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I’ve always counted myself lucky that I grew up in a family of passionate home bakers. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been acquainted with the rituals of turning out cookies, cakes and various other sweets for all sorts of holidays and special occasions, or simply for a special treat to enjoy with an afternoon espresso. Having started to bake at a young age, I’ve overcome the fear of pie dough and choux pastry never really phased me much. I am a Cream Puff, after all.

In my own personal quest as a home baker, the holy grail has always been croissants. Now that’s scary! Words like "quarter turn" and "lamination" never failed to send a chill down my spine any time I even entertained the idea of trying croissants at home. But as with all epic battles, sooner or later you just know you’re going to be facing your enemy on the battlefield. In this case, the battlefield being your basic home kitchen.

Two recent developments gave me cause for hope in this Cream Puff versus croissants battle. The first was that in my Breakfast Breads course last fall, we made croissants in class. Under the supervision of a great instructor, and with the support of classmates, I survived my very first attempt at making these buttery pastries. The second development was that Brilynn, the funny and brilliant mind behind Jumbo Empanadas, suggested that the try their hand at croissants for January’s baking challenge.

For those of you who don’t know, the Little-Baking-Group-That-Could started with Lisa of La Mia Cucina and myself when we challenged each other to bake pretzels in November 2006. Our next challenge happened in December when we baked biscotti. Besides Brilynn, our little group had grown to include Peabody of Culinary Concoctions by Peabody and Helene of Tartelette. This time around, we’ve been joined by Jenny of All Things Edible and Veronica of Veronica’s Test Kitchen. Surely, with the help of my blogging friends, I could finally wrap my hands around the holiest of baking holy grails!

Once we’d agreed on croissants, the next thing we needed was a recipe. I’d recently become the owner of Tartine, a book by the owners of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Filled with the most delightful recipes for pastries, desserts and savoury treats, we figured we’d roll up our sleeves and make like real pastry chefs.

So last Friday night, I began what would become a three-day odyssey into the world of butter, yeast, flour, rolling pin and a serious lack of upper body strength on my part. It all started with the creation of a "preferment" on Friday night. The preferment acts as the starter for the croissant dough. It consisted of flour, yeast and water. After being allowed to rise for several hours, the result was a puffy, spongy mass that smelled strongly of yeast.

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Once the preferment was ready, it was time to create the dough, which would be the base of the croissant recipe. In my stand mixer, I combined the preferment, milk, flour, more yeast, sugar and salt. I was completely unprepared for the stiff dough that resulted from this mixture. It was so stiff that my trusty Kitchen Aid actually stopped working twice. I had to reset the machine and help it along by punching down the dough with my hands every now and then. I briefly entertained the idea of kneading the dough by hand, but I knew that my wimpy, pastry-cream filled arms would be no match. Instead, I continued with the mixer, adding a bit of milk to loosen the dough, all the while praying that my Kitchen Aid wouldn’t blow up. After letting the dough rest for 20 minutes and then mixing again, I finally had a ball of dough that was ready for its first rise.

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For an hour and a half, the dough sat covered in a bowl while I petted my Kitchen Aid mixer, promising never to put it through such hardships again. After the rest, the dough was popped into the refrigerator to continue rising for four to six hours.

Because of my busy weekend, I had no choice but to complete the croissant dough by staying up Friday night and waking up early on Saturday morning. So at about 4:00 a.m. on Saturday, I got up to begin the process of laminating the croissant dough. Laminating the dough means adding butter to the dough and then folding it several times so that the butter is distributed throughout the dough. This process is what creates the precious layers of butter and dough.

My refrigerated dough had grown quite a bit during its five-hour rest. Having heard from Brilynn, who had already baked her croissants, and looking at the size of the dough compared to my very limited kitchen counter space, I decided to divide the dough in half. Rather than dealing with one massively huge rectangle of dough, I only had to deal with two easier-to-handle rectangles. I rolled out my dough to roughly 14 x 6 inches and then divided almost three cups of butter between both rectangles. The butter was dotted over two-thirds of the dough. I then folded up the rectangles, business-letter style and turned the dough clockwise, a quarter of a turn. I immediately rolled out the dough again, and once again folded it up in thirds. At this point, it was time to refrigerate the dough because the butter was beginning to soften. The last thing you want is for your butter to get too soft and begin leaking out of your dough. So back into the refrigerator went the dough for an hour and a half.

After that time had elapsed, I once again rolled out both pieces of dough into 14 x 6 rectangles. The recipe called for the dough to be rolled and folded three times, but in my baking class, we’d rolled and folded our croissant dough four times. I figured it wouldn’t hurt so I went for the fourth turn. At that point my croissant dough was ready, however, I was not ready to bake it. So I froze both pieces of dough, in anticipation of baking them on Sunday morning. Saturday night, before going to bed, I removed the dough from the freezer and put it back in the refrigerator to thaw out.

At 5:30 on Sunday morning, I hauled my Cream Puffiness out of bed to begin, thankfully, the final phase of my quest. Deciding to make mini croissants, I divided each piece of dough into two, so I had four lengths of dough. I cut three of the lengths into triangles and rolled my croissants.

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I cut the fourth length of dough into smaller rectangles and filled them with pieces of Lindt chocolate. The croissants then had to proof for about two hours, before they were finally ready to bake.

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After a brush of egg wash, into the oven they went for roughly 20 minutes. By this point, I was a wreck. I was tired, my muscles were sore from rolling the dough and the kitchen was a total mess.

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But the winds of victory came blowing into the kitchen and I was refreshed! The smell of butter, a lot of butter, wafted through the air and I began to see victory on the horizon. While I was concerned about the fact that it seemed butter was melting out of the dough and pooling on the baking sheets, my croissants rose beautifully and turned a gorgeous golden brown.

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After removing them from the oven, I picked a few up and they were light as a feather, a sign that they had baked through. I pulled one apart to reveal a gorgeous interior filled with air pockets. And then I bit one. Pure crispy butter heaven! A bit on the salty side, but still, they were delicious.

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So was it worth it? The scars, the mess, the sleeplessness, the stress … was it all worth it in the name of croissants?

I would have to say yes. In the end, I’m glad that we did try this. And while I will not be trying croissant dough any time soon, at least I can say I cracked The Croissants Code.

I just wonder who’s going to play us in the movie version???

Ciao!

Check out the posts of my bakers-in-crime:

Brilynn:  I Also Like Butter

Peabody:  @#%^&*%$^& Croissants 

Lisa:  What Does a Lot of Dough + A LOT of Butter + 183 E-Mails Make?

Helene:  I Think I Read Wrong … Croissants?

Jenny:  Happy Croissant Day!

Veronica:  My Attempt to Make Croissants …

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