the living room, and I’ve gotta do laundry.” In some ways, all this starting and stopping allows you to go do other things while you’re baking, but let’s face it: if you have to constantly interrupt an activity to go focus on another activity, it means you’re not doing either thing with optimum focus. Fortunately for me, doing laundry and cleaning the living room are not mentally taxing activities, they’re just shit that has to get done.
It took maybe an hour for the croissants to have the puffy look and “jiggle” that they’re supposed to get before baking. Once they’ve risen, you take them out of the oven, preheat the oven to the scary hot temperature called for — 425° was what I did — and you watch them carefully while they bake. The first ten minutes of baking isn’t so exciting but the thing is, croissants, I’ve learned, can burn very suddenly. King Arthur Flour advises to bake for 15 minutes at 425° and then turn the heat down to 350° for another 15 minutes, and that seems like sage advice I will take into consideration if I ever do this again. I admit, I had not read the KAF instructions before undertaking this enterprise, a mistake I will not make again.
Taking these croissants out of the oven was a moment of wonder and awe. It really was incredible to me that I had made these things that looked, okay, smaller than the croissants we can buy at Marjolaine, but still, remarkably like real, proper croissants. My daughter came trotting into the kitchen to see the results of this long project. “Can I have one?” she asked. I handed her one saying, “Be careful, they’re really hot!” and she ripped one in half and crammed some into her mouth. Then she rolled her eyes in ecstasy. “Really?” I asked.
“Oh my god,” she said.
I brought one on a plate to my husband. “Have a look,” I said.
“Wow,” he said. He ripped it open and said, with respect and not a little surprise, “That is the real deal.” We ate several croissants then and there — they were not very large, don’t be disgusted with us. My daughter was already talking about how the next time I’d make chocolate croissants. My husband was thinking spinach and feta. I have not announced any plans to ever do this again, but it seems self-evident that this will happen again.
When it does, I’m going to try to operate on the mode prescribed here, at King Arthur Flour.
because, let’s face it, KAF does not steer people wrong. I will have to think about how to handle the chocolate question: do I want to buy these special bars of chocolate, or can I just sprinkle some frozen chocolate chips in the dough and pray? There are many questions remaining to be answered. But it seems that 2018 will be the year the Hausfrau ceases to be a croissant novice. Similarly, I am already adding Black Cake ingredients to my shopping list.
Maybe a couple extra pounds of butter, too.
*I think he would be genuinely bummed out if I started serving us all frozen food for dinner every night, particularly since I am a housewife and ostensibly have nothing better to do than make nice meals for us to enjoy. I mean, if I’m sick with a fever or something, that’s one thing, he doesn’t expect a serious dinner. He’s not a jerk that way. By and large he is a considerate and thoughtful person and it is extremely unusual for him to complain about anything I’ve cooked; similarly, he doesn’t demand certain meals, unless something special’s happening like it’s his birthday or something and he’s obviously allowed to make special requests then. That said, he will occasionally ask pointed questions regarding things he does like that I don’t make. For example, croissants, or, another one that’s come up a few times in the last three months, peanut butter fudge. How come I never make peanut butter fudge? I’ve been asked this, in casual tones, at least twice in the last two months. So I’m thinking, now, it can’t be that hard to make peanut butter fudge, so I expect I’ll be making some in the months to come. Croissants, on the other hand, are a bit of a logistical nightmare, so it might be a while before I make them again. Unless I’m expecting a run of snow days, in which case I might have a mother-daughter activity be “Let’s Make Croissants!”