my summer of croissants
In April of this year I decided to give myself the summer off because I was feeling stressed out, wasn’t sure if my job in product leadership was the right fit, and was distracted by the personal work I needed to do to figure out my marriage. Startup life can take a toll. My husband and I were at an impasse. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Lots of ambivalence, lots of guilt.
I figured I needed a break. Perhaps with some space all around, I’d get some clarity. I gave my boss six weeks’ notice to help with a small portion of my guilt, and planned to wrap up my job by the end of May.
As someone whose job it was to make sure everyone was working on the most important thing at all times, the idea of a free summer off felt a little scary. I do best with some structure, so I set out to organize myself a little summer camp of sorts. I figured this would keep me from watching movies every day, getting depressed and having nothing productive to show for myself, which was for sure my biggest fear. Here’s what I envisioned.
I figured with an entire season off, I could write some short stories, master croissant baking, learn Italian, collect all the paperwork required to apply for Italian citizenship, and hopefully get back to my piano lessons and catch up on some of the classics I’d never read. Weekends I could take off.
Why croissants? I’m not sure why I’d always considered them to be my white whale of baking, but it probably has something to do with how much I like eating them. I remember fully falling in love with them after moving to the West Village from New Jersey to start grad school. Patisserie Claude on West 4th Street had the best croissants–plain, chocolate and almond. Sadly, Claude has retired and the place hasn’t been the same since. The almond croissants still have that creamy filling in them, though, not just the heavy marzipan and candied almonds that everyone else seems to pack them with.
And let’s be real, this isn’t like firing out some chocolate chip cookies. As early as I can remember, people have been telling me that croissants are hard to make or are too much work (and to make something easier instead). I knew that it would take more than one batch to get it right. Perhaps such a level of difficulty could substantiate three months without a real job.
Batch 1 : We knew this wasn’t going to be easy
My first batch suffered from a lack of understanding of just how delicate the dough is, and how easily the butter can melt across the several steps along the way. For my first shot, I used this detailed recipe from Serious Eats. I had some challenges, and so I bet this recipe comes out better with some experience. (I have not yet tested it a second time.)
I pounded out this chilled block of butter into a square of parchment, and placed it on my rolled out dough, which I had made the day before. The dough gets folded around the butter, rolled, folded, chilled, rolled again, etc.
My favorite part: the book fold!
Dough can tear if it gets too warm or sticky! I didn’t use enough flour, or maybe didn’t keep the dough cold enough, so I had some trouble getting these guys off of the countertop without tearing them. If you look closely at these delicate triangles you can see some yellow butter peeking through along the bottom edge.
The thin butter layers will melt right out of those crescents if you try to proof (rise) them too warm! I learned this by putting a warm skillet of simmering water into the oven, but not realizing that I needed to wait for the oven to cool down before putting the rolled croissants in to proof.
The final form was tasty but nowhere near as fluffy and flakey as I wanted.
Luckily our dear friends Rob and Nichole were staying with us for John and Margaux’s wedding, and were ready to help eat these flat little experiments.
Batch 2: Close enough
This recipe worked out better for me because it was very specific about when to chill the dough in the refrigerator or freezer between folds. (Folds are the steps of rolling out and folding (“laminating”) the butter with the dough, to make the layers.) I had also learned from my mistakes last time and was much more careful about not letting the dough stick to the counter.
It’s also worth noting that this recipe is larger (has larger amounts of ingredients), but it makes fewer croissants than the Serious Eats recipe, so it makes sense that they turned out much bigger and poofier looking.
Once proofed, these guys were jiggly! And not melted!
As you can see, they flattened out a little while baking. I think refrigerating as soon as you think they’re done proofing helps keep their shape as tall as possible when you put them into the oven. The challenge there, of course, is clearing out room for two baking sheets in your fridge. Next time I’ll let them take turns in the fridge before baking. (I think the refrigerated ones are shown in the front here, if I recall correctly.)
I was quite happy with Batch 2, and immediately raced around Brooklyn, delivering them to my friends who were so kindly willing to eat them. (Thank you Hannah, Margaux, Tom and John. And of course Drew, my main eater.)
Batch 3: Cinnamon morning buns, my first baking riff!
Fresh off of Batch 2’s success, I was ready to try something new. I wanted to show off my dough lamination skills, and use another favorite treat as inspiration–cinnamon rolls.
So I rolled out my next batch of laminated dough as thin as I could without it tearing, and sprinkled a lot of cinnamon and sugar inside. Then I rolled them up and proofed overnight.
These were overall much easier to handle, and came out nice with little drama. While I did have to deal with the dough sticking to the counter while rolling it up, it helped that I didn’t have to cut out all those triangles and roll them up individually. The “snail” shape felt less temperamental.
They were pretty for sure, but a little boring. So I made a cinnamon glaze with powdered sugar, milk, cinnamon and a tiny pinch of cayenne.
With the successes of making relatively passable croissants, and then riffing on them, I’m ready to close this chapter of my life. Croissants are hard! I’m grateful to have had the time and support to check this achievement off of my list.
As for the classics, I did read Jane Eyre, thanks to my wonderful friend Julia!
And for my Italian Citizenship, I got pretty far, but Grandma’s names aren’t matching up, so her birth certificate might need corrections, which is no small task. I also have no idea if my requests made it to Italy, if they will be answered, and if so, whether they’ll make it back to Brooklyn. This is not an easy endeavor, but as they say, things that are worthwhile tend not to be.