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Going retro for real croissants

I’m not really a follow-the-recipe-in-the-cookbook kind of person. But I love looking through cookbooks that have interesting techniques. Learning to cook means, for me, being willing to eat your mistakes or half-good attempts and try again with tweaks. It also means playing with your food until it works for you.

So croissants are one of those things I try out again every once in a while, because the dough is really not as much trouble to put together as it sounds. Most of the time is just letting the dough rest in the fridge.

Mostly I keep trying because I’d really like it to work well eventually, as opposed to half-right. It’s something about the baking that’s always giving me trouble–the outside will be hard and the inside will be steamed and still doughy. Or else the things will puff up  enormously but will be more like a popover with absolutely no layering inside because the butter layers melted away into the dough during the long rise. Or if I roll them and bake them right away straight out of the fridge they won’t rise at all in the oven and they’ll be tough. Or they’ll be gummy. Or flat tasting. Or even a little bitter.

None of this would be so bad if it were just my own fault for noodling around with a classic. But the last few times I’ve tried to follow Dorie Greenspan’s instructions from Baking with Julia more dutifully than usual, and it just hasn’t worked out right at all. Worse, in fact, than some of my offhand attempts a couple of years ago when I changed nearly everything there was to change, starting with cutting the fat in half and ending with an almond-flour attempt that actually didn’t come out so far off. Except, of course, for the gummy insides.

Julia Child, "The French Chef" DVD from PBSBut last week I stumbled across the elusive two-part The French Chef series of DVDs from…not PBS, which is probably still out of stock, but…my local library. The disks (2 and 3 disks, respectively) are a bit scratched up and tend to halt at awkward moments unless you fast-forward or skip or rewind or whatever tricks I could come up with.

But there was a croissant episode from the late 1960s in black-and-white, just as I remembered the show from when I was 4 or 5 years old. So I watched it, wondering how dated it was, whether the old recipe was anything like the one she lent her cachet to in the mid-1990s with all her guest expert bakers, and what the results would be like. At the time of this early show, she’d been home in the States less than 10 years, had just delivered Mastering the Art of French Cooking a few years before, and was still extremely rigorous about everything. Or was she?

For the croissant show, she discusses different flours, the toughening effect they might have on the dough and how to counteract it with a bit of salad oil or by mixing 2 parts pastry flour to 1 part all-purpose. But then she includes a frozen commercial bread and pizza dough as a possible alternative to making your own yeast dough. Not the tenderest choice, she says, but for someone who doesn’t yet feel at ease making their own, it’s an encouragement to try making croissants at all, and it works all right. She’s astoundingly practical in these early shows even though some aspects of her cooking aren’t (exaggeratedly rich sauces for sole, for example). And I remember that back in those days, you couldn’t get real croissants in American bakeries. If you wanted them, you had to make them at home.

Dorie Greenspan’s modern, supposedly streamlined, layering process calls for cutting the butter into cubes and mixing them into the dough before rolling out, doing six “turns” with three rests in the fridge, cutting, stretching and rolling the croissant triangles in an elaborate way with some extra scrap dough in the middle for shaping, rising them for 2 1/2 – 3 hours, gilding with egg wash and baking at 350 F for about 20 minutes.

Julia’s 1960s version is somewhat different–more aggressive, and probably much closer to classic boulangerie technique. It’s also simpler. She makes a very simple milk-based yeast dough in a bowl with her hand and kneads it a couple of minutes, picking it up and slapping hard on the work surface, all while talking flour grades (you could talk Yankees versus Red Sox if you want–she probably could have too, come to think of it).

She takes a stick of butter and bashes it into a softened flat mess with a big solid rolling pin, then scrapes it up and flattens it into a square and rechills it. She lets the dough rise until double on a heating pad, then chills the dough. Then she takes the butter and the dough out of the fridge, wraps the square of butter in the larger piece of dough and then rolls and folds and turns and chills for a full 2 hours each time, but only for a total of 4 turns–2 sets of 2–before rolling and cutting out the croissants.

She doesn’t put an extra lump of dough in the middle when she rolls the croissants. She doesn’t stretch them a lot. And she does let them rise in a relatively cool room, but only for an hour or hour and a half until just doubled, then she gilds them with egg wash and pops them into a very hot oven, at 475F, for only 10-12 minutes.

Croissants after rising

Croissants after rising

And I’ll be damned, but it worked for me. I wrote down the recipe and tried it a few minutes after watching the episode. I let the dough chill in the fridge (it rose a bit  in there each time) and rolled and cut croissants the next day. They puffed right up but kept their layers. When I baked them, they puffed and browned very quickly. They were crisp outside and soft but still layered inside, and cooked through with no gumminess in the center.

Baked croissants according to Julia Child's 1960s version on "The French Chef"



The croissants I made were small ones, 3 inches across rather than the big honking 5-inch ones you usually see–always trying to limit the dietary badness here while still enjoying it. And they tasted good–even though I cut her salt way, way down from a teaspoon and a half to a scant half-teaspoon for 2 cups of flour and a stick of butter. Actually, I also used a little more than half margarine because I was nearly out of butter and it STILL tasted good and not plasticky.

They retoasted really nicely the next day (250F in the toaster oven for just a minute) . They also made a great impromptu dessert cut flatwise, with a square or so of dark chocolate and a dab of raspberry preserves sandwiched inside, toasted, and served with vanilla ice cream.

So sometimes it’s better not to mess with a classic. Go back to the 1960s, bash your butter or butter-margarine mixture into submission and smoothness before packaging it in chilled dough. Roll and turn just a couple of times and try like anything not to overhandle and toughen up the dough. Let it rest cold long enough to relax between turns. Roll and shape the croissants quickly, without fussing too much. And bake them in a really hot oven, not the standard 350ish. Be bold.

Classic 1960s French Chef-Style Croissants (adapted from Julia Child, “The Croissant Show” on The French Chef, WGBH-Boston)

Makes 12 big croissants, or 16 3-inchers

  • 2 c flour (mine was enriched unbleached bread flour; Julia Child recommended 1 part AP: 2 parts pastry)
  • 1/2 packet Fleischmann’s rapid-rise active dry yeast (Child uses a whole packet of the regular 1960s variety and proofs it; I didn’t bother)
  • 3/4 c milk (I used tepid milk and active dry yeast without proofing; Child proofed her yeast in 1/4 c. warm water with sugar and salt added and used only 1/2 c milk in the dough)
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1/2 t. salt (Child used 1 1/2 teaspoons! Half a tablespoon! That’s a lot, dammit!)
  • 4 T salad oil to tenderize the gluten in the dough (I used olive oil, because that’s what I had. Child says neutral-to-light flavored salad oil, and only 2 T if you use AP mixed with pastry flour)
  • 1 stick (4 oz./8 T) butter (or, my notes, not Julia Child’s, margarine, or a mixture, because that’s what I had in the freezer…)
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 T water to brush on the risen croissants at the end stages right before baking

Make the dough first: Mix everything but the butter together–it’ll be sticky. Knead with a bit of extra flour in the mixing bowl with a sandwich baggie over your hand, picking up and slapping the dough down hard several times, until it stops being sticky but is still soft and supple, like pizza dough. Form a ball, drizzle a little oil over it, cover the bowl with saran wrap, and float it in a larger bowl full of hot water or put it somewhere fairly warm to rise for a couple of hours until doubled–don’t let it overflow the bowl or anything, just double it.  Then very lightly deflate and chill the bowl of dough a couple of hours in the fridge.

Meanwhile, beat the butter or margarine. It has to be thawed but cold for this to work. I sliced the stick into chunks, stuck them in a plastic bag, and bashed them inside it a few times (very satisfying) until all the lumps were gone and the stuff was squishy but still cold. Then I patted it out in a flat square about 4 inches on a side and 1/4 inch or so thick, and put it in the fridge to chill. This makes the butter or butter/margarine mixture even, smooth, doughy and still flexible for rolling into layers later on.

After an hour or so, get impatient, take the dough out, flour a plastic wrap-lined board, flour the top of the dough, put on more plastic wrap and roll the dough into a big square about a foot across. Put the square of butter in the center, wrap the edges over and press it all down to seal the butter in. Flour again, roll it into a longish rectangle, fold in thirds like a letter, turn it over and roll the crosswise direction. Fold again, wrap, and chill 2 hours in the fridge so the dough will loosen up and not fight you next time. Do two more rounds of rolling and folding in thirds, chill again. Then roll out into a large sheet and cut in half–put half in the fridge to keep cold. Roll the remaining dough about 1/3 inch thick, cut into 6 big triangles (3 rectangles cut in half diagonally) with a pizza cutter for the 12-croissant version or 8 smaller ones for the 3-inchers. Or whatever floats your boat–I don’t think 4 gigantic ones would bake quite right, but then again I haven’t tried it, have I?

(Julia Child says lightly butter a baking tray; I didn’t bother but laid out the shaped croissants onto a length of unbuttered foil because I’m lazy.)

Take each triangle in turn, roll it out to about 1.5-2x bigger and a little more isosceles than right-angled,  so it’s about 5-6 inches on the edge that’s going to be rolled. Roll toward the far point, maybe stretching the length of the far point gently to get another turn in there, and lay point-side down on the prepared foil or tray. Take the other half-sheet out of the fridge and do the rest if you want them all at once.

You now have about an hour and a half. Cover the croissants loosely and let them rise in a cool spot in your kitchen for that amount of time, until just doubled in size (this will be a little hard to judge, but go with it).

Keep the trays away from the oven so the butter/margarine layers don’t melt out while you’re preheating. About 10-15 minutes before you want to bake, position the baking rack in the lower middle of the oven (per Julia Child, I’m not that picky). Crank up the oven to 475 F.

While you’re waiting, mix up the egg yolk and couple of tablespoons of water and paint the mixture lightly onto the risen croissants once or twice. Take a clean napkin and wipe up the spills a little so that pools of egg wash don’t start to scorch and stink up the kitchen. When the oven’s hot and you’re impatient enough, put the trays or foil sheets in very carefully and let them go about 10 minutes–check without opening the door at that point, and let them get to a good medium brown–not still yellow, but not dark–before taking them out.

Filled versions: You can fill them with a little dark chocolate or almond paste or spinach and feta filling or whatever as you roll them–just something not likely to spoil at room temp for an hour and a half. Or you can bake them plain, let them cool, split them with a sharp knife, fill and toast them very briefly at 250F for a minute or so in the toaster oven (on foil) as desired…

This is obviously not Julia Child, but I’m still saying, go retro for these croissants, go to your local library and hunt down the videos, and Bon appétit!

2 Responses

  1. VERY nice recipe and post

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