The truth is that I have always been afraid of puff pastry. It seems to be a mysterious world filled with unwritten rules and frequent failures. But there the croissants sat on page 19 of this month’s issue of Cook’s Illustrated. I could no longer avoid it; break out the butter, and block off the next 18 hours.
Who doesn’t love croissants? Rich and buttery, yet somehow inexplicably airy. But the thought of making croissants was truly intimidating; a fear fed by my inexperience. The extent of my prior knowledge of puff pastry rules was: (1) keep your butter cold, and (2) fold, fold and then fold some more. While both these rules turn out to be true, there is much more to know in order to make first-class croissants. While my results were delicious, Chris Kimball’s claim that “our recipe guarantees success” is overly optimistic. In addition to the fact that I generally think croissants take practice, there are also some real issues issues (see below) with his recipe. For Chris Kimball to “guaranteed success” is an impossible promise that doesn’t pan out. My worst batch was cooked exactly according to the instructions, and attained just 3 stars (overly brown with hard bottoms). The best batch, with modified rising and cooking time and temperature, were 4-1/2 stars (perfectly cooked with light flaky interior).
Here’s what I’ve found out:
- Chris Kimball says that it is important to use European Butter. The brand he recommends, Pulgara, was a modest $5/lb. Other imported brands were twice that price.
- Also the recipe stresses the importance of high-protein all-purpose flour. Of course, I have no idea how much protein any particular bag of flour has. So instead of buying the recommended King-Arthur’s All-Purposed flour, I mixed a one-third part bread flour in with my regular Heckler’s All-Purpose flour. I already have 7 types of flour in my kitchen, and didn’t want to buy another bag just for this recipe.
- Chris Kimball warns not to make these croissants in a kitchen warmer than 78-degrees. But because the recipe was published in the dead of winter, Issue #2 seems much more important (and came without any warning whatsoever).
- If your overnight kitchen is below 60-degrees, the frozen croissants (from step 12) will need more than just overnight to rise (Chris Kimball says just 4 hours). For my first frozen batch, I removed from freezer at 11:30PM and they still hadn’t risen at all by 6:30AM. For my second frozen batch, I removed at 8PM and they were better, but still only slightly puffy by 6:30AM. It appears that 58-degrees is too cold for the croissants to effectively rise, so I had to allow them to rise before my furnace turned itself down to 58-degrees for the night. The best results were to remove the frozen, shaped croissants at 6PM to be baked at 6:30AM.
- From what I know about butter and yeast, 68-degrees appears to be the perfect rising temperature. Much colder and the yeast won’t rise. Much warmer and the butter will melt and you’ll lose the layering that you’ve worked so hard to attain, especially since the fermentation of the yeast also adds a few degrees.
- The results of my first batch (refrigerated rather than frozen croissants) didn’t achieve the fluffy heights that I had imagined. Being left overnight they had over-risen, which also affected the layering as I pulled apart the croissant. The second, third and fourth batches all rose higher.
- Chris Kimball’s cooking time of between 20 and 24 minutes at 400-degrees is too much; after two batches I can say unequivocally that they will be too dark. I played with adjusting the temperature, time and convection fan. After four batches, my best results were obtained at 350-degrees (with convection fan on) for 18 to 20 minutes. The lower temperature meant that the outside cooked more evenly and didn’t become too dark; also it helped mitigate issues #6.
- Chris Kimball also comments that other recipes allow “the butter [to leak] out onto the baking sheet”; causing “thick-crusted specimens” as the croissants have “essentially fried in their own fat.” However, the same seems true about his recipe. All four batches had bubbling butter around the bottom of the croissants after 7 or 8 minutes in the oven. I read and re-read the article, yet he offers no advice on how to correct this problem. I did find that the lower oven temperature of 350-degrees reduced the frying effect, leaving more tender bottoms, but not perfect.
- A 1/2″ to 1″ cut in the shortest side of the dough triangle meant that the ends stretched further and resulted in a better crescent shape. It’s a little hard to understand without a picture (also here).
- Before bending the rolled dough into it’s crescent shape, make sure the pointy tip is tucked underneath, otherwise it may separate and slightly burn during baking.
Rating: 4-1/2 stars.
How much work? Medium/High.
How big of a mess? Medium.
Cook’s Illustrated Issue: January / February 2012
Start time: Noon – Day 1. Finish time: 8:00 AM – Day 2.
Chris Kimball’s original recipe is here. The descriptions of how I prepared the recipe today are given below:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted European-style-butter, very cold
1-3/4 cups whole milk
4 teaspoons rapid-rise yeast
4-1/4 cups (21-1/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1-3/4 ounces) sugar
1 teaspoon cold water
- Slowly melt 3 tablespoons of American-style butter in a small saucepan over low burner. Remove pan from burner and stir in milk. The temperature should be lower than 90 degrees, so whisk in the yeast, and dump into the bowl of your stand mixer. Also add flour, sugar, and 2 teaspoons salt to the mixer’s bowl. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed for 3 minutes until a rough dough forms. Increase speed to medium-low and continue to mix for 1 more minute. Tightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and allow dough to rest for 30 minutes. That’s all the kneading they require; only rolling from here on out.
- Line a sheet pan with parchment paper, and use your hands to shape the dough into a 10″x7″ rectangle. It should be about 1″ thick. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
- Build a butter block: Rip off a 20″ long piece of parchment. Fold the sheet in half to create 10″ rectangle, with 1 side like the spine of a book and 3 open sides. Fold all 3 of the open sides to make an 8″ square. You will use these folds as guides to create your 8″x8″ sheet of butter. Crease the folds sharply so that you’ll be able to easily re-fold when filled with butter.
- Put your 24 tablespoons of cold, European butter directly on a clean counter. Use a rolling pin to pound it for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the butter becomes workable (but not warm). Use a bench scraper to fold the butter over onto itself, and pound again into a 6″ square. Completely unfold your parchment packet, and move your 6″ square of butter to the center of one of the 8″ parchment squares. Re-fold your parchment and re-crease back into an 8″ square that completely encloses the butter. Flip over so that the flaps are facing downward. Use your rolling pin to roll and work your butter to completely fill the 8″ parchment square. Rolling outward from the center towards the corners will fill your corners. Try to roll into an even thickness. When done, place packet in refrigerator for 45 minutes (or more).
- Move the dough to the freezer for 30 minutes before you are ready to laminate the butter to the dough. Place dough on a lightly floured counter. Roll into a 17″x8″ rectangle. Unwrap your butter packet and put butter in the middle of the dough. Fold the sides of the dough over butter, which should just meet in center. Use your fingertips to press the seam together.
- Use a rolling pin to create a 24″x8″ rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds; like a letter; which will for an 8″ square.
- Rotate the square 90-degrees. Again, use a rolling pin to create a 24″x8″ rectangle. Fold into thirds. If the dough becomes too warm, place it in the freezer for 15 minutes before continuing to roll it out. Place 8″ square dough on the same sheet pan. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and freeze for 30 minutes.
- Return dough to lightly floured counter. Again, use a rolling pin to create a 24″x8″ rectangle. Fold the dough into thirds; like a letter. Place dough on the same sheet pan. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours (or leave it for up to 24 hours, depending upon your schedule).
- When you are ready to shape your croissants, freeze the dough for 30 minutes. Put dough on a lightly floured counter. Roll dough out into a 18″x16″ rectangle. Loosely fold over to create a 18″x8″ rectangle.
- To form the triangle shapes of the individual croissants: On the hinged side of the rectangle, use a ruler and bench scraper to precisely mark dough at 3″ intervals (Note: there should be 5 marks on the hinged side). Mark the opposite side of dough 1-1/2″ from left corner, then mark out 3″ intervals (Note: there should be 6 marks on the un-hinged side). You should be able to mentally connect the dots to imagine the dough triangles. Use a pizza wheel or sharp knife to cut the dough from mark to mark. Some will still be hinged (which you should cut) and some will already be disconnected (or nearly disconnected). In the end, you will have a total of 22 equal-sized triangles.
- Working one triangle at a time and keeping the remaining triangles covered with plastic wrap. Cut a 1/2″ slit in the center of short side of the triangle. Gently pull the 2 corners (on both side of the slit) apart (outward) and stretch. Put the triangle on the counter. Take the sides that you just stretched and fold them onto themselves to form the widest point of your croissant (see picture here and here). Then roll halfway towards the point. Stretch out the point and resume rolling. Position so that the point is underneath, and gently bend the ends to form the distinctive crescent shape. Repeat the slitting, pulling, rolling and bending with the remaining croissants.
- Put at most 6 croissants per parchment-lined sheet pans, making sure that they are at least 2-1/2″ apart. While they look tiny now, they will grow into full-sized croissants. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to stand at room temperature for between 2-1/2 and 3 hours, or until they have doubled in size. Depending upon your baking schedule, you can store the pre-shaped croissants for as long as 18 hours in the refrigerator. But if you refrigerator, add at least 30 minutes to rising time. After shaping you can freeze 10 or more croissants. They only need to be placed 1″ apart on parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to freeze for 2 hours. You can they store them frozen in a Zip-lock bag for up to 2 months. When it comes time to bake them, allow to rise for at least 4-1/2 to 5 hours. (see comment about cold kitchens)
- About 30 minutes before baking, set an oven rack to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Pre-heat oven to 425-degrees. Whisk 1 egg, 1 teaspoon cold water, and a pinch salt together in a coffee cup or small bowl. Use a pastry brush to give croissants a light wash. The wash can be stored covered in the refrigerator for a few days awaiting the second batch.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350-degrees and put both baking sheets in oven. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes; switching and rotating baking sheets halfway through baking. Remove when the crust reaches you desired degree of doneness. Allow to cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. They can be served either warm or at room temperature.