I have a theory. You ready for this one? Here it goes.
Home bakers have been agonizing over recreating two particular pastries in their own kitchens for years: the Croissant, and the French macaron. Both are infamous for their laborious and finicky natures, but are beyond cherished by all who have ever consumed them. Because they’re delicious. And French. Or so my theory goes, at least.
Since the French macaron still leaves me with feelings of frustration, anger, and just a general sense of grief about 50% of the time, I’m happy to say that they will NOT be the focus of this blog post. Instead, the much kinder and super buttery croissant is going to steal our attention, hearts, and tastebuds for now.
Before I really get into this, though, I’m going to be upfront with you all. These gave me a serious run for my money (which primarily went towards high quality, European-style cultured butter … one attempt after another). Let me also just be upfront in saying that all of those pounds of butter led to one valuable lesson after another (so they were totally worth it), which is why I can share the tried-and-true recipe that follows with you all.
I really do urge you to keep reading before you get to the recipe part so you can avoid all of the mistakes I made during my earlier attempts. Yup, that’s right – all of those amateur mistakes, I made them for you. And then I summed them all up in a little ‘tell-all’ so you don’t have to go through them, too! So read closely, know that your first attempt will likely not be absolutely perfect (but will still be so delicious), and you will never be terrorized by this French pastry ever again. French macarons, on the other hand…. those are another story for another day.
Lesson No. 1: Not all butters are equal.
My first two attempts at croissants weren’t great – not horrible, but definitely not great. This completely changed, though, with my third attempt – which was when I finally gave in and spent almost $10 on one pound of butter. But this isn’t any ordinary old butter – I’m talking about European cultured butter here, folks. And you’re going to want to splurge a little on some, too, if you’re looking to make some croissants that 1) puff up nice and tall as they become bronzed, flakey, and beautiful in the oven, and 2) taste AMAZING.
European cultured butter has a higher butterfat content (at least 82%) than American style butter. The butter I’ve become pretty smitten with throughout this process is Organic Valley’s European Style Cultured butter (*FYI, this is not a sponsored post, I just really love this butter!), which is at least 84% butterfat. So what exactly does this higher butterfat mean for your baked goods? A couple of things – first, it means your butter has a lower water content, and less water and more fat in your butter means you’ll get those pie crusts, biscuits, croissants, etc. nice and flakey, just how you like em. This butter’s also going to be softer and melt at a lower temperature, which also contributes to that highly sought after flakiness.
Flakey pastry aside, though, European style butters also have an incredible and rich flavor – seriously, I was not prepared for how amazing this butter tastes, even smells, compared to what I usually buy. I remember unwrapping this butter for the first time and becoming downright distracted by how good it smelled. I had no idea butter could smell like this – so good, you guys. And when you’re making a pastry like croissants where the butter is basically the shining star, you better be using a butter that tastes really great.
Lesson No. 2: Laminating = a lot of (kind of annoying) little rules.
Okay, so that wording above may be a bit harsh. Laminating a dough really isn’t that bad. But finally nailing this part of the process involved a lot of trial and error type learning and had me feeling a bit rattled before I finally got it down. Because laminating is so crucial to making consistently great croissants, I’m going to break this section out rule-by- rule for you.
- Make sure your butter block and your dough are on the same page. And by ‘same page,’ I mean same consistency. During my first trial runs at making croissants, I relied on the temperature of the butter block to determine when it was ready to be laminated into the yeasted dough (the ideal temp is said to be around 62ºF). But, each time I started rolling out the dough-encased butter, I noticed that my butter block wasn’t being rolled into thin, even sheets between the layers of dough. Instead, it was breaking and being rolled into thin shards of butter between those layers of dough. And in some cases, was even breaking through the actual dough.What was my problem here? Let me tell you – I was paying all of my attention to the the temperature of the butter block, when I should have been paying equal attention to the yeasted dough. Now when I go into laminating, I completely dismiss temperature all together. What I check for is that the butter block and the dough have the same softness/firmness; this ensures the butter won’t 1) break into shards and tear through the dough (if the butter is too hard/cold), or 2) get mixed into the dough throughout the whole laminating process (if the butter is too soft/warm). To test if your butter block and dough are ready to be laminated, just gently press each with your fingers to see if they’re on the same page.
- Use your flour wisely. You definitely want to flour your work space when you’re laminating and rolling out your dough, but just enough to prevent it from sticking. Use too much flour, and you’ll dry out your dough, which will cause it to crack/tear (especially around the edges) and the butter layers to burst free. I like to start off with a really light sprinkling of flour on the bottom of the board and on top of the dough, and then periodically check to make sure it’s not sticking and add more flour little by little as needed.
- Listen to your dough. This sounds silly and kind of cliche, I know, but if you want to avoid a full on rebellion from your dough – complete with rips and tears and butter that refuses to stay in its designated layers (complete anarchy, basically) – then this is a rule you won’t want to ignore. In the recipe, I have dimensions included that you’ll want to try to roll your dough out to throughout the laminating process. Don’t view these as strict measurements that you have to reach, though. View them more as ideal guidelines. The truth is, some days my dough is really cooperative and wants to be rolled out into a nice big 14×24″ rectangle, and some days it’s just not feeling it. Like any other yeast dough, it’s going to be affected by certain environmental factors that aren’t always consistent day by day (e.x. humidity). So if you reach a point where your dough just doesn’t want to be rolled/stretched out any further, just give it a 10-minute rest, try again, and if it still isn’t having it, then stop rolling, make your folds and put it back in the fridge to chill out before continuing with the next roll/fold session. If you try to force it, it’ll throw it’s go-to’s at you: rips, tears, and butter anarchy (you don’t want these things, trust me).
Lesson No. 3: A slow proof is the only proof.
Croissants are not a quick kitchen project. They just aren’t. This is the type of recipe you’re going to want to spread out over the course of your weekend. The yeasted dough needs to hang out in the fridge overnight, laminating requires a series of 5 roll-outs/foldings (with fridge time between each), and the final rise will take a good 2-3 hours before you can bake them. I’ve tried rushing this final rise part before, and I regret it. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. There’s just no way around it – at least none that I’ve found, yet. Usually when I let my yeast doughs rise, I give them a some help by placing them in a semi-preheated oven (heat to its lowest temp, turn off, and then you have a nice, warm place that most yeast doughs love).
Try that with croissants, though, and the next time you see them they’ll be sitting in pools of their own melted butter. Case and point:
Despite how big and puffy these croissants got during this proofing period, the butter spillage kept them from getting nice and tall in the oven. These also lacked that really great crackly/flakey exterior that we all know and love. Trust me when I say you’ve come too far by this point to be left with two trays of croissants that you know won’t bake up perfectly. While you can’t let these proof in a semi-preheated oven, there is something you can do to help speed this part up a little bit. Still place them in the oven (turned off and completely unheated), and on the bottom of the oven place a cake pan or a casserole dish filled with boiling water. This will heat up that oven just enough to get it to around 70-ishºF, which is just warm enough to prompt them to rise, but not so warm that the layers of butter will melt. I usually refill the pan/dish with freshly boiled water after the first hour, and once again another 40 minutes after that.
Lesson No. 4: Practice makes perfect!
Ok, so this sounds even more cliche than “listen to your dough” — I realize this, I really do. BUT, this may actually be the most important lesson of them all. My first batch of croissants missed all of the marks. My second batch still came out flat, but I got closer to the flakey layers I was looking for. My third batch was *almost* perfect, they just weren’t quite as tall as they could’ve been if I would have been more patient and allowed a slower proof time. My fourth and fifth times, though, those were darn near perfect. Perfectly bronzed, perfectly crackly/flakey top, perfectly flakey throughout so they could be torn apart layer by buttery layer as they were devoured. A kitchen success has never tasted so good. Once you get the laminating down, though, you’re going to have to turn your attention towards the shaping process, which is something I’m still working on getting down just so. If this all sounds like a process to you, it is – but a good one! One that involves a lot of great tasting butter. Like I said before, the process is worth it here.
Okay. I know that was a lot. But I really hope all of this information makes you feel like you’re armed with some helpful knowledge before conquering your croissant fears, especially if this is your first run at it. I can promise you, though, making a perfectly good croissant is not an impossible feat. It will take a bit of practice, but even if your first run at these isn’t *perfect,* you’ll see serious improvements one batch after another. And, I’ll tell ya – there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing SO MANY thin little layers of butter/dough after cutting a perfectly laminated block of croissant dough in half. And then seeing those layers still intact after all of your little labors of love have baked up into flakey, golden brown, and crackly topped perfection. It may be lot of work, but it’s so worth it.
If you’re feeling a little adventurous and are looking for a weekend baking project, you may want to consider adding croissants onto your weekend agenda. I think it’s about time we all cross this one off of our bucket lists… French macarons can stay on that list just a little bit longer…
Yield: 14-16 large croissants
For the dough:
2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cups whole milk, warmed (I microwave it in a glass measuring cup at 30-second intervals until it reaches 120-130ºF)
For the butter block:
1 lb. unsalted butter (European-style cultured butter is best — I like to use Organic Valley’s European-style butter)
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
For the egg wash:
1 Tablespoon water
1. Make the dough
In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix together the yeast, flour, sugar, and salt. Fitted with a dough hook and at its lowest speed, add the warm milk and mix for 2 minutes (scraping the flour from the sides and bottom of the bowl after about a minute to make sure it all gets mixed up evenly); you’ll have a soft, moist dough that forms on the hook.
On a high speed, mix the dough for another 4 minutes until its smooth, elastic, similar to the consistency of softened butter, and no longer sticky. Add more flour (carefully, though – tablespoon by tablespoon — if needed to reach this point). Remove the dough from the mixer and place in a gallon-sized zip lock bag (or wrap loosely in plastic wrap) and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Place the dough in the fridge for 8 hours or overnight.
2. Make the butter block
To make the butter block, switch to the paddle attachment of your stand mixer and beat the butter and flour on high speed until it’s evenly mixed and smooth, about 2 minutes. Onto a large piece of plastic wrap, scrape out the butter and spread into approximately a 4×8 inch rectangle that’s about 3/4 – 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and keep in the fridge until you’re ready to laminate.
3. Laminate your dough
*Before you laminate the dough, gently press the butter block and your dough to see if they’re equally firm; I usually have to let my butter block sit out at room temperature for 15-30 minutes before I jump into laminating.
When your butter block and dough are about the same consistency/firmness, remove the dough from the fridge and onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 9-inch square. Fit the butter block onto one side of your dough square (it should take up half of the square with about a 1/2-inch border around the edges). Fold the other half of the dough over the butter block and pinch the edges of the dough together to tightly seal the butter in the dough to create a package.
Now you can roll this dough/butter package into a 14×24 inch rectangle — begin by gently smacking it with your rolling pin, beginning in the middle and then up and down the length of it, to make the butter layer more malleable and easier to roll out evenly. Be sure to check periodically that your dough isn’t sticking to your work surface and re-flour (lightly) as needed.
Fold the dough into thirds (think ‘business letter style’) so that you have a rectangle that’s about 8×14 inches. Brush off excess flour, wrap in plastic wrap, and move to the fridge to chill and rest for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Congratulations — you’ve just completed your first of five series of rolls/folds!
Follow those last two steps of rolling the dough into a 14×24 inch rectangle, folding into thirds, and then refrigerating/resting three more times. (This might seem like a lot, but all of those amazing layers you’re going to get out of this will be completely worth it!).
For your fifth and final roll/fold, go ahead and roll the dough into a 14×24 inch rectangle and fold into thirds again. And then finish by folding the two ends so that they meet in the middle, and then along that middle crease where the ends meet, fold in half. Brush off the excess flour, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to overnight.
4. Shape your croissants
After your block of laminated dough has rested and chilled, remove from the fridge; cut this block in half. Leaving one half wrapped in plastic wrap in the fridge, place the other half onto a lightly floured work surface and roll into a rectangle that measures roughly 7×20 inches. From here, you can choose to form your croissants in the classic crescent-like shape, or you can shape and fill them as I did to make ham and cheese (aka prosciutto and manchego) filled croissants — shaping instructions for both are included below.
[For crescent-shaped croissants:]
Using either a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, and working along the length of your dough, slice into triangles with bases that measure between 2 and 3 inches (depending on how large you want your croissants to be). You’ll get between 8 and 10 triangles and two half triangles (one on each end); you can either mend these two halves together or discard them.
To shape the croissant, take one of the triangles and with one hand at the base and the other about 2 inches away from the tip, gently stretch the dough without tearing it; you’ll want to try stretching the dough so that it’s about twice its length, but if the dough is threatening to tear, then only stretch it out as much as it will allow. After it’s stretched, place back onto the work surface and beginning with the base of the triangle, gently but firmly roll all the way down to the tip. Place the croissant on a parchment lined baking sheet with the tip underneath. Repeat with the remaining triangles of dough, lining the sheet so there’s enough room for each one to double to triple in size without growing into each other.
Repeat the last two steps with the remaining half of dough.
[For the prosciutto and manchego filled croissants:]
Using either a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, and working along the length of your dough, slice evenly into 7 rectangles (each will be about 2 1/2 – 3 inches in width).
Working with one piece of dough at a time, use a rolling pin to widen the width to 3 1/2 – 4 inches (I did this because the pieces of cheese I used to fill these with were about 4 inches or a little bit longer in length and I didn’t want them to stick out too much; depending on what you’re filling your croissants with, feel free to omit this step). Place 1 to 2 pieces of prosciutto onto the dough, overlapping/bunching it slightly towards the end. Then place one piece of cheese (I used manchego and it was insanely delicious — I cut my wedge of manchego into approximately 1/2 x 4 inch logs) on top of that, right alongside the width of the dough. Beginning at that end, start to roll into a log shape; stop midway and place another piece of cheese and then continue rolling. Place onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough, lining the sheet so there’s enough room for each one to double to triple in size without growing into each other.
Repeat the last two steps with the remaining half of dough.
5. Proof and bake [*the following instructions will not vary based on how you choose to shape and/or fill your croissants]
Once your croissants are shaped and lining your baking sheets, lightly brush with an egg wash made by whisking together 1 egg and 1 Tablespoon of water. Then loosely cover each sheet of croissants with lightly greased plastic wrap and a large kitchen towel on top of that. Place the sheets in an unheated oven and place a dish/pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven; this pan of boiling water is essentially turning your oven into a proof box that will warm up just enough to get your croissants to rise, but not warm enough to melt those layers of butter you worked so hard to get! Allow to proof for 2-3 hours, or until the croissants are puffy and have doubled to tripled in size. *I like to refill the pan with freshly boiled water after about 40-60 minutes, and then again about 40 minutes after that.
When your croissants are proofed, remove from the oven (and remove that pan of water, too), and preheat your oven to 425ºF. While your oven is preheating, lightly brush the croissants with another coating of egg wash.
Place your croissants in the preheated oven (at this point, using a spray bottle filled with tap water, I add a couple of sprits of water to the oven before closing the door to help with the steam to make sure they bake up nice and tall) and bake for 5 minutes. Then decrease the oven temperature to 400ºF and bake for another 5 minutes, and then decrease the oven temperature to 375ºF and bake for a final 5 minutes. *If your oven does not heat evenly, be sure to rotate the baking sheets halfway throughout baking to make sure the brown evenly.
Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool a bit — these are definitely at their best when they’re still warm. Enjoy!
Recipe adapted from The Fresh Loaf’s modified version of Julia Child’s recipe for croissants (found via the Courier Journal).