It takes three days to make a croissant. Or more correctly, if you want a croissant, you have to make around a dozen and that takes three days. It can be done in two, but to make a really good croissant takes three.
Founded in 2013, Bread Ahead bakery and school in London's Borough Market is known for its croissant-making workshops. In the interests of brevity, the class is confined to the croissants' last three hours—after the dough has been made and left to chill but before the final kneading and shaping process. I went along to find out more.
At this point, a disclaimer is necessary: cooking is not really my thing. I'm into Jamie and Nigella, but I never cook and I'm never changing. Eating, on the other hand, is very much my thing, and croissants, especially from Bread Ahead, are highly edible.
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Now, I had heard that there is a lot of butter in croissants and I believed it. I may not have a palate refined enough to tell whether a croissant is sweet or savoury, but I do detect an unmistakable butteriness. Nevertheless, it has been my custom when eating croissants at home to butter them.
This is not something I shall be doing in future.
To say there is a lot of butter in croissants is not just an understatement, it's a complete misunderstanding of what a croissant is. "Croissant" is the name given to a shitload of butter, to which a small amount of pastry has been added and twisted into a crescent shape.
In fact, the key to making a good croissant, as Bread Ahead founder Matt Jones tells me, is "good butter." To make a really good croissant, you have to use really good French butter. Preferably Lescure. Why French? According to our to our teacher for the day, Manuel, "French butter has less water than English butters." Noted.
We're instructed to take 280 grams of butter and knead this into a small lump of pastry. I'm sceptical. Surely that won't all fit in there. But it does. Basically, you put the butter in the middle of a square of pastry, then fold and roll for an hour. Fold and roll. For an hour. I don't know if suffering necessarily makes food taste better, but I like to think that my sweat and tears added a little je ne sais quoi.
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The pastry then sits for an hour. At this point, Manuel explains the three-day journey the croissants have taken prior to the start of today's class. The pastry is prepared using flour, butter, sugar, salt, and fresh yeast. It is kneaded each day, but most of the three days is spent chilling. Literally. The nascent croissants are in the fridge.
After its hour of resting, the croissant as we know it starts to take shape. If the kneading was a test of stamina and strength, assembly requires artistry, and if I had to pinpoint where my croissants went wrong, it's probably right about now. Kneading is a struggle. I had been simply masterful at chilling but cutting pastry into perfect triangles and rolling it lightly into shape, though a simple task, proves beyond me. My classmates all seem to be impossibly expert, with triangles you could set your watch to and panache to burn. My croissants, on the other hand—all 14 of them—are slightly misshapen, irregular, and larger than most. This is why I don't cook.
Into a preheated oven they go. Fifteen minutes later, they're done.
The four criteria for a good croissant are warmth, butteriness, lightness, and fluffiness. Mine were warm and buttery and for my cooking, two out of four isn't bad at all. Arguably, my croissant could have been a little less dense, but let us not dwell on details.
Anyway, as important as the actual taste of the croissant is, the sense of satisfaction comes from having made it from scratch and appreciated the culinary skill involved. And by that criterion, I have excelled myself. Now, pass the butter.
All photos by Richard Lee Massey.