Yesterday, a dear friend came over to show me how to make croissants, one of my favorite pastries since childhood. To those of us who know this friend, we know that despite his bitchy, prissy exterior, we also know that he is generous, fiercely loyal to his friends, and patient with our neuroses (as we are with his). I was actually looking forward to this tutelage: after a Christmas dinner fiasco with gratin dauphinois, where I decided to add extra salt to Julia Child’s recipe, and it came out tasting, well, salty, I realized that perhaps I need to step down and become more humble in the kitchen, learning technique the way it’s written, and then later add my own spin to things. I haven’t been formally trained, and my past few months in my home kitchen has been the most time I’ve ever spent in that room.
My friend, on the other hand, has been trained. And after a café opened up around the corner from my apartment that sells amazing croissants for $2 each, I decided I needed to learn how to make them for myself, as I can’t afford to run down to the café every other day when I want croissants.
We made our first and fatal and mistake at the beginning of the process: my friend was showing me a short cut in the laminating of the dough (folding in a sheet of butter to the dough). He forgot for a second that we were making croissants, and thought we were making danishes. We rescued the dough from the fridge (which had only been in there for a few minutes), and brought it back out. We peeled off the butter, and then set to do a tri-fold (like a letter); however, we didn’t roll out the butter to the length of the dough, and because of that we thought that we had extra dough, and cut it off (he estimated we “forgot about” 200 grams).
Five hours later, when the butter started oozing out of the croissants and pain au chocolat while they were proofing in the oven, he realized the mistake we had made. We had cut off dough that was supposed to absorb and incorporate the amount of butter we measured out. Ah, well. It’s just food, as he said. Unfortunately this led to dense, heavy croissants (because the butter didn’t appropriately steam up the pastry), and we didn’t get as many as the recipe said we should (24 – we got around 16).
I have the recipe now, and will know better next time. My friend told me that he recently bought a cookbook for $4.99 at Borders. While the pastry and dessert recipes in this book are fairly standard, the feature that sold him was a section after each recipe. A series of photos called, “What Went Wrong?” It shows a fallen, cracked cheesecake (for example), and then explains what the baker might have done to achieve this accidental result. I loved this. I showed him a cookbook I got from my sister for Christmas: The Best Make-Ahead Recipes by Cook’s Illustrated. In it, they talk about all the different methods they tried out before settling on their final recipe; what works, what doesn’t, and why.
I’ve come to look at cookbooks, my mom’s experience, and the experience of others as a blessing to my own experiments in the kitchen. Every day in there is a test, but with the wisdom of others, added to my own experience with hits and misses, I learn a little more, and don’t make the same mistakes twice. And hell, I still have a box full of buttery goodness – and a day with a croissant or pain au chocolat (with Nutella) is still better than a day without, right?