I was going to write today about high blood pressure and food because I had a scare on my blood pressure until I found I had been misusing the machine. And besides I couldn’t find any interesting pictures - so maybe another time. I did health stuff yesterday after all.
Then we went to Doncaster and David was suckered into buying a huge box of croissants, so croissants it is. The opposite of health. Perhaps it’s a reaction to my scare.
NOT GOOD FOR YOU BUT OH SO DELICIOUS
Where to begin because there’s so much to say about this one kind of pastry - or is it bread?
To begin with the history. We think of croissants as quintessentially French. But actually they originated in Vienna as kipferi way back in the 13th century. Kipferi have the same crescent shape but look a bit more bread-like - not as flaky. There are all sorts of legends about their origins - mostly variations on victories over various moslem invaders, but I gather these stories cannot be substantiated and may be 20th century inventions. Nevertheless the legend persists enough for some Islamic fundamentalists to ban them apparently. Not the canny and practical people of Dubai I would have to say - they have absolutely delicious croissants in their luxury hotels.
So how did they get to France? Well in 1839 an Austrian artillery office set up a baker’s shop in Paris which sold many Viennese pastries, including the kipferi and they became very popular. You may have noticed, if you have been to France, that pastries and patisseries themselves are often labelled Viennoiserie(s) as a tribute to the origins of these pastries. Apparently also, there are no French recipes for croissants until the 1850s - so the croissant as we know it today is a comparatively recent invention. And isn’t it interesting that something we consider to be so French actually isn’t.
“The croissant is dignified — not vulgar like a piece of toast, simply popped into a mechanical device to be browned. No — the croissant is born of tender care and craftsmanship. Bakers must carefully layer the dough, paint on perfect proportions of butter, and then roll and fold this trembling croissant embryo with the precision of a Japanese origami master.” Association of French Bakers
In my youth they were a luxury item - now you can buy a box of at least a dozen as we did today for around 80 cents each. This, of course is due to the industrialisation of making the dough which is often then frozen before being shipped to the bakers for cooking. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t still artisan bakers out there making them from scratch. But it’s a complicated process. Julia Child gives a recipe in the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and says that it takes at least 11 hours to make them! This is because, contrary to what you (and I) might have thought, they are not simply made from puff pastry (complicated enough) but have yeast added to them too, so that you also need time for them to prove. I suspect that lots that you buy are actually just made from puff pastry but I really couldn’t say for sure.
"i have only limited tolerance towards all the rolling folding and turning involved in puff pastry. it is a process which gives me no pleasure. As in effect a croissant dough is just a yeast-leavened puff pastry i don’t often embark on making croissants. I have to admit, though, that at the end of it all i do tend to suffer from combat fatigue, and question whether croissants are really worth all the production involved.” Elizabeth David
Basically you make your dough then you slap on a huge amount of butter - Elizabeth David pleads that you never use any other kind of fat - though I’m sure that commercial croissants most likely do not use butter. Then you fold it over, roll it out, fold it over, roll it out and so on until you have all those layers, which have now become paper thin, shown above. And in between you have to leave it to prove. So I am in complete sympathy with Elizabeth David’s sentiments. I have never made croissants with yeast but I did make some Danish pastries once with home-made puff pastry. They weren’t that great after all that effort. So never again. And nowadays we can buy sheets of puff pastry and make them from that if we wanted to - or simply buy the excellent croissants you can now find everywhere - either at vast cost in a trendy bakery - around at least $5.00 for one in Doncaster - or a big box of them from Coles. I’m sure there is a difference in taste but it’s probably not that great. And the trendy is not always better. We had some very very ordinary croissants at the posh Lake House in Daylesford I remember. If you do want to try - at the end I give you Nigella’s oh so cheating, but oh so simple method for making chocolate croissants.
There are variations on the croissant around the world. On our recent trip to Italy we were fooled into buying what we thought were croissants - called cornetto in Italy - only to find that they were filled with a sweet custard - which was nice but unexpected and not really what we wanted at the time. More of an eclair kind of thing really. And almond croissants range from just being a croissant with a few almonds on top to cornettos stuffed with an almond cream to the pastry itself having almond meal in it. Ditto for chocolate croissants - it’s amazing really how one item can be so varied. It’s a testament to cooks’ creativity.
Croissants are definitely breakfast food - best served with more butter and jam to my mind - but others might prefer no butter and/or honey instead. But the variations on the croissant theme - which are endless I might say - include David’s favourite - pain au chocolat - it’s not called a croissant because, in France at least, it’s not a crescent shape. (I think croissant is French for crescent.) The Americans apparently are fond of the ham and cheese version shown earlier, or sandwiches made from croissants. I then raided my recipe database and found that you can also make a kind of cooked sandwich kind of dish (see above) - make a filling from whatever you want - the one above used brie cheese, pancetta and mushrooms so it’s really a trendy variation on the ham and cheese toasted sandwich.
And then there are multitudes of recipes for variations on the theme of a bread and butter pudding. The one above has marmalade in it but I have seen some with chocolate, some made with almond croissants, some with raspberries - well just about anything really.
“First, let me say that if I can do this, you can. As I have never tried to hide, I have no patience and even less dexterity. But this is child's play: indeed, you could consider getting children to make them. They certainly like eating them, and they tend to like eating what they make themselves even more.”
Makes: 12 croissants
375 grams all-butter ready-rolled puff pastry sheet
100 grams dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids or best quality milk chocolate bar for children)
1 large egg (beaten)
Preheat the oven to 220°C/gas mark 7/425ºF. Unfurl the sheet of pastry and then cut it into six squares.
Cut each square diagonally to give 2 triangles (they will appear quite small). Put the triangle with the wider part facing you, and the point away from you.
Break off small pieces of chocolate (approx. 1cm / ½ inch) to place on the pastry triangles, about 2cm / ¾ inch up from the wide end nearest you.
Then carefully roll from that chocolate-loaded end towards the point of the triangle.
You should now have something resembling a straight croissant. Seal it slightly with your fingertips and curl it around into a crescent.
Place the 12 chocolate croissants on a lined but not buttered baking tray and paint with the beaten egg. Bake for 15 minutes until they are golden and puffy and exuberantly, if miniaturely, croissant-like.