Making croissants the right way, the proper way, takes three full days. Much of that time is spent letting the dough chill in the refrigerator or allowing it to rise in a warm place.
So you can get other things done while you’re making them. But for hours at a time, you cannot stray too far from the kitchen. You’ll have to come back to them in an hour or two.
I knew this because I had read about it, but I had never actually made croissants myself. I had never made them because, and forgive me if I am repeating myself, they take three full days to make.
But I had been challenged. I had been challenged by a cookbook. And in a rare moment of fortitude, I decided I was not going to let any cookbook call me a coward.
The cookbook is called “Poilâne,” by Apollonia Poilâne, who runs a bakery in Paris called Poilâne. The book mostly features recipes for bread, which is the bakery’s specialty, but I’ve made bread. It was the recipe for croissants that caught my eye.
It’s not as if I haven’t seen recipes for croissants before. But I just checked nine baking or French cookbooks within easy reach of my desk, and none of them has a croissant recipe that takes three days. Only one of them has a recipe that even takes two days.
The recipe in “Poilâne” threw down the gauntlet. Or, as they say in France, jeté le gant.
The first thing I did was to buy the best butter I could find, and by “best,” I mean “most expensive.” Croissants are all about the butter: They are basically flaky leaves of butter surrounded by thin sheets of pastry.
I went to Whole Foods — home of expensive foods — and picked up a bar of Isigny Sainte-Mère butter for $6.99. That’s not too bad, right? Except the bar was only 8.8 ounces. That works out to $12.70 a pound.
Fortunately, I only needed the 8.8 ounces. Actually, I needed 10 ounces, but I added an extra ounce of cheap butter that I already had in the fridge.
Incidentally, the Isigny Sainte-Mère butter was nearly worth the cost. It comes from Normandy, the part of France most associated with dairy products, and the cows that make this butter are not just contented, they spend leisurely afternoons at the pool, sipping margaritas.
Challenge No. 2: I had never made full-on puff pastry before. I had always made a simpler version known colloquially as rough puff. But croissants are croissants, and if I was going to make them, I was going to make them right.
With croissants, you first make a nice dough (with yeast, which makes it different from other puff pastries), refrigerate it and then roll it out into a square. You put slightly soft — but not too soft — butter on top of it and fold up the corners of the dough so that you end up with a thin rectangle of butter completely enveloped by dough.
You roll this dough out into a rectangle, fold it like a letter and refrigerate. Then you roll it out into a rectangle, fold it like a letter and refrigerate. Roll it into a rectangle, fold it like a letter and refrigerate.
By now, two days have passed.
On the third day, the dough is rolled out again, but this time, it is cut into triangles.
You roll up the triangles into croissant shapes and let them rise for a couple of hours. Then you top them with an egg wash, and you bake them. Nothing could be easier.
I tried a couple, and I liked them fine, but they weren’t as shatteringly buttery as the best croissants I’ve had. They were certainly superior to anything you’d get out of a tube in a grocery store refrigerator case. To be honest, they were also better than some of the more desultory versions I’ve had at stores and even halfhearted bakeries.
I put them out in the newsroom, and they were gone in maybe a minute and a half. No one was cutting them in half and sharing them with others, either. Everybody seemed to like them a lot, except for one photographer.
“Too buttery,” he said.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons bread flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, 105-115 degrees
1/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 1/4 sticks (20 tablespoons) unsalted butter, preferably cultured, lightly softened
1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine both flours, the sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, vigorously whisk the water, milk and salt until the salt dissolves. Add the mixture to the flour, and mix on medium-low just until the dough comes together.
Switch to the dough hook (or, if you’re kneading by hand, transfer to a lightly floured work surface), increase the speed to medium-high and knead until the dough is smooth and somewhat elastic, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours, and up to overnight.
Place the butter between 2 pieces of parchment paper. Gently pound it with a rolling pin until it forms a 6-inch-by-6-inch square. Refrigerate briefly if it is too soft; you want the butter to be just malleable but not cold.
Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough to the surface, and roll it into a 9-inch square. Position the butter block on the dough square so it has the shape of a diamond (each corner of the butter square points to the middle of 1 side of the dough). Gently pulling on 1 corner of the dough, lift and stretch that flap over the butter block until it just reaches the center of the block. Repeat with the other corners of the dough to completely envelop the butter, then pinch the seams together to seal in the butter.
Turn the dough over, and roll it out into a 20-inch-by-10-inch rectangle. With a long side of the rectangle facing you, fold 1/3 of the left side of the dough over the center, then fold the dough from the right side over that so the dough is folded like a business letter. Use a dry pastry brush to brush off excess flour (too much flour will make the croissants tough). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes and up to 2 hours.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, and roll it out toward the open sides into another 20-inch-by-10-inch rectangle. Fold again as described above; this is your first turn. Chill for another 2 hours. Repeat the rolling, folding and chilling process another 2 times, for a total of 3 times.
After the final turn, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (At this point, the dough can be refrigerated overnight, or frozen for up to 3 months; defrost overnight in the refrigerator before shaping and baking.)
When you’re ready to form the croissants, line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Unwrap the chilled dough. Cut it in half, and wrap 1 half in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you work with the other half.
Roll the half you are working with into a 20-inch-by-10-inch rectangle. (If the dough resists rolling at any point, fold it into thirds, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 10 minutes to let it relax.) Using a knife or pizza cutter, cut the dough into 7 isosceles triangles (equal on 2 sides), each with a base of about 4 1/2 inches. You’ll end up with little scraps of dough at each end; if you like, roll these into smaller, less perfectly shaped croissants as a baker’s treat.
Make a 1/2-inch vertical cut in the middle of each triangle’s base; this makes it easier to roll up the triangles. Gently pull on the tip of 1 triangle to stretch it out slightly, and then, starting at the base and splaying it out slightly where it’s cut, roll the triangle up toward the point. Set the croissant on the baking sheet with its point tucked underneath so it doesn’t unroll while rising. Curl in the tips and pinch the tops closed; they will spread open during proofing, but this helps the croissant keep its curved shape. Place on the prepared baking sheet.
Repeat with the remaining triangles, being sure to leave at least 11/2 inches between them to allow them to rise without touching. Then repeat the same cutting and shaping with the remaining dough. (At this point, the shaped croissants can be chilled overnight, but they will take longer to rise in the next step. They can also be frozen for up to 3 months. Place them, still on the baking sheet, in the freezer until firm, then store airtight in a freezer bag. Before baking, defrost overnight in the refrigerator, then let rise at room temperature on a parchment-lined baking sheet).
Cover the croissants with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm, draft-free place, until nearly doubled in size, about 2 hours. (If your home is cool — under 75 degrees — place a tray of just-boiled water in the bottom of your oven, and, without turning it on, place the croissants in the oven to rise. Make sure you remove them before you heat the oven for baking.)
Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven, and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the croissants with the egg wash.
Bake until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. Serve the croissants warm or at room temperature. Store any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 2 days.
Nutrition information per serving: 297 calories, 17 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 57 mg cholesterol, 5 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate, 4 g sugar, 1 g fiber, 342 mg sodium, 18 mg calcium.
— Adapted from “Poilâne” by Apollonia Poilâne