Like many breads, the history of croissants are just legends and tales. Supposedly, croissants were first created in Vienna in 1683. The Ottoman troops had successfully invaded Vienna for the second time. The enemy came to attack stealthily at night, but the Viennese bakers warned the Ottoman troops about the pending attack. The Ottoman troops prevented the attack and there was tremendous celebration. The bakers created a horchen (small horn) which was in the shape of a crescent moon, like that on the Ottoman flag. If that’s too far-fetched, another tale is that Marie-Antionette made croissants (as well as brioche) popular in France in the late 1700s.
More likely, a cake in a crescent shape was created in the mid 1500s, and served at a royal banquet. They gained popularity from there, and are essential to every breakfast in France.
Croissants are a cross between pastry and bread. They use an enriched dough which is laminated, or folded, with butter. This creates layers of dough and butter, which creates a flaky, rich result. Croissant dough is very similar to puff pastry, except that it uses yeast.
For spring break I flew out to California to visit my brother, Evan. We both were excited to try out some new recipes. The choice came down to two: croissants and doughnuts. We decided that doing a laminated dough would be fun, and as a bonus, we actually had all the ingredients to make them.
We had three similar recipes- one Evan already tried, one from the San Francisco Baking Institute, and Cooks Illustrated. Being our normal selves, we chose Cooks Illustrated because their philosophy is to test recipes until they’ve created a perfect result.
We began the croissants the afternoon before we wanted to eat them for breakfast. We began by mixing the dough: flour, (a tablespoon!) of yeast, sugar, salt. Then, we added cold milk, and mixed until it formed a ball. The only problem was that it was extremely wet-we had to add at least a half cup of flour! I’m not sure if it was the recipe (many of their recipes tend to add too much liquid) or just that other variables were off.
Much like when I made brioche, I added room temperature butter until it incorporated to create a satiny dough. It was still very sticky, and the mixer wasn’t fully kneading it. Evan kneaded the dough by hand until it passed the windowpane test.
The dough portion of croissants was complete; we put it in the fridge to rise for the first time. Meanwhile, we would begin to make the butter package to laminate the dough with. Evan took out butter from the freezer, and I cut it into tablespoon pieces, as per Cooks Illustrated’s instructions. However, this proved counterproductive and made the process difficult and tedious. With a rolling pin, we unsuccessfully tried to smash the butter together with flour and into a square. Disheartened, we put the lopsided butter package back in the fridge. After a few minutes, I decided to put the butter package between layers of wax paper. The butter had softened, and it formed a square much easier than before.
After the first rise, Evan rolled the dough into a 11 inch square. He laid the butter package diagonally on the dough, and folded the edges to the center. Then, Evan hit the dough with the rolling pin to soften the butter and to force it into a square. Next, he rolled it into a 14 inch square, and folded this in thirds. Turning the dough the other way, he folded it again in thirds and let it rest in the fridge for two hours.
By folding the dough in thirds, we were creating the quintessential layers of a croissant, or any flaky pastry. After it rested in the fridge, we gave the dough another two folds, for a total of four folds. We let the laminated dough rest overnight in the fridge.
The next morning, Evan rolled the dough out into a 20 inch square. In the bakery, we use a croissant cutter, which cuts the dough into perfect triangles. Instead, we cut the dough in half lengthwise, and then into thirds widthwise. With each 6th of the dough, we cut it on a diagonal, to form triangles.
Evan and I stretched the dough to elongate the triangle. Then, we cut a slit in the top. Instead of how Cooks Illustrated forms their croissants, I showed Evan how we make them in the bakery. With the slit away from me, I used a pulling apart, rolling forwards motion towards myself. This forms a croissant with five rolls. Then, we pulled the two ends together to make them in the shape of crescents. For a few of the croissants, we shaved chocolate over the dough before rolling them up.
We let the rise for the final time while we went out to the farmer’s market. After we arrived, we preheated the oven, and I brushed them with an egg wash.
We put them in a 400F oven, where they puffed up immediately. However, the croissants were beginning to become too dark before they were cooked in the middle. We turned down the oven, and baked them for about 20 minutes total. It was also a lot of fun baking with my brother-I can’t believe that we’re 3000 miles apart.
After they cooled, I ate my croissant with some homemade strawberry jam. I had never made a laminated dough besides at the bakery, and it was so satisfying to make croissants at home. I always was under the assumption that they would take up a ton of time, but honestly, it only took about 2 hours of hands on time. I can’t wait to experiment more with croissants; maybe I’ll even try to make naturally leavened ones!