Step into any bakery of French or European influence, and the stimuli are plenty: colors of caramel, pistachio, apricot, and lemon; compositions of cream, curd, and crunch. Next to a sea of tantalizing contrast, the croissant recedes, destined to be perceived merely as ambiance. But at three Twin Cities bakeries, the croissant doesn’t need to vie for the customers’ attention. Chances are, it’s the reason they came.
Croissants are crafted by lamination, the technique of layering dough and butter. The process begins with a block of yeasted dough. A chilled sheet of butter is enveloped in the dough and rolled out. Next is the long and exacting dance of folding, rolling, and chilling. After the final rolling, triangles are cut and the croissants take their shape. They proof overnight, take an egg wash in the morning, and finally hit the ovens. That is, more or less, the sequence of events. If it seemed the least bit exhausting, steel yourself.
It’s Monday at Patisserie 46, and the front of the house is closed. In the kitchen, however, croissants are in production, and baker Andrew Mooney is making tracks. He grabs a book of dough from the cooler and walks briskly to the other end of the kitchen. While Mooney works, pastry chef and shop owner John Kraus explains that a dough block becomes a “book” once the butter is incorporated. Mooney runs the folded book through the sheeter, a mechanical rolling pin of sorts. Each time the dough is folded into thirds and passed through the sheeter, it’s considered one turn. Too many turns, Kraus warns, and you don’t get the distinguished layers of dough, butter, dough.
Even more critical to layer preservation is temperature. In textbook lamination, the dough and butter are the same temperature. The butter is pliable enough to stay flush with the dough as it’s rolled out, but chilled enough that it doesn’t get absorbed into the dough. Butter in such a textural state is said to be “plastic.”
Kraus grabs a day-old croissant off the rack, cuts it in half, and proudly displays the network of uniform air pockets contained within the crisp, dark crust. He knows he’s got a good thing going, but he’s hardly a croissant snob. “I never met one I didn’t like,” he admits.
Across city lines, Margo Bredeson takes a break from the helm of her namesake, Patisserie Margo. She talks about patience. “Croissants need to rise the right amount of time; you can’t hurry them.” She elaborates: Bake them too soon, and you’ve only allowed the outer layers to rise; the center is still dense. When the croissants enter the oven, the outside will rise quickly, leaving the inner layers behind. That’s when you get a croissant with a big gap in the middle. As Bredeson explains this, her gestures get bigger, her voice impassioned. She’s love struck, digressing into reverence for the layers and leavening properties of butter. She stops short, having rendered herself almost speechless. “It’s just… wonderfulness,” she concludes.
The last stop is Rustica, where head baker Tammy Hoyt introduces the pre-ferment. She’s the first to bring it up, and it’s evident why. Artisan bread is Rustica’s raison d’être, and pre-fermentation is essential in developing complex flavors. For the croissants, Hoyt uses a sponge pre-ferment. It’s a portion of the recipe’s flour, water, and yeast that’s mixed a day in advance, so the yeast can get a head start converting the carbohydrates into flavorful byproducts. According to Hoyt, the resulting croissant is more tangy and buttery, with a more pronounced wheat flavor.
She decides that she could tolerate a lower-quality butter, as long as the dough is pre-fermented. “I can always tell when it isn’t,” she says. “The taste falls a little flat.” (Note: Kraus also uses a pre-ferment; Bredeson does not, relying instead on a long, slow fermentation.)
These three bakers were consulted only after a single-judge vetting placed their croissants above all others. Any croissant from any one of these bakeries receives this writer’s stamp of approval. However, suggestions are in order:
The almond croissant at Patisserie 46
The first bite reveals a remarkable crunch. Crepe-paper-thin layers of crust are sealed tight, hardened like a cast. The crumb inside is moist and mingled with almond cream. The secret: It’s a day-old plain croissant, sliced and resurrected with orange blossom water. A thin layer of almond cream (browned almonds, powdered sugar, butter, and rum) goes in the middle, and a coating on top holds the slivered almonds secure as the pastry weathers the oven a second time. Out of the heat, it’s one light dusting of powdered sugar away from being the flashiest croissant in the building, and the best-selling.
The chocolate croissant at Rustica
Sometimes called pain au chocolat, this cuboidal pastry is made by cutting the laminated dough into a square and wrapping it around two batons of chocolate. At Rustica, the impossibly thin layers of the chocolate croissant curl under themselves like breaking waves. You could probably count more than 50 of them if you took the time. Inside you’ll find the evenly spaced batons (Hoyt uses Valrhona dark, 55% cocoa), still soft to the bite.
There’s one potential complaint here, and that is dryness. Rustica’s croissants spend a little extra time in the oven to help maintain a crisp exterior over time. Although this makes for notably dark (read: beautiful) croissants, a bit of moisture is bound to be sacrificed.
The plain croissant at Patisserie Margo
You’ll see them right away, in a basket on top of the bakery case. Handles turned in toward the bulbous middle, each croissant has a plump, contended look -– almost Buddha-like. Pick one up and it’s light as air, the fluffy white interior bound by a crust that crackles at slight pressure. Break off the crunchy handle and let it burst into shards between your teeth. Then draw out the butter-laced interior, the gossamer layers unfurling to the point of translucence. They’ll come in handy when it’s time to sweep the flakes that confetti your plate.
These croissants are the products of quality ingredients, refined technique, and the utmost respect of their bakers. That respect is difficult to muster until you’ve experienced firsthand what it’s like to be at the beck and call of a block of dough.
With that, it’s your turn – but not without a little advice.
Croissants at Home: Tips from the Pros
1. Bread flour or bust. You’ll find quite a few croissant recipes that call for all-purpose flour; some recommend a combination of all-purpose and cake flour.
The reasoning is that these flours have a lower protein content, which will turn out more tender croissants. It would follow, then, that high-protein bread flour produces tough croissants. But there’s a reason why Kraus (above, right, in green shirt), Bredeson, and Hoyt all use bread flour. Its ability to form strong gluten bonds facilitates a stronger rise; that’s how you get that flawless network of air pockets. Avoid a tough croissant by mixing a weaker dough (that is, under-mixing) at the start, because the dough gets tougher with every turn.
2. It can only be butter. A lot of cookbook writers describe a tradeoff in regard to using butter or margarine in your croissants: Butter gives you better flavor while margarine gives you better layers. Indeed, margarine’s waxy quality and comparatively high melting point ensures that it won’t ooze out during rolling. Some bakers encourage a compromise: half butter, half margarine, for the best of both worlds. Kraus’s thought on the matter: “We don’t talk about those people.” Choose butter with a high fat content (83% or higher) for greater malleability. Beyond that, work quickly and adhere most strictly to tip number three.
3. Chill. The intervals in the cooler are crucial. This is when the butter solidifies, fermentation slows, and the gluten strands relax, making the dough more extensible during the next turn. Step away from the fridge and let the dough work it out.
4. Disengage, but don’t check out. The proof is the final rise before baking. As Bredeson urged, you can’t rush this. Underproof your croissant and you’ll have a dense block. Overproof it, and the air pockets will expand too much; when they hit the heat of the oven, they’ll collapse. Master the final proof (and everything else) and you’ll be left with, well, wonderfulness.
John Kraus, owner / pastry chef
4552 Grand Ave S, Minneapolis
Margo Bredeson, co-owner / pastry chef
5133 Gus Young Ln, Edina
Tammy Hoyt, head baker
3220 W Lake St, Minneapolis