Let Them Eat Cake

Hello and welcome to Week 14! This week we’re looking into French pastry, specifically chocolate croissants.

Before We Get Started
It’s time to check in on our imaginary stock portfolio. The results are impressive, and you can find them here. I’m cautiously going to say that I think Jason Kelly’s book may well be worth the purchase price – and then some. But enough about money. Let’s bake!

First, a Small Confession
When I started this week’s little project, I was pretty convinced that there was no fast, easy way to make French pastry. But … five years ago, I spent two weeks roaming around southern France and fell in love with pain au chocolat (in English, chocolate croissants). Since then, I’ve wanted to try making them myself. And so, when one of my colleagues suggested that I look into life hacking French pastry, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Even though I didn’t think I’d be successful.

Finding a Recipe
Now that’s off my chest, I can tell you how I went about investigating the making of chocolate croissants. First I needed a recipe. Since this was French cuisine, I went straight to the master: Julia Child. My home library has a big book on baking, based Julia Child’s PBS baking show. Of course, she had one master recipe for croissants and several different variations.

But there was one problem. She wanted me to use a stand mixer. I needed a croissant recipe that could be made by hand. (Don’t get me wrong. I’d love a good excuse to buy a Kitchen Aid mixer. But that’s not why we’re here. )

A little more digging and I found “Pastries” by Pierre Hermé. Ta dah! He had a croissant recipe that was made entirely by hand. In the end, I combined his recipe and Julia Child’s method. (Her instructions for “making the turns” were much more straightforward. More about that later.)

A Word of Caution
My personal philosophy on recipes is that the first time you try one, you follow it to the letter. Next time, you can fiddle and adjust.

If you’re going to try making croissants by hand, give yourself an entire day. I’m not joking. I could not believe how time-consuming the whole process is.

Here’s the short story:

Mix up the dough.
Let it rise for 90 minutes.
Punch it down and put it in the fridge to rise for 60 minutes.
Punch it down again and put it in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough and incorporate the butter.
Fold it up, following Julia Child’s instructions.
Put it in the freezer for 30 minutes, and then in the fridge for 60 minutes.
Roll out the dough and fold it up, following Julia Child’s instructions.
Put it in the freezer for 30 minutes, and then in the fridge for 60 minutes.
Repeat this step two more times.
Begin swearing and wonder how much longer this is going to take.
Roll it out and do one last final extra-special folding job, following Julia Child’s instructions.
Put it in the fridge, have a glass of sherry and go to bed.
Get up early the next morning, roll out the dough, cut it into rectangles, and roll those around three pieces of dark chocolate.
Be astonished that all this effort only produced a dozen croissants.
Put the rolled-up croissants on a parchment-covered baking sheet.
Let them rise for at least the next two hours (they should triple in volume).
Brush them with an egg glaze.
Put the croissants in a hot oven for 20 minutes.
Taste them. Swoon at how incredibly good they are and immediately forget the herculean effort that it took to bring them to life. In your delirium, tell people that you can’t wait to do this again.

How Do You Hack?
The process of rolling out and folding up the dough is called “making the turns”. In essence, you are rolling out the croissant dough, folding it, turning it 90 degrees and repeating the process. This is what gives croissants their flaky layers and is not the place to scrimp.

I’m sure that there’s a classical French reason for all of the bobbing in and out of the fridge and freezer. But I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, unless your dough gets too soft to work with, or the butter starts to melt.

So this is my advice for life hacking chocolate croissants:

  • First, make up a batch the old-fashioned way, just so you understand what you’re doing.
  • The next time, cut back your dough-chilling time (except for that first hour in the fridge). Then, just dive right in and do all your turns at once. Your prep time will shrink by almost 50%.

This week, we used two books:

Baking with Julia
Written by Dorie Greenspan
Published by William Morrow and Company
Released Nov 4, 1996
ISBN 0688146570

Written by Pierre Hermé
Published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang
Released Oct 9, 2012
ISBN 1617690279

The Numbers
Between amazon.ca and chapters.indigo.ca, “Baking with Julia” averages out to $28.32 and “Pastries” costs an average of $37.00.

Chocolate croissants use very basic ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, yeast, butter and dark chocolate. Price-wise, it costs about the same to make them as it does to buy them in a supermarket. But there is absolutely no comparison on taste. Even your worst homemade croissants will be way better than supermarket ones.

But we can’t really put a price on taste, so that makes this week’s library life hack worth $65.32. Cha-ching!

A Moment of Random Fandom
I loved both of these books, for entirely different reasons.

I adore Julia Child. There is, in her writing and her cooking, a sensible but joyful affirmation of life that is so completely authentic, you can’t help but love it. She was joyful and life-affirming long before it was cool to use words like that.

“Pastries” is a huge, shamelessly gorgeous book, with glorious full-color photos on every other page. This is food porn on a scale that would make Jamie Oliver blush.  It’s worth your while to take this book out of the library, just to breathe in these beautiful pictures.

And that’s it! Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom of this very long blog post. I mean that. If you like, leave a comment and if you have a life hack you want to see me try out, drop me a line at LibraryLifeHack [at] gmail.com. Tune in next week, when we get an education on wine from the hilarious John Cleese. And until then, have a great week!


4 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Cake

  1. I don’t know if you care but I can venture a guess as to the extended fridge/freezer time! My guess is the flour to butter ratio is pretty darn high in the recipe, so if you don’t want tooth-breakingly tough pastry, you need to keep the dough cool. (When the butter melts too much, you lose the flake and gain the tough.) This is why when I make pastry – once every ten years or so! – I have to do as my Grandma taught me and keep putting my hands in cold water. Hot hands: tough pastry. I bet warm French days (in an era with no air conditioning) don’t help with this! Of course, right now, you could just go outside! This looks like a very promising life hack! Pain au chocolate should be a food group! 🙂


    • Hmmm … so you’re changing my thoughts about how to trim some time off this whole process. Even if the dough has to stay cool, you might be able to work in two of the turns without warming it up a lot. You’d just have to be quick with the rolling pin. Oh, my — you can just tell that I’m going to end up knee-deep in croissant-land again this weekend, can’t you? (And I don’t mean France!) Thanks for the expertise!

      P.S. I finally got my hands on a copy of 4-Hour Body this week. I’ll let you know what I think!


  2. I, Sally, have also made croissants from scratch. More than once, but not many times. You can shortcurt the folding a bit but keeping it cool is needed, as Leslie pointed out, so it’s a good winter activity.
    Then I discovered partially-baked croissants which were pretty delicious and could be freshly baked to eat right away! That’s the last time I made croissants.


  3. Hello, Leslie and Bev!
    I tried making pain au chocolat again on the weekend. Instead of shortcuts on the folding, I tried to work quickly and trimmed the fridge time to 45 minutes between folds.
    I’m a bit mystified by the results. The new batch are way flakier than the first ones (lovely!) but freakishly large. The yeast was very, very active in this batch.
    The timing was a lot smoother, as well. It’s still a long activity, but much more manageable. I’ll write up the new recipe and post it in the Check-Back section this week.

    Thank you both for your wisdom! You prevented a serious wrong turn. : )


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