Top bakers offer top tips for tasty croissants
The perfect croissant can take days to fold, roll and proof before its baked
Most of us can imagine enjoying a strong cup of coffee and a good morning pastry in our favourite café or at home in front of the fireplace during a cold winter.
The first among equals when it comes to that pastry is the croissant.
The rolled and puffed French crescent is layer upon layer of rich flavour and satisfying texture, and it is a guilty, buttery pleasure that is available in many forms and at many venues, from grocery stores to coffee shops to luxury resorts. But what is the essence of the croissant?
First, it's not originally French, though French bakers had embraced it by the late 1800s. In fact, the croissant is in a genre called "Viennoiserie," sweet, yeast-raised Viennese pastries that likely originated in the 1500s in the Middle East. Those early baked goods were more dense than today — it was French bakers in the early 20th century who added the idea of layers.
Layers of flavours
With those layers, a croissant (and even the humble breakfast Danish) is classified as a "laminated" pastry, in which thin layers of dough alternate with butter and are folded, turned, rolled out many times and rested in the fridge over three or four days to ferment: the more time the dough spends fermenting, the more flavour the croissant will have.
What results when the pastry is baked is a rapid expansion of the dough and a delicious chemical reaction: the outer layers dry out and become crisp; the inner layers remain moist and buttery — when done properly.
But the fact is, not all croissants are created equal. Bakers like Tavis Weber of Golden Hearth Bakery in Kitchener describes the aesthetics, flavours and textures of a proper croissant.
"I want a nice dark golden-copper crust. You should be able to see defined layers. When you squish it, it should crackle. When you bite it, it should shatter and then be nice and soft and open on the inside. It should taste like butter," says Weber.
Rachel Nicholson, pastry chef at Langdon Hall, says their three bakers will make about 120 croissants for a single morning on a typical weekend: it's an exact and time-consuming process.
"We're lucky we have the time to take four days to make croissants. That really creates flavour," says Nicholson. "Add to that the fact we use our own Langdon Hall butter. Depending on what the cows are eating, the croissants will taste slightly different."
Jesse Merrill, owner of Guelph's Polestar Hearth, makes croissants daily. For his traditional croissant method, he doesn't use a special butter.
"We don't need to," Merrill says. "We use regular butter, and the croissants turn out very well."
His Guelph baker colleague, Eric Chevalier at Eric the Baker on Carden Street, takes a more unconventional, if not out-and-out rogue, approach.
"I'm actually a very unorthodox baker. I've taken all the shortcuts I can out of the manipulation. Basically, I do a croissant in about six hours," says Chevalier, adding he holds back five or ten percent of the dough from the previous batch and adds it to the new dough, which acts as a starter. The process allows Chevalier to make hundreds and hundreds of croissant each week.
Technique and good ingredients
Weber, however, says a proper croissant is not an easy pastry to pull off: technique is everything. He says dough — flour, sugar, salt, yeast, milk, butter and water — is mixed on day one, divided into five-kilogram portions and goes in the fridge overnight. Over the next three days, the dough is rolled out and layers of butter are added.
"It's a process of folding and rolling before it is proofed, cut, shaped and baked," says Chevalier.
Both Golden Hearth and Ambrosia Pastry Co. in Waterloo use a higher fat butter than you get at the grocery store. And both source wheat from Quebec.
Sabletine Fine Pastries in Waterloo bakes a line of Viennoiserie that includes pain au chocolat as do Golden Hearth and Ambrosia. For the latter, according to co-owner Aura Hertzog, Saturday means selling out of a couple of hundred croissants by noon — after the three-day process of making the dough.
"There are two key ingredients for a great croissant. You need to have the best butter possible," Hertzog says.
"We use an 84 percent unsalted butter we get in 50-pound blocks. We then cream the butter to make sure we've gotten more water out. The other key ingredient is the flour. We've found one we are really happy with that comes out of Quebec."
Though the croissant is perhaps king, Ambrosia also makes kouign-amann, a lesser known Viennoiserie that is also royalty among laminated pastry and rare in this region.
"The ratio of ingredients is different," says Hertzog of the crisp and sweet lamination. "Because there is more sugar and butter in the dough, you get a caramelized, chewy interior as opposed to a crispy, flaky croissant."