Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Daily Special: Croissants

I’ve noticed that whenever I do post a recipe (which is rare, I know), it’s usually for  a dish I’ve unthinkingly concocted in 10 minutes or less, about which I think as I sit down to eat,  “Huh.  Not bad for not paying attention.” This is not to say that I don’t enjoy spending two days roasting bones in order to make beef stock to then make a brown sauce simmered for hours to go with a pastry encased mushroom stuffed beef Wellington.  Or a different two days individually roasting and frying a multitude of aromatics and chiles, grinding them each by hand to make Thai roasted chiles in oil, then making my own coconut cream by cracking open a coconut, prying out the meat, shredding it, squeezing the flesh in water the traditional minimum of 89 times and collecting the sweet smooth cream that rises to the top of the mixture, both of which are then used (along with other ingredients) to make the best sate sauce you’ve ever imagined.  Or spending a half day pulling each nub off of dried posole grains so it “blooms” properly in that cozy winter stew.  Or peeling a mountain of fava beans.  Twice.  First the pods, then each individual bean.   I just never write about that stuff,  I don’t know why.

Yesterday morning I woke up and decided to make croissants.  If I started at that very moment, I might have them for a late night snack.  It’s a 10-12 hour project, although in this case, most of that time the dough is rising or resting and you are doing something else.  Like working on your Kawasaki.  Or painting your living room.  (Both of which I’m doing this week.)

Croissants are an ingenious trick of culinary origami.  With just a few simple foldings of yeast dough spread with butter, you end up with 54 thin layers of butter separated by 55 thin layers of dough. With a slightly more ornate folding system you can make fine puff pastry – 729 layers of butter lovingly sandwiched between 730 layers of dough.  So you see, the name "mille-feuille" ("thousand leaves") is not too far off the mark.  In case you were wondering.  Anyway, as your pastry cooks, the water in the butter turns to steam, puffing up and separating those ever-so-thin layer of dough.   What that means to you and me is light, buttery, flaky goodness on our breakfast plates.  Clever, huh?

Croissants 023
Les croissants avec le latte.  How cross cultural of me. Yes.  I had two.  What of it?

Here’s the recipe:
Go to your public library and check out “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck.  Turn to page 96 of Volume Two and follow the directions printed there.  It’s that easy.*   Well, almost.  Don’t use 1 1/2 tsp salt.  Use only one tsp.  Just my opinion, but I thought I’d pass it on.

Really, if you are at all serious about learning to cook, this is the one cookbook you should actually own.  Anything else is, you know, gravy.  Over two decades ago I bought my own copy at a bookstore in Cambridge.  I probably had to skip dinner for a week to afford it.  (It’s not expensive, it’s just that pesky starving artist budget of mine.)  It was my only cookbook for a good five years thereafter.  Fumble your way through as I did, and you will learn everything you need to know.**  You’ll know why one does this, why  one does that, and soon find yourself able to improvise at will with whatever is in your refrigerator.   Funny, I rarely pull it (or any cookbook) out of the shelf now, but I use what I learned in it for every meal.  Will you feel as awkward as I do trying to get my back wheel back on after a tire change without having someone else hold everything in line as I slip in the axle?  Probably.  At first.  But no kitchen toy or extra set of hands replaces the skills and knowledge you can not help but learn from these absolute timeless masterpieces.

* A few tips about working with butter in pastry. Slow and steady does not win the race.  Haste makes flaky pastry.  Be quick about everything you do, forgoing any urge to make things neat.  Leave your tape measure in the toolbox. The butter needs to stay quite cool as you work.  Although it is by no means necessary, you can spring for “European style” butter.  Its lower water content makes it more malleable (i.e. easier to bend to your will) when cold.  Don’t be a hero and try to do this in a 95 degree kitchen.  That’s akin to, oh, I dunno, tightening bolts using the wrong torque wrench.  You make do, but without experience…  well, you all know it can end badly.  I don’t have much of a choice in the matter with regards to kitchen temperature, living in Tucson without the aid of air conditioning, and I have been known to do delicate chocolate work with one hand as I balance a heavy cake with the other in front of the open refrigerator.    Yesterday, my kitchen was a good 90 degrees with the western sun blasting right onto my counters. I had 15 seconds working time, max, to form each croissant before it got too soft and after that the downhill slope is fast and steep.  “Real” pastry kitchens are climate controlled to arctic conditions.  Be sure to save the step where you beat the butter with a rolling pin for the moment you’re about to start hauling tools at the fence in the the back yard because you can’t reach the place where the hose clamp between the fuel filter and carburetor is supposed to go. It’s much more productive than breaking that expensive torque wrench.

** Yes, yes, there’s that movie, but I’ve mentioned that already once before.  I did laugh, though, as I caught myself reciting, word for word, after all those years, bits of “Mastering the Art…”  along with the protagonist during the movie.


Claudia said...

What a great post and SPECTACULAR looking croissants. I'm amazed that you could stop at two. Oh, and Julia Child rocks.

Paula said...

I didn't, exactly. I had one when they were done last night (THAT was the remarkable part). And the two for breakfast today. And... well, the day is young.