Why bakers are nerds
I always loved cooking and specifically baking. As a kid, my mom used to cook great stuff at home, but she never really baked. So, quickly, I decided to jump in and try things myself. From simple cakes to the Fraisier you see in the back right now, I never stopped experimenting.
Just like with programming, you start with an idea that you feel is new, or you may just be remixing something you have seen, inspired by somebody’s work. I use a simple pen and a notebook, and I sketch. Later on, I take a picture and then colour things on my phone. Sometimes I end up following the sketch, sometimes I don’t. Again, just like with programming.
You get a great dessert through great execution, great recipes but ultimately you need first great ingredients. From the flour you use to the butterfat your butter contains (82% minimum), to the quality of your fruits or chocolate, everything matters.
Each flour has a different protein level, varying from 7–8% for cake flour to 14–15% for bread flour. The higher the protein level, the more gluten will develop and the better rise you will get. But beware, too much protein will develop too much gluten, and your dough will be too dense. Very high protein flours are used for baking bagels for instance, where you need something dense and elastic.
Through the help of your electronic scale, you weigh cautiously every ingredient, thinking about the room temperature and overall humidity which will impact the proportions. Through experience, you will see how a cream or dough behaves and you will adapt and correct things if needed, but remember that unlike programming, there is no undo or version control. Some things are fixable, but lots are not, oh yes, I have thrown so much in the bin, breaking my heart and challenging my nerves.
So you experiment, with a lot of concentration, thinking about these great ingredients you can’t waste and constantly try to combine the best of the best to get to perfection, which you will probably never achieve, but that’s fine, that’s what will keep you running and learning and share great things with people around you.
Because it takes so much time. The process of fermentation fueled by yeast, to leaven the dough, is by itself a pure patience effort. Mixing flour and water together will produce, after a week, a living culture (called levain in French also known as sourdough) that can be used as natural yeast to leaven any dough.
It will take much more time to rise, but your bread will have this amazing balanced sourdough flavour. Your bread contain at the end 3 core ingredients: water (800g), flour (1000g) and sea salt (20g). Bakers think in percentage, which will give us: 80% hydration, 100% flour, and 0.02% salt.
That’s it. Nothing else.
A croissant, as simple as it looks, is the result of great engineering. The quality of the butter is the most important part, a butter with insufficient butterfat will break when folded, 82% butterfat minimum is the key to great flexibility. Too much butterfat will force you to sheet faster, because the melting point temperature is lower.
3 foldings are required to get the layers you love on your croissants. Between each fold, 1 hour of resting time in the fridge is recommended. This will ensure that the butter and dough stay cold so that they never blend. After many iterations and documenting I discovered that during Pastry world cups, chefs place the laminated dough in the freezer for 10 minutes only. This brings the dough temperature down in record time, but beware, a few additional minutes and your butter will freeze. It is all about precision, concentration, and staying focused.
For an optimal sheeting, you need to start with a slab of butter that’s perfectly flat. Active search on the web got me to this technique, where the butter is captured inside parchment paper then flatten down with the rolling pin. Placed in the fridge for a few minutes, this will give you a perfectly even slab of butter ready to be sheeted. This technique is one of my favorite discovery. I still thank the person behind this technique every time I use it.
You should see the layers before you cook your croissants, if you do, you are on your way to beautiful layered croissants. After rolling, you will need to practice your patience skills and wait 3 hours so that the croissants rise and become puffy before baking them. Again, the overall humidity is important, the dough will rise in a warm and humid environment, so you will need to recreate that. A great technique is to place them in your oven (turned off) with a bowl of boiling water, the steam will create a perfect environment for your croissants to rise gently and beautifully.
Once puffed, bake them and enjoy. What is more beautiful than these flaky buttery recursive layers encapsulating delicious chocolate?
I always use high quality chocolate, a 72% Araguani (Valrhona) dark chocolate from Venezuela. This makes the chocolate croissant less sweet, gently bitter, which makes it perfect for adults.
Sometimes I just stay in front of the oven window, just to see them rise. It makes me look like Rain Man a bit, but just taking the time, and pause for a second is good. I even thought of recording the baking process with a camera so that I can time lapse the cooking process inside the oven.
It’s like a bug, something went wrong. Incorrect proportions, bad execution, water too cold, too warm outside, it will be a challenge to find out and also frustrating, but this is where you truly learn. I gave up on some things for a while, then came back way later, just like with programming, if I have to stay till 3am to fix that bug I will, same thing for baking I will find the solution. After a few days of experimentations, I was able to find the problem. My proportions of sourdough were wrong and I did not give enough time to ferment and rise.
Initially, my first croissants looked terrible too, and unlike bread, this was much harder to improve. It took me around 6 months of iterations to get to the result I wanted, with a beautiful honeycomb inside.
It turns out, the croissant requires a beautiful balanced protein level. Like I mentioned earlier, the protein of the flour is what transforms into gluten when water is added, the more gluten, the more elasticity. Therefore, this determines its rise when baked. People tend to think that because of the flakiness of a croissant, a low protein flour is preferred, it is actually not the case.
In my experiments, I discovered that to get the rise needed to develop a beautiful honeycomb, a flour with higher protein levels actually makes a big difference, but too high in protein will develop too much gluten during the mixing and sheeting, making your dough very elastic and hard to sheet. In other words, your dough will shrink a lot after you cut it, messing your measurements and using the rolling pin to fix it will alter the butter/dough layers and run your layering.
Because practice makes perfect. Scoring breads over and over will give you the nice pressure and angle you need to get a beautiful crust. You should be able to lift your baguette through one of the ears on the crust, if you can, you did a good job, if you can’t, you should figure out what happened.
Over time you will master proportions just by feeling ingredients together and you will start modifying the original recipes that got you started. Just like with any field, repeating things over and over will give you great dexterity. So I bake batches of croissants, chocolate croissants to improve my techniques. This makes my colleagues happy when I bring this to the office in the morning. I recently introduced a donation box, I drop these baked goods in the kitchen in the morning and people can give whatever they want. This allows me to buy flour and butter, my primary ingredients for anything I do.
When you look at a Saint-Honoré, from Ladurée (Paris), the execution is beautiful, from the glazing, to the piping of the crème Chantilly to the placement of the raspberries and rose petals. Only practice and practice will bring you to this result. Producing a beautiful Saint-Honoré is one of my next challenges. What we don’t see on this picture is that the puffs are actually filled with another cream, called crème chiboust. Which is a mix of a pastry cream and Italian meringue. So you end up preparing 3 different creams, a glazing for the puffs, a Chantilly, a Chiboust and a puff pastry. Advanced pastry chefs use what is called an inverted puff pastry, which is even more crumblier than the puff pastry you know.
The secret is that the butter is not captured inside the dough, but the opposite. With inverted puff pastry, the butter sits outside the dough and captures it through sheeting. Let me tell you that you’d better be fast, work with exceptional butter with high plasticity and in a cool environment or this will be utterly messy and hard to realize.
Sharing with your family and friends the result of that work is one of the most rewarding experience. Giving the bread you baked to your family or friends has something unique about it. I thought of it for a while and my take is that bread is a simple thing right? But still, such a core element of our alimentation (at least in the West), and being able to produce bread and feed your family makes it very special. Last year, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, which is an auto-immune disease preventing my pancreas from creating insulin. Insuling is what controls the sugar in your blood and, so eating carbs is hard for me, I need to inject insulin to prevent my blood sugar from sky rocketing. Therefore, I cannot eat most of these things I create. Actually I could, but it would be challenging. If I bake during the night and I need to taste something, I usually spit things out, just like you would taste wine.
Trust me, spitting out a delicious buttery, flaky croissant is tough, seriously tough.
But what keeps me going is this whole journey, trying, failing, recovering and sharing successful experiments with people around me. Disconnect from my everyday job and still practice these important skills.
I hope you enjoyed this! If you’ve read this far, then you are probably also a potential baker, a nerd, or simply someone who enjoys the good things of life.
To the staff of life! (<- my favorite bread blog for recipes).