Saturday, July 22, 2006

Favorite food. croissants. (Part 6).

Many croissants, probably hundreds, if not thousands, have been sacrificed to my search of the perfect one. In It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, Jeffrey Steingarten lays forth the numerous criteria for the perfect croissant. They should be: extremely flaky on the outside; very light in the hand; possessing a perfect balance in flavor between the sweet, the salty, and the acidic; easy to break in half cleanly, without destroying the croissant; moist inside, yet with all the internal layers visible; and preternaturally delectable.*

It is not difficult to find a decent croissant. Even Costco has perfectly acceptable ones, at least once they have been reheated in the toaster oven. They come in flats of a dozen, and I keep them in the freezer to toast as desired. Very good, even delicious croissants abound in bakeries wherever you go, so long as they are warm (a cold croissant is a very sad thing). But to find a truly sublime one, one that fits all of Steingarten’s (and mine) rules, is, as constant eating has proven, considerably harder to accomplish. In order to find the gold standard I would have to make my own.

I know it sounds insane, but I discovered quickly that making croissants is not difficult, but merely time-consuming. I found the recipe in Gourmet magazine, and I had to try it. It took all evening to prepare the dough, and then it had to rest overnight in the fridge before the croissants could be rolled out and formed. I rather seem to remember that after the croissants were shaped, they had to rest and rise for another hour or so before baking. There was also a complicated maneuver involving a spray bottle and misting the croissants just after they had been placed in the oven. That burst of moisture gave the dough one final rise before they baked to a crisp golden brown. I used whole milk and cultured European-style butter (both from Organic Valley), King Arthur flour, and a fresh pack of yeast.

A friend and I watched The Fellowship of the Ring, the extended version, with cast commentary, in between rounds of rolling out dough, folding it over a sheet of butter that had been beaten with a rolling pin until it was as malleable as clay, letting it rest in the fridge for an hour before rolling it out and folding it over again. The recipe promised that by the time I was done I would have a cool, flat rectangle composed of hundreds of alternating, paper-thin layers of dough and butter. When baked the butter would melt and caramelize between the layers of dough, and the croissants would blossom in the heat of the oven.

The results were incredible. Extremely flaky, check. Perfectly balanced between sweet, salty, and acidic, check. Moist inside but with visible layers, check. Preternaturally delectable, check check CHECK! Their only flaw was that some of the (two dozen) croissants were not perfectly shaped and a few had even begun to unravel. But they were better than anything else I had ever eaten, crunchy and tender all at once, with that indescribable taste of pure, fresh butter, a faintly tangy bite from the cultured butter, and a deeper, more complex flavor that (I feel) comes from using organic dairy products. When I bit into one, a shower of flaky golden crumbs scattered everywhere, revealing a creamy, tender, almost molten (though still clearly layered) core that actually streeeetched as I ate it. This is the standard to which all other croissants have been held against, and only a few have come close.

*Steingarten, Jeffrey. It Must’ve Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything. Knopf, 2002. p. 124.

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