Imagine a bakery in the early morning hours. A baker goes to work rolling out dough. The smell of the raw dough begins to waft. As the dough is put in the oven, the aroma fills the room. It is quiet and calm and the smells are intoxicating.
Renowned chocolatier and Dean of Pastry Arts at The ICC, Jacques Torres, painted this picture of his favorite time of day in the bakeries he worked his way up in. The work can often be repetitive, but somewhere in there is also beauty. It was clear from the enthusiasm with which he spoke about the process of making fermented dough for croissants, pain au chocolat, and countless other treats that he has a deep respect for the process of creating them. It almost made me want to get up at 4:00 a.m. to make croissants too . . . almost.
Years of repetition making countless batches of croissants forges an easy intimacy between chef and ingredients, and Chef Torres’ insight and expertise is inspiring. Chef Torres discussed that while doughs really all have the same basic ingredients—salt, fat, sugar, liquid, and maybe yeast—within those limits there is still room for the baker to play. Change the proportions of the ingredients a few grams one way or the other and you tweak the texture. If you mix your flour, you can create just the right amount of gluten to suit your tastes. Understand how doughs react under different weather conditions and you can adjust your methods. Within these nuances is the genius.
On the other hand, Chef Torres said, with dough as fickle as croissant dough, there are countless factors on which you blame a failed batch. To prevent such failures, however, Chef Torres did share a few of his secrets:
- For croissant dough, he prefers to use flour with high gluten content, so he likes to use bread flour, which might be cut with a little cake flour.
- If you plan to let your dough rest, use a little more sugar as it will develop into gas, creating a better fermentation. If you don’t have time to let it rest, use less sugar.
- A long, slow fermentation will create a more intense flavor.
- Drop ingredients individually into separate areas of the bowl to make it easier to double-check that everything has been properly added.
- Periodically check digital scales for accuracy. A quick way to do this is to put a one-pound package of butter on the scale and check that the reading matches.
- Save scraps of leftover dough, they will act as a starter to help develop flavor in the new dough. Scraps can be stored in the freezer and thawed in the fridge the day before you intend to use them.
While Chef Torres’ expertise was evident, his ebullient personality and clear love of the subject matter was infectious. He entertained the audience with stories from his career and had the audience laughing throughout. There was a generally good vibe in the room during the entire lecture which was only augmented by a brief visit from chefs Jacques Pépin and Andre Soltner. The excitement in the room at getting to see these three great chefs together was palpable.
The cherry to top off this wonderful demo was the slew of delicious samples those of us lucky enough to be in the audience got to try. The warm croissant was beautifully flaky and had the perfect amount of chew, the pain au chocolat was oozing with chocolate, and as a final treat Chef Torres also made large, puffy bomboloni tossed in sugar and filled with pastry cream. My only regret is that I ate mine too quickly!
After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog, nibblinggypsy.com