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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Final rolling: roll the dough out to a 20×7 inch rectangle and get ready to shape!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Let the croissants cool for 15-20 minutes before serving.
-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.