Pretty Dishes

Pain au Chocolat
January 7, 2011, 2:14 pm
Filed under: Recipes

A couple of months back I noted my purchase of Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day and my desire to make perfect pain au chocolat. At the time I had no idea how possible this actually was. It was exciting to discover that, despite not being a particularly practiced baker, I can make a pretty decent croissant.

I have made pain au chocolat twice now, and since only practice makes perfect, I have learned a few things each time that will improve my results in the future. But the fact that I really did end up with something resembling (both in appearance/texture and flavor) a croissant after the first attempt was quite a revelation. I was positively giddy—I may have even squealed.

Now, let me be clear: making croissants is no easy task. I am certain that the reason I had great results was because I followed the ingredients (including weighing every single one to the exact gram) and instructions (if it said stir for 1 minute, you bet I had a timer sitting there) to a T. I read and reread the full recipe at least four times before I started, and then I reread parts of it again and again before attempting each new process. It was an obsessive endeavor that required my full attention and an entire day of work. Croissants are not something you can make impulsively, but if you plan ahead, they are well worth the effort, if for no other reason than to brag about being able to make them.

It would be silly and unfair of me to copy Mr. Reinhart’s carefully detailed ten-page recipe here, so I’ll just talk through the basic steps that accompany my photos. (Which is plenty long as it is!) Even if you don’t care about making croissants, you really should buy the cookbook; it contains a fantastic selection of breads, and the author provides such helpful tips and instructions that it’s hard to fail. There are also numerous process shots to illustrate the trickier steps.

All right, here we go. The first step is preparing the initial dough (called the détrempe), which is rather moist and shaggy. This hardly takes any time at all (maybe 15 minutes total), but everything that follows is pretty intensive. The détrempe has to sit in the refrigerator overnight (there is no hour minimum provided, but I assume 8 to 10 hours is required) and for up to 48 hours. Next time, I’d like to let it sit for two nights and see if the flavor deepens or the dough quality changes, but I’ve only left it overnight so far.

The next day, you’re in deep and shouldn’t make any plans to leave home for several hours (you do get a few breaks while the dough is proofing, but not very long ones). The process starts with forming the butter block that will be incorporated into the détrempe.

You roll out the dough into a rectangle that will exactly fold over the butter block, then you roll it out again to incorporate the butter. This second rectangle is folded into thirds and left to rest for 20 minutes. This process is repeated twice more before the dough is rolled into a much larger rectangle and then cut into strips. Rolling the many rectangles is my least favorite part of the process since it requires incredible patience due to the fragility of the dough as well as its refusal to be perfectly squared off.

While the dough was resting, I made the chocolate batons for the filling. The recipe in the book makes about double what is necessary for the yield of 8 to 10 croissants, so I actually saved the leftover batons and used them the second time. I stored them in a durable Ziploc bag in the pantry, and they tasted fine even after two weeks.

After cutting the dough into strips, you load them with the chocolate and roll them up.

At this point, you have two options. You can let the croissants sit at room temperature for around 3 hours, or they can be refrigerated or frozen for later baking. With my first batch, I baked half of them immediately after proofing and put the rest aside in the refrigerator until I had tasted the finished ones. I baked the second half later that evening. With my second batch, I immediately put the rolled croissants in the freezer overnight, then removed them the next morning to proof at room temperature before baking. I didn’t like how these frozen ones baked up quite as well, probably because I don’t have the ability to flash-freeze them. Therefore, I would advise proofing the dough at room temperature (or move to the refrigerator) to bake them the same day.

The good news is that once they are baked, the croissants store well in a large Pyrex dish with lid for at least two or three days. If they go into plastic bags they start to get moist, soggy, and stale, so be sure to keep them dry and stored in a cool place for only a few days tops.

The baking isn’t a hands-off ordeal either. For the first half of the first batch, I followed the book instructions exactly: I proofed the croissants at room temperature; preheated the oven to 450 degrees F 20 minutes before baking; reduced the temperature to 375 degrees F immediately upon putting in the baking sheet; baked the croissants for 15 minutes; turned the pan around; and then finished baking at 375 degrees for 7 minutes before reducing the oven temperature again to 325 degrees F for the final 8 minutes or so (because the croissants were browning too quickly).

For the second half of the first batch, I let myself experiment a bit: After proofing at room temperature, I refrigerated the croissants for about 2 hours then removed them from the fridge 20 minutes before baking. I used my oven’s automatic convection conversion settings based on the traditional oven temperatures. Therefore, I preheated for 20 minutes at 400 degrees F (convection) before reducing the heat to 325 degrees F (convection) immediately upon putting in the baking sheet. I baked the croissants for 15 minutes before turning the pan and continuing to bake at 325 degrees F (convection) for the final 18 minutes (they weren’t quite ready after 15 minutes).

The first half of the croissants were more browned overall, especially on top. They didn’t taste burnt by any means, but they were too crispy and overdone for my preference. The second half were more of a light golden brown and had more even coloring. I much preferred them to the first half.

As mentioned above, for my second attempt, I froze the croissants on a baking sheet before proofing them at room temperature for 3 hours the morning of baking. I failed to recall my excellent convection success from the first round (word to the wise: keep all your notes with the recipe to be easily located . . . ), so I baked them much like I did the first half of the first batch, though I watched the croissants closely and kept them from getting too crispy on top. Unfortunately, I felt like the layers weren’t quite as distinct and flaky after freezing, though otherwise the croissants were great. (None of my guests noticed any problem.)

After baking, the croissants have to cool for 1 hour before they can be eaten or stored. They can be left plain or dusted with powdered sugar. If you’re storing them, I recommend waiting to dust them until serving. They are also huge and nearly impossible to eat whole, so be sure to cut them in half before diving in. Sadly, I failed to snap a photo of a halved croissant displaying all the lovely layers inside.

So, there you have it, the miracle of croissants has been demystified. My apologies that this post takes almost as much time to read as it does to just get out there and make pain au chocolat yourself!


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I made mention of you and your lovely croissants on my blog today. Go check out your greatness.

Comment by Tara

You are officially my hero. Wow! Holy crap! I want to go to there.

Comment by meosima

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