Croissants

5C3A9963-1

I honestly believe that there are few experiences that can eclipse that of eating a freshly-baked croissant. A well-made pastry is great served at any temperature, but nothing comes close to the degree of fluffiness and flakiness of one that’s fresh from the oven. It’s the closest to heaven that I’ve come so far in this lifetime.

But, like most classic French pastries, it requires lots of time, patience, and technique. Jacquy Pfeiffer, one of the founders of the French Pastry School in Chicago and author of The Art of French Pastry, includes plenty of tips and tricks in his recipes to help readers of his cookbook bring a little bit of France into their kitchens. So here’s Jacquy’s croissant recipe, with some of helpful pointers I’ve picked up through many, many attempts at making these little bites of heaven. This is quite a long and detailed description, but please read through the entire thing before you begin! Being meticulous in every step is crucial for success. Bear with me for a little bit, and I promise the end result will be completely worth it!

Ingredients (Use exact measurements):

  • 100g all-purpose flour
  • 100g warm water
  • 5g active dry yeast
  • 200g bread flour
  • 38g granulated sugar
  • 15g softened French-style butter, 82% fat*
  • 45g warm water, same temperature as the other 100g water
  • 30g egg
  • 7g sea salt
  • 150g French-style butter, 82% fat, cold
  • Egg wash: 1 whole egg mixed with 1 tbsp water
  • Dark chocolate bars if making pain au chocolat
  1. Put the warm water (slightly cooler than hand temperature) in a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast to the warm water and stir. Sprinkle 100g all-purpose flour on top; do not mix. Set aside for 15-20 minutes so the yeast has time to activate. It’s activated when there are cracks in the flour and when you can see foamy bubbles around yeast clusters.
  2. Once the yeast has been activated, add the following ingredients in the order listed: bread flour, sugar, 15g softened butter, 45g warm water, eggs, and salt. Mix together either by hand or using a mixer. The key here is to make sure that everything is incorporated thoroughly, but you don’t overmix the dough; you do not want to encourage too much gluten development. The dough should be smooth, soft, moist and just a little bit sticky, and when you press a finger into it there should be an indent. If there is not, then that means you have overmixed it, and your croissants will not come out well. There should be no traces of dry ingredients in the bowl when you’re done mixing, and the dough should not feel lumpy.
  3. Transfer the dough to another bowl dusted with flour, and dust the surface of the dough with a little more flour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel, or if your bowl has a lid, then cover it with the lid, and let it rise for 1.5 hours or until it doubles in volume. Make sure the temperature of your rising environment does not exceed 80 degrees F, or else the butter will melt out.
  4. Once your dough has finished rising, dust a large work surface/counter with flour and place the dough on it. Shape into a ball; do not knead. Flatten into a 1-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for an hour.
  5. While chilling your dough, prepare the butter layer. Take 150g of butter from the refrigerator and put it on a sheet of parchment paper. Fold the parchment paper over the butter so that both sides are completely covered and pound/roll the butter into about an 8×6 inch rectangle. Once you’re done, refrigerate the butter for 45 minutes.
  6. When both the dough and butter have finished chilling, remove from the refrigerator and check to see that they’re both cold. The dough and butter should have a similar softness/consistency. Pound lightly on the butter to soften it up. Roll out the dough to a 16×8 inch rectangle. Place the butter on the lower half of the dough and fold the dough over so that the butter layer is completely sealed in. You should not be able to see any butter; otherwise it will leak out as you roll.
  7. First roll: Make sure that the dough and butter are cold but pliable and that your work space is generously floured. Gently start rolling your dough until it’s about 20 inches long. Keys to remember: make sure to check every 10 seconds to see if your dough is sticking. If it is, sprinkle some flour onto the dough and add more flour to your work surface. If you feel like your dough is too soft or if it feels like it’s melting, stop rolling immediately and return it to the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes. If your butter is brittle and starts cracking as you roll, that means it’s too hard. In that case, leave on the work surface for a couple of minutes until it starts to soften a little. Working with melting dough will cause the butter and dough to mix together as you roll and destroy your butter layer, resulting in a product that’s more breadlike and not flaky at all. On the other hand, if your butter is too brittle, shards of butter may cut through the dough layer and become exposed to the surface, which also ruins the butter layer. It’s important that you maintain the dough-butter-dough arrangement as you roll. Be sure to also roll all the way to the edges, so that your layer is perfectly even.
  8. When your dough is about 20 inches long, do a book fold: imagine that there are two lines dividing the dough in thirds along the longer edge. With one of the shorter ends of the dough facing you, fold the top third down along the top imaginary line, and align the edge of the dough with the bottom imaginary line. Gently pull and stretch on the edge so that it is perfectly straight, or else your layers will come out unevenly. At this point, one half of your dough will have two layers, and the other half will have one layer. Then, fold the single layer on top of the double layer to create three layers. Again, make sure that the corners and edges line up as perfectly as you can make them. Once you’ve completed your book fold, carefully wrap your dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour.
  9. Re-flour your work surface if necessary. Take the dough out of the refrigerator, unwrap it and place it with one of the open ends facing you; this should be the shorter end. Again, roll out the dough to about 20 inches in length, making sure to maintain the butter layers. Follow the same technique as the previous rolling: keep the dough well-floured, pliant, and cool, and make sure to roll all the way to the edges. Once your dough has reached 20 inches in length, complete another book fold and cover and store overnight in the fridge. Your dough now has 9 layers.
  10. The next day, take the dough out of the fridge, again making sure that it’s not too hard. If it is, let it sit outside for a couple of minutes until it’s pliable enough to handle. Once it is ready, roll the dough out again to a 20-inch-long rectangle, do a book fold, cover, and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes. Your final dough should have 27 layers.
  11. Final rolling: roll the dough out to a 20×7 inch rectangle and get ready to shape!
    1. For regular croissants: on one long edge, make a notch every 4 inches. On the other long edge, make a notch 2 inches from one short edge, and every 4 inches after that. Cut out of the dough by making diagonal cuts connecting the notches from one edge to the notches of the other; your cuts should form a zigzag pattern. You will end up with 9 isosceles triangles, with two extra half-triangles. Gently press these extra half-triangles together to form a tenth isosceles triangle. To roll, take a triangle and place it base facing you and tip pointing away from you. Make a 3/4-inch cut in the center of the base. Take the sides of the incision and fan them outward, and roll the croissant like a scroll from base to tip. Place on a baking sheet covered with either parchment paper or aluminum foil. Repeat with the remaining croissants, and be sure to leave at least an inch between each croissant when placing on the baking sheet.
    2. For pains au chocolat: Cut the 20×7 rectangle in half width-wise into two 20×3.5 inch rectangles. Divide the two rectangles into five 3.5×4 inch rectangles each for a total of ten 3.5×4 inch rectangles. Take a small rectangle and place it longer edge facing you. Line some chocolate along the left short edge about a centimeter away from the edge, and fold the left edge over the chocolate as if you were going to roll it into a scroll. Place some more chocolate along the edge as before and continue rolling it into a scroll. Place on a baking sheet with the seam side down. Repeat with the remaining rectangles.
  12. Once you’ve shaped your croissants and have put them spaced out on a baking sheet or sheets, brush with a simple egg wash (just beat one whole egg with one tablespoon of water together until thoroughly scrambled). Let them proof for about 1.5 hours. To check if they’re completely proofed, dip a finger (or a chopstick or something similar) into some flour and gently poke one of the croissants. The croissant is fully proofed if the dough does not bounce back. If the dough bounces back quickly, it’s not ready yet; proof for another half-hour before testing again. From the side, you should be able to see the glorious layers that will eventually puff up into buttery flaky goodness. If you shake the pan, the croissants will jiggle like jello.
  13. Once your croissants are fully proofed, brush again with egg wash (be gentle so as to not deflate the croissants) and bake at 375 degrees F for 18-20 minutes or until they are golden brown in color. They should also look slightly rough and wrinkled and flaky. If you’re using multiple baking pans, be sure to rotate the pans and swap their positions halfway to ensure even baking.
  14. Let the croissants cool for 15-20 minutes before serving.

Notes:

-Using European-style butter with 82% fat is crucial, since it has less water. I’ve been able to find it in Whole Foods, Safeway, and even Walmart. Cheaper butter has less fat and more water, but more water means more steam during baking. This steam will cause the pastry to rise greatly, but it will eventually collapse.

-Using exact measurements is crucial in pastry, which is why you should use a digital kitchen scale to measure out the ingredients.

-Make sure you’re working in a relatively cool environment; if it gets too hot, then the butter will melt before you can roll out your dough properly.

-You can create an optimal proofing environment by putting a cup or bowl of boiling water in your oven and letting your dough or croissants proof in there with the oven door closed. Your proofing environment should be humid and warm without any drafts, but it should not be so warm that butter starts melting out.

-Croissants are obviously best served fresh, but they can be frozen for two or three months after they’re baked. When you want to eat some again, just let them defrost and then blast them in the oven at 450 degrees for 1 minute. If you want, you can even freeze the croissants right after you shape them. When you’re ready to bake these frozen raw croissants, let them defrost for a couple of hours and then proof and bake as instructed.

Advertisements

嶺南小馆-R&G Lounge

IMG_0275-1

I’ve noticed that Chinatowns around the world have several things in common: they’re filled with streetside markets, cheap eats, colorful old buildings and a bunch of (usually elderly) people jabbering away at each other in Cantonese. At least that’s how I would describe Chinatown in San Francisco. But occasionally it’s possible to run into the odd high-end restaurant, and R&G Lounge certainly qualifies as such. The exterior, with its faded whitewash and dusty sign, is hardly remarkable, but on the other side of the door is a sleek and modern dining area that uses traditional Chinese designs to exude a classy vibe.

Being a Cantonese restaurant, R&G serves no shortage of seafood, from clams and oysters to the more exotic geoduck and abalone. One of their most popular dishes is the live crab with salt and pepper (pictured above), which is basically a Dungeness crab battered, fried, and lightly salted and peppered for flavor. Frying can make practically anything taste better, but what makes this crab stand out in a crowd of fried seafood (I’m looking at you, calamari and shrimp) is that it’s crispy and fragrant but light and airy instead of overly crunchy. It’s also seasoned extremely well, with just the right amount of salt and pepper to give a dish saturated with oil a little bit of brightness and piquancy. While I believe that seafood is best when it’s freshly caught and served with minimal adornment to allow the sweetness to shine, Dungeness crab has a naturally more mild flavor, so using the fryer just gives it a little extra punch.

Another dish to try is the minced seafood in lettuce cups: scallops, prawns, Chinese sausage, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and pine nuts chopped to itty bitty pieces and sautéed together, served with cute little iceberg lettuce leaves on the side. The sauté isn’t overly salty or flavorful, but it has a lovely juxtaposition of interesting textures, and it’s wonderful wrapped inside a lettuce leaf, which provides a gentle crunch and some moisture. The addition of a sauce that they provide on the side (most likely hoisin sauce) gives the wrap even more complex flavor.

The tender greens in supreme broth is a very typical Cantonese-style vegetable dish. The vegetable naturally has a tinge of bitterness, but that bitterness is masked by the sweet and somewhat thick broth. When cooked, 青菜 leaves are usually crunchy and almost translucent, but this particular part of the vegetable is the “core” of the plant, which is softer and juicier. While the vegetable’s size and stringiness makes it occasionally a bit difficult to eat, it’s packed with a natural fragrance that’s only enhanced by the broth.

R&G is definitely among the priciest Chinese restaurants in the area, but it’s worth a go. Your wallet might cry a little (or maybe a lot), but your taste buds will thank you.

Rating: 4.5/5 spoons

Trip to Italy and France

Apologies for not writing much lately. Summer, while obviously not crazily busy, has not really offered me as many restaurant review chances or baking opportunities as I had imagined. It’s not like Almaden is a foodie’s paradise.

But Italy and France certainly are, and earlier this month I spent a beautiful two weeks there with friends and family! And during those two weeks there was absolutely no shortage of deliciousness; I could never get sick of fresh pasta and seafood, or tiramisu, or lemon sorbet, or basically anything in Italy or France. And may I say that Italian gelato is swoon-worthy?

Despite being held in a constant state of gustatory delight, there were obviously certain meals that stood out more than others. I’ll admit that I was too busy eating to take pictures during most of the trip, but I guess writing about these restaurants is as good of a way to relive the experience. And yes, these restaurants are local-approved. So without further ado I present, in no particular order, the most memorable meals of my trip!

Ristorante Il Clarinetto (Florence)

We went here after the owner of the apartment we were renting, Luisa, suggested it. Service is solid, prices are reasonable, and the restaurant itself is comfortable and spacious. Anything off the long menu is good, but I’m especially partial to their mixed seafood dishes, especially the spaghetti and risotto ai frutti di mare. As a seafood snob, I was impressed by the freshness of the shrimp, mussels, clams, etc. that they piled up. In both the spaghetti and risotto dishes, they keep the flavoring relatively simple with some salt and herbs, letting the natural seafood flavor take center stage. After all, the best ingredients don’t need much adornment.

Trattoria Bordino (Florence)

Another restaurant that Luisa recommended, Trattoria Bordino, definitely provided the most bang for our buck (or in this case, our euro). Each of us, besides Dad (who went with the bistecca fiorentina), enjoyed a hearty two-course meal for only 10 euros each!  On the particular day we went, the primi included a pasta al pomodoro o al granchio, a riso al burro, and other very simple but tasty dishes. Again, they just let the freshness of the ingredients speak for themselves; I have to say the pasta al pomodoro was some of the best pasta I’ve eaten! Definitely a hidden gem.

Le 46 (Avignon)

We popped into the Provence region for a couple of days after our stay in Florence, and on our last evening we decided to explore Avignon and we came across this beautiful restaurant near the famous Pont d’Avignon. They don’t have a whole lot of main course choices, but all of them are fantastic; our family ordered a beef carpaccio, a fish of the day (which was sea bass, one of my favorite types of fish), a pasta of the day, which was at least as good if not better than a lot of the pasta we had in Italy, and some duck breast. Oh là là! The fries that came with my brother’s beef carpaccio were a thousand times better than any fries that I’ve eaten in the US. Prices may seem slightly steep, but portion sizes are generous and the quality of food is superb. It’s not in a very crowded location, so it may not be easy to find, but it’s definitely worth visiting.

Ristorante Self-Service (La Spezia)

After France, we made our way back to Italy and went to the Ligura/Cinque Terre region, and the owner of the apartment we rented suggested this cheap but quality restaurant near the docks. It actually doesn’t have a name, but if you decide to go on one of those ferries that take you to each of the five towns of the Cinque Terre, the restaurant is located very close to the ticket office, right next to the Ponte Mirabello. Because it’s a self-service style restaurant, it’s as quick as fast food, but infinitely better. They serve almost exclusively seafood dishes, including seafood spaghetti, frittura mista and mussels, all of which are extremely fresh and tasty. No matter what you get from there, you can’t really go wrong. And with the unbeatable prices, I just wish I could get food like that all the time.

Ristorante La Piazzetta (Amalfi)

I actually heard about this restaurant after asking a random elderly man for restaurant recommendations as our group was wandering through Amalfi and wanted to eat a casual but good lunch. Despite there being quite a few tourists, there are usually an equal number of locals eating there. The food is definitely on point; I recommend any of the pizzas (the dough is absolutely fantastic) and the lasagna bolognese. Great for a reasonably priced but still quality meal.

Al Peperoncino (Rome)

Yes, I know that Rome has a thousand fantastic restaurants. But Al Peperoncino was conveniently next door to the apartment we were renting, and the owner of the apartment suggested it. Because of its location on Via Ostiense, a more residential area, there were no tourists in the restaurant besides ourselves, but it was filled with locals. The menu is completely in Italian, and the waiters don’t speak English very well, so it has an authentic and rustic feel to it. All the pastas are great (I’ve tried pretty much all of them), and I have a soft spot for the mussels and the massive costata del “Peperoncino.” My mom, who’s an expert on all things seafood, says that mussels are best when they’re cooked just until they crack open just a little bit for maximum tenderness and juiciness, and all of the mussels were cooked to that point. They were heavenly paired with the toasted bread flavored with oil and garlic. For dessert, the sorbetto di limone cannot be missed. It’s actually more of a drink than the usual more ice cream-like sorbet, and it has a tinge of alcohol that brings it to the next level. Seriously recommend this restaurant if you want to avoid the tourist traps.

In places like France and Italy, where you can’t take more than a couple of steps without running into fantastic food, choosing a restaurant can be almost intimidating. But I’ve realized that locals are more than happy to point you in the right direction; they’re guaranteed to know about and tell you the best restaurants in town. After all, food’s one of the best ways to experience different cultures.