This is a recount of my first attempt at making croissants. It’s less of a recipe, more of a pictorial guide to my process and what I learnt during the epic three day baking challenge.
A little while ago, I took a trip to Melbourne and went to the famous Lune Croissanterie. As the name suggests, it’s a bakery famous for its croissants. The croissants at Lune represented everything you ever want in life. The flakiness, crumbliness and butteriness of the croissant were heaven incarnate. Inspired by this life changing pastry, I decided to attempt making my own croissants.
Before this exercise, I had never made croissants before, nor had I made puff pastry. So while I have a decent amount of cooking experience, I don’t really have that much intuition when it comes to making french pastries. But theoretically, I do have some idea about what a croissant should be.
Croissants are made using a yeast-risen dough, intercalated with layers of butter. The textures of croissants are somewhat conflicting. On the one hand, the layers of a croissant should be crunchy and flakey, achieved from having well-defined layers of dough and butter. On the other hand, the interior of croissants should be light and fluffy, the result from a well-risen dough. I had these two ideas in the back of my head while attempting to make croissants.
The recipe I chose to use was from the book Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson, renowned American baker. I did my best to follow the recipe as close as possible, although having said that, I did omit one key feature: the starter culture. Tartine Bread focuses heavily on sour dough starters as the basis of any good dough. And while I would love to have and maintain a sour dough starter, I really couldn’t be bothered. So when working through the recipe, I took some liberties. A modified version of the Tartine Bread recipe can be found at The Tart Tart.
As a heads-up, the croissant making process was incredibly lengthy, but not necessarily laborious. In total, the process took three days. The first day was spent making a yeast mixture, which was left to prove overnight. The second (and longest day) was spent making the actual croissant dough. The final day was spent baking the dough. Here we go!
Step One: Making the Dough
The first step in this epic croissant endeavour was to make a wet-sponge mixture called a poolish. The poolish contains yeast, and was used as the basis for the croissant dough. The poolish was made using dry yeast, plain flour and water, to create a mixture with cake batter-like consistency. It was then left in the fridge overnight so that the yeast could slowly activate and begin to ferment. (Note: If you are following the Tartine Bread recipe, you will notice that it asks for both a poolish and leaven. As the leaven required a mature starter that I did not have, I simply combined the poolish and leaven recipes into one step, substituting the mature starter for more dry yeast.)
The next day, the poolish had risen significantly in the fridge (more than doubled in volume), and you could visibly see large air pockets, a sign that the yeast was doing its job. The more air pockets, the lighter the dough. To test that the poolish had fermented enough, I tore a portion and placed it in water. Initially, it sunk, but after a few moments, it floated to the surface, which meant success!
The poolish was then made into a dough by adding milk, bread flour, salt, sugar and more dry yeast. The resulting dough was mixed and then left to prove in 3 stages: first for 30 minutes, then for 90 minutes with some mixing and then for 3 hours in the fridge. An interesting observation is that the dough was not kneaded. Normally, dough is kneaded to develop the gluten structure, which will strengthen the final product. In this instance, it appeared that the gluten network was formed by two things: the fermented poolish and the lengthy proving time.
After I made the dough, I realised that the mixture was a little bit dry for my liking. The drier and heavier the dough, the slower the ferment and denser the final structure. However, I’d already mixed everything together so there was no going back. In future, I would probably add the flour slowly while mixing, until the dough reached a moist, yet pliable consistency. Its always easier to add more flour than to add more liquid.
Step Two: Making the Butter Slab
With the dough proved, it was time to prepare a slab of butter. A butter slab would be used as a basis to forming layers of butter in the final croissant dough. To form this slab, cold butter was cut into cubes and slapped with a rolling pin until it was malleable. Flour was added periodically to improve the consistency of the butter. This step proved to be more challenging than initially anticipated. The goal was to create a cold slab of butter that had the same consistency as the dough. However, we all know that cold butter doesn’t exactly handle well.
After some effort, I sort-of got the cubes of butter to form a solid, rectangular mass (below). However, if you look closely, you can clearly make out the outlines of some cubes of butter that did not quite incorporate. This is not a good sign. These cubes of butter are still fairly solid and not at all pliable. Thus, when rolling them with the dough, they’re more likely to tear the dough, rather than flatten and form layers. In future, I would probably get the dough to room temperature until it was soft, but not melted. I would then slightly whip the dough so that it was of an even consistency, before shaping it into a rectangle. I would then place it in the fridge for maybe 15 – 30 minutes until it firmed, yet didn’t set.
Step Three: Laminating the Dough and Butter
Croissants are famous for having layers of dough and butter, which can be achieved by a lamination process. The first step in the lamination process was to roll out the proved dough into a rectangle measuring 25 x 50 cm. The slab of butter was then placed near the centre of the dough, before the dough was folded upon itself, much like a letter. The folded dough was then turned 90°, rolled out to a long rectangle and letter-folded once more. This process is called a “turn”, and is the technique used to achieve thin layers of butter and dough. See the pictures below for a visual guide.
Once the first turn was completed, the dough was rested in the fridge for an hour. The dough was “turned” twice more for a total of three “turns”. While it is tempting to keep folding the dough to obtain more and more layers, this may cause the butter to penetrate the dough, causing you to lose layers. So it’s best to stick to three turns.
One great piece of advice that I read was that you should only use the rolling pin in one direction (i.e. up and down or side to side). Ideally, your piece of dough should maintain a rectangular shape. If you start rolling diagonally or in random directions, it can be hard to maintain such precise geometry.
A huge issue during the lamination process was getting the dough and butter at the right temperature. If the dough and butter are too cold, the butter won’t spread. But if the dough and butter are too warm, the butter may start to melt. In future, I would probably try to get my dough and butter closer to room temperature than fridge temperature. It’s much easier to work with slightly softened butter. Additionally, it seems that butter is unlikely to melt at room temperature anyway, as long as you’re not making it in the height of summer.
After the lamination process, I cut the dough to take a cross-section to check my progress. The result was not inspiring:
As you can see, while there are some layers, there was the obvious problem of having a giant layer of dough in the middle. When baked, this would likely result in a chewy texture, but it was unavoidable at this point. This could probably be avoided by rethinking the first step in the lamination. Initially, I rolled out the dough into a 25 x 50 cm rectangle. Instead of focusing on measurements, I really should have been thinking about the thickness of the dough. The thickness of the dough should match the thickness of the butter slab. This is more likely to result in layers of even width.
You may also notice that there are obvious chunks of butter sticking out of each layer, rather than thin, even layers of butter. This was probably a result from the uneven butter slab. As I mentioned earlier, parts of my butter slab had cubes of butter that were not fully incorporated and thus, were not malleable.
While the lamination process was not perfect, I had no choice but to press on. The next step was to form the croissants into identifiable shapes.
Step Four: Rolling the Croissants
The classic croissant has a crescent shape, but many modern Australian bakeries go for the straight croissant look, which is what I opted for. To achieve this, I rolled out the croissant dough until it was about 1 – 2 cm thick (or until I couldn’t get it any thinner). Then, I cut the dough into isosceles triangles. The shape of the triangle dictates the shape of the croissant. For example, a wide base but short height of the triangle will give you a long but flat croissant. But a slightly narrower base with a tall height will give a plump croissant. I went with the latter, cutting triangles with a reasonable width and substantial height (see below).
After cutting the dough into triangles, I noticed that the dough was still quite thick, so I decided to roll it out thinner with the rolling pin. Traditionally, you would stretch the dough to thin it, but my dough, being denser than desired, was not very elastic.
Once the triangles were cut and rolled, the croissants were formed. Starting at the base of the triangle, the dough was rolled to the tip. The tip of the dough was then smeared onto the rolled mass, allowing it to stick. This will prevent the croissant from unravelling when it is baked.
It took some practise to get the correct-shaped triangle and therefore, the correct croissant. The first few I made were definitely inconsistent!
After the dough was shaped, I put them into the fridge to do a final prove overnight. I made sure to cover the dough with plastic wrap (although a tea towel would be fine) to stop a skin from forming. While you can let the croissants prove at room temperature for a few hours, I had already spent about 12 hours on this thing and it was late. Proving it in the fridge overnight also slows down the proving process, so it won’t over inflate by the morning.
Step Five: Baking
The next morning, with extreme childish excitement, I took the croissants out of the fridge. I expected them to have risen significantly (much like the poolish did). However, I was surprised to find that there was not a huge size difference compared with the previous night. This may have been due to my dough being denser than anticipated. It’s likely that a lighter, wetter dough will expand more.
To bake the croissants, they were brushed with an egg wash and placed in a 220°C oven. I gave the croissants ample spacing as I knew they would rise significantly. While the croissants were baking, I did notice that some of the butter was leaking from the croissants. This didn’t seem to be a huge issue. It seems inevitable that some butter will be emancipated from the dough. As long as it’s not a full-on pool of butter, it should be fine (if it is a full-on pool of butter, then the ratio of dough to butter may be off).
The first batch of croissants were ready rather quickly. They darkened rapidly in the oven and were ready in about 15 minutes. The resultant croissant was quite crunchy on the outside, but the inside appeared under-baked. Therefore, I changed tactic for the second batch.
The second batch was baked in the 220°C oven for about 10 minutes. During that time, the dough significantly rose. After 10 minutes, I turned down the temperature to about 180°C to allow the insides to cook and the outside to brown at a slower rate. After about 15 – 20 minutes, the croissants were ready. This technique of two oven temperatures was much more successful. I attained the crust I wanted, while having a fully baked, fluffy interior.
Step Six: Tasting
The croissant making process had obvious set backs: dry dough, uneven butter slab and uneven layers of butter and dough. Yet despite these flaws, the final croissant was still ten times more delicious than any store-bought, generic croissant. Of course, it was not comparable at all to the Lune croissants, but it possessed supreme flakiness and a silky, buttery interior. The croissants were an absolute textural delight.
What was most exciting is that I could see actual layers in the final croissant! Despite all the set backs, there was identifiable layering! So it seems that even as a beginner, these croissant recipes can be quite forgiving.
All in all, a successful cooking adventure. I would like to mention that this croissant recipe yielded about 30 medium sized croissants. And while the dough took more than a full day to make, it wasn’t exactly laborious; most of the time was spent waiting. So if you find yourself with a free weekend, croissant making is definitely a good way to feel industrious and hard working, without putting in too much effort.
Another upside to the croissant making process is that the final laminated dough can be frozen. The huge dough slab can be frozen and stored for probably a few months until it is needed. To work with it again, simply take out the slab and pop it into the fridge over night to slowly defrost. Then roll out as necessary. I have tried this with no problems.
If you’ve ever wanted to try making croissants, I hope my story can be the little boost you need. You don’t need to be a pastry whizz, you just need a little time and enthusiasm. Good luck and happy baking!
The recipe used was from the book Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. A modified version of the Tartine Bread recipe can be found at The Tart Tart.