October 1, 2011

The Perfect Croissant - it's the butter!

After the success of our morning Macaron class, it was now time to tackle Croissants and Pain au Chocolat at Lenôtre Culinary School.  April hadn't signed up for this course, so it was just me as the lone American in this class. I might also add that this class was entirely "en Français" but thankfully, I was still able to keep up given my very poor French language skills. It did help that I had some French tutoring via Skype using a tutor at Verbal Planet that helped me with my culinary vocabulary. Did you know that there are at least 8 verbs that mean "to whisk?"

Naturally, we started off the class with a delicious espresso. The secret to a great croissant? Time and butter! The techniques that I learned in class had some differences from techniques that I commonly use when making yeast breads. As an example, the process of "proofing" the yeast is somewhat different; flour is sprinkled on top of the yeast and water mixture and put aside to sit for up to an hour until it starts to bubble over the flour mixture.

Croissant pastry is so flaky because of the many layers of butter (and it's a lot of butter!) that are created by a succession of rolling and folding the pastry, followed by a period of rest in the refrigerator. This is where the time factor comes in. It takes at least 8 full hours to create the actual pastry, followed by additional hours to allow the shaped pastry (croissants or pain au chocolat) to rise to its desired fullness. In order to complete the process in just 4 hours, we had available pastry in various stages already completed so we could replicate the steps in a shorter amount of time.

We had 7 students in this class, most of them French, except myself and one woman from Italy (who was living in Paris and fluent in French). Now that April was gone, I was now the top student and teacher's pet in this class. I guess I just know my way around the kitchen better than the other students, but Chef Philippe seemed to give me more tasks to do and used me as the "example" for how to properly roll out and fold the pastry (I had the best technique, although who doesn't know how to use a rolling pin?). Another factor could be that I am "larger" than the other students in class meaning that I had much more weight to put behind my technique, making "quick work" out of the process. You have to be quick so that the butter layered between the pastry dough don't soften up and start to melt into the dough. This was where many of the other students had trouble.

As was the case in our earlier class on Macarons, it was the tips and tricks I learned from Chef Philippe that you don't really read about in a cookbook that I think will help me replicate the beautiful pastries I was able to make in Paris.

We do have some ingredient challenges, as in the types of flour used in France (we used two different types of flour for the pastry) differ slightly from our American equivalents, but I think the proper balance of gluten content can be achieved by combining bread flour (higher gluten content) with either "all-purpose" or even a combination between bread flour and cake flour. I think I will need to do a lot of experimenting! Here's my pain au chocolat (these are my favorite) and croissants just about ready for baking.

And here are my beautiful finished croissants.

I think my entire family is waiting for me to get home just so I can bake them some croissants and pain au chocolat!

À bientôt!

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