Saturday, October 25, 2008

My Croissance with Croissants

Viennoiserie, or the classification given to the wider array of embellished yeast breads such as croissants and brioche, is one of my favorite aspects of patisserie. It’s quite challenging as it is very technical yet so rewarding as it relies on fairly simple ingredients. The regular appearance of Viennoiserie as a breakfast item, its general unpretentiousness and availability in most of the world give this aspect of patisserie an almost commonplace air. Yet who do you know who doesn’t absolutely collapse in temptation when passing a patisserie as the Viennoiserie is coming out of the oven? It is one of life’s simple but rewarding pleasures…eating warm, delicate yeast bread that is embellished with butter.

Viennoiserie wasn’t always available to the masses on every street corner. Once upon a time, it was the treat of nobility and as the name classification suggests, had its origins in Austria not France. Apparently we can thank the Austrian born Marie-Antoinette for introducing the croissant to the French nobles; and before her we can point its origins to a conquerance between kingdoms. Apparently when the Turks were driven out of Vienna way back when, the small crescent shaped breads were created as a symbolic reminder of the defeat... since the shape of the breads was based on the crescent of the Turkish flag. Quite an interesting way to farewell your enemy, to not only send them running but then take a bite out of their national symbol at every subsequent breakfast or tea time!

The process of making the croissant dough was quite similar to pate feuilletage. In this case, a detrempe dough containing yeast is made and allowed to proof, then the butter is pounded into a flattened tile shape and is then incorporated through multiple rolls, folds and turns of the dough. It is easy to fail with this step of incorporating the butter, but the number of folds and turns is really not as much as I was expecting.

Brioche also begins with a yeast-based dough, although it contains eggs as well as butter. And the butter is not incorporated in the same way, so the dough and eventually the baked breads have a rich buttery-sweet flavour yet entirely different texture from croissants – more soft overall and almost cake-like vs layered & flaky.

As much as I enjoy croissant-based Viennoiserie, my real soft spot has always been for brioche. So learning to make this myself was really a delight….also an insight into how much work it requires and why the prices reflect this when bought from a patisserie. When made entirely by hand, the amount of kneading required is absolutely exhaustive! Even when made with a powerful industrial mixer the brioche process is very long and difficult. And this kneading process is critical in adequately developing the gluten of the flour, as the dough must be completely elastic and unsticky before the softened butter can be incorporated into the dough. And then it still doesn’t get easier! Even once you’ve reached the right stage for incorporating the butter, you must handle the dough even more deftly to avoid having all of it melting out from the warmth of your hands. And the irony is that you must handle the dough quite a lot, just to achieve a smooth, even finish when shaping the dough into balls. So I once again thought lovingly about my KitchenAid with dough hook attachment, and will consider keeping chilled cans of Coke handy to keep my hand temperature in check. When I get around to making this at home the kneading will most certainly not be done by hand.

We made the croissants & pains au chocolat at the first of the two Viennoiserie practicals. I failed to take a picture of my croissants as the class was so rushed, but I managed to do well enough. Apart from some size inconsistency, each croissant rose to an impressive flaky finish and golden color. Still, they were a bit doughy on the inside, especially once they cooled down, so I think that they weren’t baked long enough (everyone in class complained of this, so it wasn’t just me making excuses ;-))

The brioche practical had its challenges but overall the results were better…largely because all we had to worry about was the shaping and finishing of the dough. Chef Cotte did not have the patience to have us making the dough by hand, so he had whipped up a big batch using the industrial mixer and then portioned out dough to all of us. Still the shaping of the individual brioche a tete as well as the loaf brioche was very challenging. Making the pains aux raisins from the remaining dough was somewhat less complex, reminiscent of making cinnamon rolls. And I managed to get an even shape to these, even though the dough was by this time getting quite warm and becoming harder to manipulate.

So it’s time to venture into my kitchen and practice what I’ve learned. I think I’ll start with brioche as I can contain the mixing to the maddening whirl of my KitchenAid. I’m thinking that with a bit less butter and eggs incorporated, I may finally have a perfect base for making buns for hamburgers and sloppy joes. So the next experiment will be feeding my intuitions (and eventually some friends) with brioche that steps out of the breakfast arena and into casual dining. Wish me (and especially my KitchenAid) all the strength we can muster! :-o

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