Baking Croissants with Sarabeth Levine

By: Kirsten Vala

I once considered signing up for a croissant-making class but I decided to buy a cookbook instead. Then I bought more cookbooks and subscribed to more magazines and I bookmarked recipe after recipe online, and still I had never baked croissants. . . I’m quite the recipe hoarder. But when I flipped through my latest cookbook acquisition, Sarabeth’s Bakery: From my Hands to Yours (recently nominated for a 2011 James Beard Award), I was inspired to chat with Sarabeth Levine about the secrets to making those flaky, buttery croissants I occasionally snagged from her bakery in Chelsea Market.

“You have to flip to the first pages of my book and make them,” said Sarabeth, when we met and I blurted out the truth about my croissant-making procrastination. She explained that most people are intimidated by the final product, but croissants really aren’t that difficult to make. They only take a few ingredients and time-wise, you spend most of your time waiting for the dough to chill, freeze and proof. “Making a pound cake takes more focus,” she said.

Sitting in her cozy bakery office, Sarabeth walked me through the steps, pantomiming the bashing of butter-laden dough with a huge rolling pin stashed by her desk. Her obvious passion for these pastries was infectious. So, armed with her no-fail recipe, I decided it was time for me to bake some croissants already.

Here are a few tips to go along with the step-by-step guide:

  • Timing is Everything: The croissants really do need to be eaten the day they’re baked, so plan ahead. They need to freeze for 24-hours to 4-days, and then defrost for 8-hours, so do some math before you start mixing up dough.
  • Don’t Over-Mix the Dough: A few lumps of flour are fine, and Sarabeth says it should look like lumpy mashed potatoes.
  • Don’t Fear Sticky Dough: If you’re in doubt, as I was, go ahead and add all the flour called for in the recipe. When shaping, flour your counter, flour the top of the dough, and if your hands still get goopy, just wash them off and jump back in. This was the hardest part of the whole process for me.
  • Temperature is Important: Before folding them together, the butter and the ball of dough should be the same temperature.
  • Use Two Rolling Pins: A large one is great for bashing the butter-filled dough into a flat sheet and a smaller one works best for making the small clover shape required when wrapping the dough around the butter.
  • Be Precise: Have a yardstick and a pizza wheel handy for precise measuring and easy cutting.
  • Don't Over-Bake: Keep an eye on them and get an oven thermometer. After all the time invested, you don't want to over-bake them.
  • What About the Next Day?: Use day-old croissants to make Michael Chiarello's Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding or Nigella's Caramel Croissant Pudding.

And all that dough-waiting was worth it when I finally opened my oven and pulled out a tray of my very own toasty brown croissants. I couldn’t wait – Were they done? Were they as good as they looked? Steam scorched my fingers as I eagerly tore one apart straight off the cookie sheet and bit into the soft, fragrant goodness. Thin shards of crispy crumb littered the counter, leaving faint stains of butter when brushed away. Sigh. . . I ate three (okay, four) in a row, slathered in butter and spoonfuls of jam. And I emailed a picture to the “ goddessofbakedom” herself the next day. “They’re beautiful,” Sarabeth replied. “Job well done!”

Here is Sarabeth’s recipe for perfect Croissant Dough and her Croissant Recipe, both from Sarabeth’s Bakery: From my Hands to Yours. And before you start baking, flip through my complete step-by-step guide.

You can keep up with Sarabeth by checking her fantastic baking blog and following her on twitter.

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