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Perfect Croissants: Fables, Folklore, and a Fabulous Recipe

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Making croissants is a day-long task, but it's a most rewarding one.

Making croissants is a day-long task, but it's a most rewarding one.

One Bite of a Croissant

I thought I knew what a croissant was. The bread at every Thanksgiving meal was that infamous roll of refrigerated dough. Smack the middle of the package smartly on the edge of the counter to reveal eight semi-triangles, roll each triangle from broad end to narrow, place on a baking sheet, curve slightly, and bake until golden.

Oh, how wrong I was.

My first true croissant was from Ronde des Pains on the corner of Rue Cler and Rue du Champs de Mars in Paris, France.

It is said that we first eat with our eyes, and the breakfast treat that accompanied my café crème was incredible in its size; the pastry glistening and deeply bronzed. The fragrance was both sweet and salty, yeasty, and definitely buttery. That first bite had a satisfying crunch, the exterior shattering into hundreds of crumbs. Then there was the indulgent feeling of (yes, again) butter, but it was not heavy. There was a cloudlike (dare I say angelic?) lightness. This was perfection—a true croissant.

Is It Folklore or Fakelore?

Fake news, also known as junk news or pseudo-news, is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media or online social media. Four years ago, this term was hardly heard of; now it’s become mainstream. But is it a new concept? Just for fun, let’s imagine this item in the daily newspapers of the 17th century:

Dateline 1686. Your Reporter in Budapest

Last evening Turks were besieging our beloved city. They dug underground passages but by the grace of God their rumblings were noticed by bakers working at night. Those bakers heard the noise made by the Turks and sounded the alarm. The invaders were thwarted. In thanks to those bakers who saved our city, the council has granted them the privilege of making a special pastry to commemorate this event. It will be in the form of a crescent to represent the emblem on our Ottoman flag.

Or perhaps this story is more to your liking:

The Culinary Creation Our Queen Cannot Live Without

It has been reported by a source that will remain anonymous, that our new queen, Marie-Antoinette-Josèphe-Jeanne d’Autriche-Lorraine, has such a fondness for the bread of her childhood (last year) in Vienna that she has employed the German baker from the Hofburg Palace to provide an endless supply of these “croissants” for her royal highness.

Flaky croissants

Flaky croissants

In his book August Zang and the French Croissant: How Viennoiserie Came to France, Jim Chevallier dashes cold water on this bit of gossip long-believed to be fact. He says:

"The Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette was perhaps France's most elegant and glamorous queen, and the oft-repeated idea that she introduced France's most elegant breakfast food has sufficient poetry to have endured. If, after all, one accepts the idea that Austrian bakers had only a century before invented the ancestor of the croissant, it is but a short step to imagine that this Austrian princess then brought it to France...But the claim only appears well after the eighteenth century, despite the fact that French queens in general, and Marie-Antoinette in particular, were closely watched and chronicled. Had Marie-Antoinette brought any food into fashion the fact would have been widely mentioned in the gossip sheets of the time. Yet the closest thing to a period reference for this tale is a tantalizing note by her maid...that the Queen had a particular preference for a sort of bread she was used to having since her childhood in Vienna."

Then, Who Really Did Create the Croissant?

Part of the problem of finding the “who” is borne by the “what?” Over the centuries there have been many crescent-shaped baked goods and confections, but they are croissants in form only, not in substance. The true croissant is a puff pastry with many, many flaky, buttery layers.

Layers and layers of flaky croissant-ness

Layers and layers of flaky croissant-ness

Puff pastry was supposedly created by French painter and apprentice cook, Claude Gelée, who in 1645 accidentally formed a laminated dough while trying to make a rolled butter cake for his sick father. His pastrymaster/boss exclaimed (probably not in English, and I wasn't there to record the exact conversation) something like this:

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"Don't put that in the oven—all of the butter will melt out and create a disastrous mess!"

But Claude didn't listen, a beautiful-flaky-buttery bread was produced, the boss was amazed/delighted, and the result was a huge success. Claude moved to Paris with his genius recipe, made tons of francs, and lived happily ever after. (No one knows if the sick father was cured of his mystery ailment, however).

Does It Really Matter?

In the culinary world, the origin of puff pastry is significant; there are countless ways in which this genius of flour and butter have been used. But when we narrow our focus on the croissant, let's not concern ourselves with the who, when, or why but on the "how." Let's look at how to make the perfect croissant.

The ingredients for a croissant are really quite basic and few. Water, flour, yeast, butter, and a pinch of salt are all one needs from their pantry. It's all in the technique.

That technique, however, requires many hours of rolling, folding, waiting, and then hit the repeat button again, and again, and again. If you are investing that much time into (what will be) a beautiful masterpiece, don't you want to use the best of ingredients? This is what you will need.

Bread flour for baking croissants

Bread flour for baking croissants

Flour

The process of making croissant dough involves kneading, rolling, folding, etc., etc., etc. Only a sturdy flour can endure all that handling and that sturdiness comes from gluten. I'm sorry, but this is not the place for all-purpose flour.

If I decide to bake a batch of biscuits to go along with our evening meal of stew, or make some chocolate chip cookies, or make simple pancakes or waffles for breakfast, I'll grab the canister of all-purpose flour. It's reliable and consistent. All-purpose flour is a blend of two different grains, hard wheat, and soft wheat.

But what if you want to make a delicate chiffon cake? Would all-purpose flour "work." Yes, it would, but if you had the chance to compare your AP flour cake to one made with "cake flour" you would notice a subtle difference. The cake made with cake flour would have a more delicate crumb and would seem a bit lighter.

And, what about baking a crusty loaf of artisanal bread or a batch of croissants? That's when you want to take advantage of "bread flour." What's the difference? Bread flour has a higher proportion of hard wheat flour; it's sturdier and develops tighter strands that support a crunchy crust and laminating (the process of repeated folding and rolling).

So, what's the unifying thread? Each of these flours has a different amount of gluten.

Type of FlourAmount of Gluten

Bread Flour

12.5 to 14%

All-Purpose Flour

10 to 12%

Cake Flour

7.5 to 9%

Percentage of Protein in Brands of Bread Flour

  • Bob's Red Mill: 13.8%
  • Gold Medal Better for Bread: 10%
  • King Arthur: 12.7%
  • King Arthur high gluten: 14%
  • Milliard: 14.2%
  • Minnesota Girl Bakers Flour: 11.5%
  • Pillsbury: 12.9%
  • Regal Organic Bread Flour: 12.7%
  • Tesco Very Strong Canadian Bread Flour: 13.6%

Yeast

I feel the best results come from dry yeastnot cake (fresh) yeast, and not instant or bread machine yeast. Purchase standard dry yeast but please pay attention to the expiration date. If your yeast is old it will not perform. Yeast is (believe it or not) a living thing and, like all of us, it has an expiration date.

How to Test Your Yeast

The Red Star yeast company has put together this handy reference to help you determine if your yeast is still viable.

European butter

European butter

Butter

The flavor of a good croissant comes from the butter. Please do not for one nanosecond consider using margarine, and the grocery store generic butter also will not suffice. Most American butter on your grocer’s shelf contains around 80 percent milk fat, which means it’s about18 percent water and 2 percent milk solids.

For the best results, flavor, and texture, look for butter with high fat content and no additives. A higher fat ratio means less water and water is the enemy of the perfect croissant. A European (but not Irish) butter is the way to go. (French boulangeries use butter with a fat content of 85 to 87 percent.)

Salt

You might be wondering why we need salt? First of all, because it strengthens the gluten and increases the absorption of water. And second, because it slows down the activity of the yeast. In the case of croissants, you don't want the dough to ferment during the whole process; salt helps us to slow down fermentation.

You've watched the video, now here's the recipe and detailed notes by Sara, the creator/genius behind the blog Buttermilk Pantry. I have researched croissant recipes and can testify that no one has put as much thought, consideration, and detail into explaining the step-by-step process of making the world's perfect croissant that Sara.

Sources

© 2021 Linda Lum

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