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The croissant (and its cousin, pain au chocolat) embodies of all the techniques I love most in the world of pastry. I find the lamination process, with its series of well-timed folds and turns, challenging, meditative and satisfying. And, on the other hand, I also respect the need for flexibility and the attention that must be paid to a yeasted dough, by adjusting for variables like ingredients and temperatures, for proper dough development and rise. I also love eating them. A well-made croissant, with its stunning layers, rigid, shattering outside and golden, buttery inside, is the absolute best pastry item in the entire world, and the subject by which I judge the bakeries everywhere.
The original croissant, which was created in Austria under a different name in the 13th century, eventually traveled to Paris in the 1800's and was made popular by a Viennese baker who opened a shop there. The treat was a hit in France, and soon bakers all over the city were making croissant and other viennoiserie. The early versions were not nearly as decadent and rich because they did not contain butter, but eventually French bakers began to incorporate the same lamination techniques that they applied to puff pastry with the leavened dough to get distinct, crisp layers.
That it is crescent-shaped is the stuff of legends, which claim that the croissant was invented to celebrate the defeat of the Ottomans by Polish fighters. Lore has it that during this skirmish, the bakers, who are always the first out of bed, working in the wee hours of the morning, noticed the advancing Ottoman army and were able to warn the Poles, giving them the advantage that led to the defeat. The bakers, to celebrate, shaped their early version of the croissant in the same crescent shape as the moon on the Ottoman flag to commemorate the victory.
Making croissants at home is not an easy or quick process. The qualities about croissants that make them such a treat, the yeasted dough and the lamination, also make them a project that requires time and patience. The dough must be allowed to develop and rise, the layers of dough and butter created with a slow process of folds with resting in between, and an overnight rest to allow the gluten to relax, the butter to firm up, and to allow the layers to properly fuse together. Once you've completed those parts of the process, however, the shaping is not as complicated as the finish product might indicate, and if you work carefully and with patience, good things will come.
About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evilliagekitchen.