Monday, May 25, 2009

Croissant Theme and Variations

At long last, I am finally going to post my recipe for making croissants, chocolate croissants (pain au chocolat) and kouign amann. I admit I was hesitant to take the time to post this as I doubted anyone would make them, but that's only because they're very time-intensive and not everyone loves spending all their spare moments in the kitchen like I do. It seems there are at least a few of you, though!

Homemade croissants don't taste very much like grocery store-purchased croissants. There are similarities, of course. You can understand what a painting is by looking at your child's 2nd grade project, which – despite your adoration – doesn't bring an understanding of art like visiting the Sistine Chapel. Well, maybe there's not quite that much difference in the two options for croissants (and maybe I shouldn't be quite so vain about my product), but you get the point.

All croissants should feel fluffy and layered on the inside, and flaky and toasted on the outside. They should also taste deliciously of butter. With mass-produced croissants, there's often a serious lack of quality layers on the inside, as well as the obvious butter-rich flavor. Don't get me wrong, I'll eat a decent grocery store croissant from time to time. Or, at least, I did before I started making them. I don't think I have since then. What a snob I am.

I should probably warn you up front (or pretty close to the front) that my serving sizes for all three recipes in this post (wow! three recipes in a post! that hasn't happened since pipián verde last August) are quite small. As amazing as any of these are to your palate, they are potentially lethal, at least in very large doses. Anyhow, I can't justify making huge croissants that are 25 or so grams of fat per serving; mine are closer to 12 or 15. Nothing to pooh-pooh at, still, but low enough to get my head around. If you want to be more indulgent than me, you're welcome to adjust the cutting directions to create larger pastries.

Almost anything is better with chocolate, especially if "anything" means something with butter as a main ingredient. Pain au chocolat (pronounced 'pan oh shock-oh-lah'), is not just a step above ordinary croissants, it's at least 3 steps up. I don't know what's in between, because it's not a real analogy, but it's a serious improvement on something that is already absolutely fantastic.

Dark chocolate is always, as far as I know, the filling, as the flavor mellows significantly against all that butter. I tried white chocolate once for my dark chocolate-detesting son, but it was very sweet and unbearable. I also first attempted using half the chocolate I now use, and it's too insignificant an amount for the pastry. This is better than most desserts you'll get at the average restaurant, which leads me to a side note.

Side note: once you start making really good pastries and really good desserts at home, or really good bread, it gets more difficult to appreciate the mediocre attempts you find at restaurants. Really, this is their business, their livelihood. Can't they make a more creative effort? And then it's so refreshing when someone does that you really want to meet the chef and shake his hand and say "thank you, thank you, thank you" over and over until you look absolutely ridiculous, so you just tell the server.

Further side note: This has nothing to do with the home cook, or home chef, whose magnanimous efforts should be appreciated and applauded on a daily basis, no matter the result. In fact, I never feel critical when eating someone else's food; the critique only comes out at restaurants. Why is that?

Kouign amann (pronounced 'queen amahn') is a French pastry from the Breton region that is as old as dirt. Not really, just as old as the Civil War. The American Civil War. Even though it's from France. (Americans don't seem really famous for inventing new pastries, do they? The kind that are legendary and still being perfected 150 years later. Why is that always left to the French?)

It's related to croissants pretty closely as it's a yeasted, laminated dough, like croissants. "Yeasted" obviously means containing yeast, and "laminated" means a butter block is added to the dough, which is then pressed and folded, pressed and folded, and pressed and folded to create those lovely layers inside the croissant.

Kouign amann is made from the same basic croissant recipe with some slight alterations: first, water instead of milk is added to the original dough. Don't ask why, because I don't know. That's how they do it, and it's very good, so I'm not messing with it. Another difference with kouign amann is that a heavy dose of sugar is added in part of the pressing/folding process, creating a sweet layer inside, and then the pastry is topped with melted butter and more sugar before baking. Doesn't sound very good, does it? I make mine in individual portions, rather than the traditional large cake, as this creates more of the delightful crunchy exterior and is nice for serving as well as freezing.

All of these croissant-like delicacies freeze wonderfully, so you don't have to accidentally eat an entire batch in a day. (They are, however, best when eaten within a day of baking or thawing.)

I'll start with the instructions just on how to make croissants, and then I'll explain the differences for the other options. Since I posted most of my pictures in the previous post, you can refer to them for understanding how things should look, or you can ask questions in the comments or email me (email address listed in the left column).

I am very interested to see if anyone makes these, so please let me know, as I'll be so excited for you. Excited for you to make them, even moreso for you to taste them. If you're desperate to try them and live nearby, you can always ask me when I'm making them again so I remember to drop off a sample.

adapted from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard
makes 24 small croissants

1/4 c. warm water - 57 g.
3/4 c. cold milk - 173 g.
1 T. instant yeast (if you have active dry, dissolve it into the milk before starting) - 9 g.
2 c. bread flour - 280 g.
1 c. + 2 T. all-purpose flour - 150 g.
2 T. sugar - 28 g.
2 1/4 t. Kosher salt - 14 g.
4 oz. (1 stick, 8 T.) cold, unsalted butter

butter block:
12 oz. (3 sticks) cold, unsalted butter
up to 1/4 c. all-purpose flour

melted butter, for brushing

Bloom your yeast by combining it with 1/4 c. warm water and a pinch of sugar for 5 minutes.

Cut the 4 oz. butter into pieces and, using your fingers while working quickly, work it into the bread flour.

In a stand mixer, combine the milk, yeast, bread flour (with butter), 1 c. all-purpose flour, sugar, and salt. Knead for about 2 minutes to combine all ingredients and bring them to a smooth, consistent state. Don't knead longer than necessary, as you're not interested in developing gluten here. By hand, knead in the last 2 T. of flour. This will keep it from being too sticky on the outside when you first start working with it.

Place the dough on a plate or in a container. Using a sharp knife, cut an X in the top of the dough, deep enough to extend halfway to the bottom. Cover well with plastic wrap and refrigerate 4 hours to overnight.

Make the butter block: sprinkle a piece of parchment paper with a bit of flour; slice the sticks of butter (12 oz.) in half and place them on the parchment to form a square. Sprinkle with a bit more flour. Using your rolling pin, beat the butter with a few good smacks to tenderize the butter and create a square that is about 6" x 6". (See picture in previous post.)

Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Set out your dough and roll against the 4 sections of the X, creating a square (or even a slightly odd-looking square) that is at least 12" x 12", or a bit larger. Place the butter block in the middle, with the square butter block edges perpindicular to the square dough edges (diamond-inside-the-square sort of look). Fold the edges of the dough over the butter block, envelope-style, taking extra care to not trap air bubbles next to the butter, or they'll cause difficulty as you're rolling out the dough.

Sprinkle the square of dough with flour, turn over, sprinkle the top with flour, and roll the dough into a even rectangle that is about 8" x 18". Don't roll over the edges as you go along, or you could push the butter out. The better squared your corners are for this process, the easier things will go. Brush off any extra flour sitting on top and fold the dough neatly into thirds, pulling the top short edge down two-thirds of the way, then folding the bottom third of the dough up over the folded top edge.

With the length of the rolling pin, press on the three open edges of the dough to semi-seal them up. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. This is the end of the first "turn". Croissants need three turns to be ready to continue, each created 30 minutes apart to ensure the butter stays sufficiently chilled (and the layers between dough and butter distinct).

Once the three turns are complete, wrap the dough in plastic wrap again (with closed edges, but not too tightly against the dough, as it will rise), and refrigerate at least 5 hours, or overnight.

Lightly flour a work surface, then roll out the dough into a rectangle that is 16" x 18" (at least, but err on the side of slightly wider if estimating) with the longer edge directly in front of you and the shorter edges on the sides. Cut 6 diagonals from the upper left down toward the lower right, starting with the first at the uppermost left edge and reaching to the bottom, three inches to the right of the lower left corner. The last diagonal should begin three inches to the left of the upper right corner and finish at the bottom right corner. Repeat the process in the opposite direction, with 6 cuts traveling from the upper right to the lower left, crossing the opposing diagonals halfway between the upper and lower long edges. Then make one cut parallel to the upper and lower edges, halfway between them, from left to right. It should look like the picture on the right.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll each croissant from the bottom of the triangle to the tip, stretching the bottoms just a touch as you begin rolling. Place them, two inches apart, on the baking sheets with the tips securely tucked under. Cover the croissants with cooking spray-coated plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 1 1/2 - 2 hrs.

Preheat the oven to 375˚. When the croissants are risen to the point that they are noticeably puffy and feel pillowy to the touch, they are ready to be baked. Brush them with melted butter and bake about 28-34 minutes, until they're a deep golden and well done, all the way through. Remove from the oven and baking sheets and place on cooling racks immediately. Cool to room temperature before eating. Store uneaten croissants in a brown bag for up to a day, or freeze for later use.

Pain au Chocolat

1 recipe Croissants
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I like 68%), in small chunks

Follow the directions for making croissants, but place a third of an ounce of chocolate on each of the triangles down at the base. The chocolate should seem thick when you are making them, but be sure to keep it all inside the rolled-up croissant.

After baking, these croissants must be cooled completely to room temperature before eating, about an hour, or the chocolate will not have set up enough.

Kouign Amann

1 recipe croissants, substituting water for milk and doubling the sugar in the dough

For kouign amann, turn the dough 4 times rather than three, and follow these additional instructions:

When making the third and fourth turns, sprinkle the middle third of the long rectangle with a very generous amount of granulated sugar before folding the top third down, then sprinkle the same amount of sugar on top of the new top half of the dough; fold the bottom half up. The sugar layers should be evenly coated and dense without piling high.

After the fourth turn, refrigerate the dough for 5-24 hours. Generously sprinkle your work surface with sugar, dust both sides of the dough with sugar, and roll it out on the work surface into a rectangle at least 14" x 21". This will take a little work. Cut the dough into 24 squares, 4 squares by 6 squares. (For slightly larger kouign amann, you can cut the dough into 18 squares.)

Spray two 12-cup muffin pans generously with cooking spray. Fold each of the squares of dough by pulling two opposing corners together to the center, pressing the points against the base gently to secure them, then pulling the last two corners into the center, pressing the points into the middle as well, or they will open up during baking (not that I've ever experienced this, of course). Place each pastry in a muffin cup.

Generously brush the kouignettes (because original kouign amann is one large cake) with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar. Let rise at room temperature an hour and a half to two hours. Do not try to hurry this process by placing it in a warm place, as you want to keep the butter cool.

Preheat the oven to 450˚. Place the pans in the oven, then turn the heat down to 400˚ and bake 18-22 minutes, until golden brown. Try not to open the oven door, as you want to keep all that heat inside so the butter will cause each distinct layer you worked so hard to form to puff, rather than melt. If the pastry looks like it's going to burn soon in the last 5-10 minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 375˚. Remember, though, that they will be pretty brown and the sugar will be quite caramelized when they're done.

Remove the muffin pans to a cooling rack. Let the pastries cool for about 2 minutes, then try to gently pull each pastry out and set them on a cooling rack. You can dump them out, but there's a greater chance they'll deflate. Along the same lines, try not to touch them too soon or they will deflate. But if you wait too long, they could stick too much to the pan to come out cleanly. Let cool to room temperature and serve.