Croissants & Pain au Chocolat

When given the choice of pastry at a well-stocked bakery, I will almost always choose a croissant.  I like a plain butter croissant rather than a pain au chocolat or an almond croissant.  I don't need anything to distract from those flaky layers of dough.  In my book, a croissant and a latte are breakfast perfection.

I first made croissants at home when we still lived in Boston.  I took a cooking class at Stir in the South End (which I highly recommend) and we cooked out of the Tartine cookbook and received a copy.  The croissants in the cookbook drew me in and I knew I had to give them a try, even if they seemed daunting.  The thing about croissants is that the actual hands-on time isn't all that much or particularly tricky, they just require multiple steps, rises, rests, etc.  If you start the process on Friday night, you'll be enjoying them by brunch on Sunday and you won't have slaved away in the kitchen all weekend.  I'd recommend determining when you want to serve the croissants and working backwards through the recipe to calculate your starting time.

Despite my preference for plain croissant, I live with someone who loves pain au chocolat, so I always turn about 1/3 of the batch into pain au chocolat.  This requires only that you have dark chocolate chips on-hand (you could use a chocolate bar broken into pieces as well) and that you roll them differently.  There is a good visual for how to roll pain au chocolat here and I've added the steps below.

Aside from getting to enjoy fresh-baked croissants at home, I find that I get immense satisfaction from making croissants from scratch.  I'm not sure if it is the intimidating layers or just that they sound complicated, but I really did feel quite smug the first few times they emerged from my oven.

A few tips:

  • Use high-quality, unsalted butter.  I usually purchase store brand butter, but I always splurge when I make croissant.
  • In the rolling process, be sure that the butter isn't melting as you are rolling out the dough.  It is best to roll out the dough in a cool kitchen (e.g., don't try to do this right next to your oven if it is on).  If you start to see that the butter is melting, put the dough in the refrigerator to chill.
  • Plan out the steps ahead of time if you need these to be ready at a specific time.  If you have flexibility, you don't have to worry and can let the dough chill for longer between steps.
  • I have made the dough and frozen it, which works well.  Just remember to put the dough in the refrigerator to thaw the night before you want to use it.
  • Be sure to create the right environment for the last rise (after you have shaped the croissants).  Our kitchen is quite cold right now (hello, winter!) and my rise didn't go as well as it has in the past because I couldn't find a warm enough spot (I even tried preheating the oven and letting them rise inside with the door ajar).  You don't want it too hot (you do not want the butter to melt), but if it is too cold, they won't rise.
  • Bake the croissants on a rimmed baking sheet.  They will drip butter and it will spill into your oven if you use a flat baking sheet (I speak from experience and a now-dirty oven).
  • You don't have to eat these all at once!  I usually keep about 4 out and place the rest in a large Ziploc for freezing.  I remove them individually and reheat them at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes.  Having a croissant for a treat in the freezer is amazing.

Homemade Croissant and Pain au Chocolat
Recipe from the Tartine Cookbook 
Yield = 12-16 croissants depending on how exact you are with rolling the dough and the number of croissants vs. pain au chocolat that you make

¾ cup non-fat milk (6 ounces/150 ml)
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (15ml)
1⅓ cup all-purpose flour (6¼ ounces/175g)

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon active dry yeast (20ml)
1¾ cup whole milk (14 ounces/425 ml)
6 cups all-purpose flour (28 ounces/800g)
⅓ cup sugar (2½ ounces/70g)
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon salt (20 ml)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (15ml)

Roll-in butter:
2¾ cup unsalted butter (22 ounces/625 g)

Egg wash:
4 large egg yolks (2 ounces/60 ml)
¼ cup heavy cream
pinch salt

To Make the Preferment:

In a small saucepan, warm the milk to take the chill off (between 80° to 90 °F). Pour the milk into a mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the milk, stir to dissolve the yeast with a wooden spoon, and then add the flour, mixing with a wooden spoon until a smooth batter forms. Cover the bowl with cheesecloth and let the mixture rise until almost double in volume, 2 to 3 hours at moderate temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.

To Make the Dough:

First measure out all your ingredients and keep them near at hand. Transfer the preferment and then the yeast to the large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed until the yeast is incorporated into the preferment batter, which will take a minute or two. Stop the mixer as needed and use a spatula to clean the bottom and sides of the bowl, folding the loosened portion into the mixture to incorporate all the elements fully. When the mixture has come together into an even, well-mixed mass, increase the speed to medium, and mix for a couple of minutes. Slowly add half of the milk and continue to mix until the milk is fully incorporated.

Reduce the speed to low, add the flour, sugar, salt, melted butter, and the rest of the milk, and mix until the mass comes together in a loose dough, about 3 minutes. Turn off the mixer and let the dough rest for 15 to 20 minutes. This resting period helps to shorten the final mixing phase, which comes next.

Engage the mixer again on low speed and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, a maximum of 4 minutes. If the dough is very firm, add a little milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. Take care not to overmix the dough, which will result in a tough croissant that also turns stale more quickly. Remember, too, you will be rolling out the dough several times, which will further develop the gluten structure, so though you want a smooth dough, the less mixing you do to achieve that goal, the better. Cover the bowl with cheesecloth and let the dough rise in a cool place until the volume increases by half, about 1½ hours.

Lightly flour a work surface. Transfer the dough to the floured surface and press into a rectangle 2 inches thick. Wrap the rectangle in plastic wrap, or slip it into a plastic bag and seal closed. Place the dough in the refrigerator to chill for 4 to 6 hours.

To Make the Roll-in butter:

About 1 hour before you are ready to start laminating the dough, put the butter that you will be rolling into the dough in the bowl of the mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until malleable but not warm or soft, about 3 minutes. Remove the butter from the bowl, wrap in plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator to chill but not resolidify.

Laminating the dough:

Lightly dust a cool work surface (I use a large sheet of parchment paper dusted with flour), and then remove the chilled dough and the butter from the refrigerator. Unwrap the dough and place it on the floured surface. Roll out the dough into a rectangle 28 by 12 inches. With the long side of the rectangle facing you, and starting from the left side, spread and spot the butter over two-thirds of the length of the rectangle. Fold the uncovered third over the butter and then fold the left-hand third over the center, as if folding a business letter. The resulting rectangle is known as a plaque. With your fingers, push down along the seams on the top and the bottom to seal in the plaque.

Second turn:

Give the plaque a quarter turn so the seams are to your right and left, rather than at the top and bottom. Again, roll out the dough into a rectangle 28 by 12 inches, and fold again in the same manner. Wrap in plastic wrap or slip into a plastic bag and place in the refrigerator for 1½ to 2 hours to relax the gluten in the dough before you make the third fold, or “turn”.

Third turn:

Clean the work surface, dust again with flour, and remove the dough from the refrigerator. Unwrap, place on the floured surface, and again roll out into a rectangle 28 by 12 inches. Fold into thirds in the same manner. You should have a plaque of dough measuring about 9 by 12 inches, about the size of a quarter sheet pan, and 1½ to 2 inches thick. Wrap in plastic wrap or slip into the plastic bag, place on a quarter sheet pan, and immediately place in the freezer to chill for at least 1 hour. If you intend to make the croissants the next morning, leave the dough in the freezer until the evening and then transfer it to the refrigerator before retiring. The next morning, the dough will be ready to roll out and form into croissants, proof, and bake. Or, you can leave the dough in the freezer for up to 1 week; just remember to transfer it to the refrigerator to thaw overnight before using (I've done this and it worked just fine).

Making the croissant and pain au chocolat:

When you are ready to roll out the dough, dust the work surface again. Roll out the dough into a rectangle 32 by 12 inches and 3/8 inches thick. Using a pizza wheel or chef’s knife, cut the dough into long triangles that measure 10 to 12 inches on each side and about 4 inches along the base.  If you would like to make pain au chocolat, divide the dough.  Slice the regular croissants as instructed above.  For the pain au chocolat, cut the dough in rectangles 4 inches wide by 6 inches tall.  

Line a half sheet pan (rimmed) (about 13 by 18 inches) with parchment paper. To shape each croissant, position a triangle with the base facing you. Positioning your palms on the two outer points of the base, carefully rolling the base toward the point. To finish, grab the point with one hand, stretching it slightly, and continue to roll, tucking the point underneath the rolled dough so that the croissant will stand tall when you place it on the sheet pan. If you have properly shaped the croissant, it will have 6 or 7 ridges.

 A rolled-out croissant.  In order to get the appropriate number of "ridges," I actually do measure out the dough using a ruler to ensure it is 32"x12".  It sounds anal, but it helps a lot with getting the right shape when you roll the croissants.

A rolled-out croissant.  In order to get the appropriate number of "ridges," I actually do measure out the dough using a ruler to ensure it is 32"x12".  It sounds anal, but it helps a lot with getting the right shape when you roll the croissants.

For a pain au chocolat, place the shorter edge of the rectangle facing you and place about 2 tablespoons of chocolate chips along the 4" edge.  Roll the chips and the dough away from you, creating a log.

 Rolled pain au chocolat - I always try to tuck the chocolate in at the ends so that it doesn't melt out during baking.  These definitely are a lot more "free form" than the croissants.

Rolled pain au chocolat - I always try to tuck the chocolate in at the ends so that it doesn't melt out during baking.  These definitely are a lot more "free form" than the croissants.

As you form the croissants, place them, well-spaced, on the prepared half-sheet pan. When all the croissants are on the pan, set the pan in a draft-free area with relatively high humidity, and let the pastries rise for 2 to 3 hours. The ideal temperature is 75 °F. A bit cooler or warmer is all right, as long as the temperature is not warm enough to melt the layers of butter in the dough, which would yield greasy pastries. Cooler is preferable and will increase the rising time and with it the flavor development. For example, the home oven (turned off) with a pan of steaming water placed in the bottom is a good place for proofing leavened baked items. To make sure that no skin forms on the pastries during this final rising, refresh the pan of water halfway through the rising.

During this final rising, the croissants should at least double in size and look noticeably puffy. If when you press a croissant lightly with a fingertip, the indentation fills in slowly, the croissants are almost ready to bake. At this point, the croissants should still be slightly “firm” and holding their shape and neither spongy nor starting to slouch. If you have put the croissants into the oven to proof, remove them now and set the oven to 425 °F to preheat for 20 to 30 minutes.

About 10 minutes before you are ready to bake the croissants, make the egg wash. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, cream, and salt until you have a pale yellow mixture. Using a pastry brush, lightly and carefully brush the yolk mixture on the pastries, being careful not to allow the egg wash to drip onto the pan. Let the wash dry slightly, about 10 minutes, before baking.

Place the croissants into the oven, immediately turn down the oven temperature to 400 °F, and leave the door shut for the first 10 minutes. Then working quickly, open the oven door, rotate the pan 180 degrees, and close the door. This rotation will help the pastries to bake evenly. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes longer, rotating the pan again during this time if the croissants do not appear to be baking evenly. The croissants should be done in 15 to 20 minutes total. They are ready when they are a deep golden brown on the top and bottom, crisp on the outside and light when they are picked up, indicating that the interior is cooked through.

Remove the croissants from the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool. As they cool, their moist interiors will set up. They are best if eaten while they are still slightly warm. If they have just cooled to room temperature, they are fine as well, or you can rewarm them in a 375°F oven for 6 to 8 minutes to recrisp them before serving. You can also store leftover croissants in an airtight container at room temperature for 1 day, and then afterward in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.  You can also freeze the croissants.  If you have frozen the croissants or do not eat them immediately, reheat them in the oven at 375 degrees before serving.