How much effort are you willing to put into cooking?
A new cookbook crossed my desk the other day (it’s so new, it won’t even be published until the end of October). “Poilâne,” by Apollonia Poilâne, features the recipes of what it says is a world-famous bread bakery in Paris called, yes, Poilâne.
Many of the recipes look intriguing — most of them, really. But the one that has truly caught my eye, the one I keep going back to look at again and again, is the recipe for croissants.
I love croissants. You love croissants. But do you have any idea how much time and effort goes into making them?
The best croissant I have ever had, if I were inclined to rank them (which I am), was at Hewn bakery in Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago. It was layer after layer of crisp, flaky, buttery goodness. Every bite caused a mini-explosion of pastry and butter in my mouth, and my only wish was that there were more bites to be had.
I wasn’t surprised it was so good — though to be fair, I wasn’t expecting it to be so spectacular — because I had interviewed the bakery’s owner, Ellen King, a few months earlier. She was in town for a book signing of her first cookbook, “Heritage Baking: Recipes for Rustic Breads and Pastries Baked With Artisanal Flour From Hewn Bakery.”
She mentioned her croissants in passing, and I asked if she made them the right way: If she took a full three days to make them. She said she did, and the proof, when I later tried one, was in the flake and the flavor.
Which brings me back to the croissants in “Poilâne.” These, too, take three days to make.
Will I make them? Would you?
It is not as if you would be working on them nonstop for 72 hours. Mostly, the dough is just sitting in the refrigerator for a couple of hours at a time, or overnight. The problem is, you have to be around every couple of hours to work with the dough a bit before refrigerating it again.
You end up with 14 croissants, which is simultaneously too many for just the two of us, and also too few to justify the time and effort that goes into making them.
On the other hand, good croissants are transcendent. Even bad croissants have a hint of the sublime. Is it worth it?
I certainly have nothing against taking a great deal of effort and time to make a dish, if it is going to be wonderful. Four years ago, I wrote about a version of molé poblano that required 32 ingredients and 14 steps to make. It was one of the most glorious things I have ever cooked.
But here’s the thing: I only made it once. I suppose it is possible that I will someday make it again, but no. I won’t.
There must be a kind of formula that we use, whether consciously or not, to determine how much effort we will put into a single dish. There must be a way we calculate the effort-to-flavor ratio, at least internally, to decide whether making a particular dish is worthwhile.
On one side of the ledger is the time it takes to make. It’s not really the effort — cooking is rarely physically difficult — it is just a matter of cooking instead of doing something else, like not cooking.
On the other side of the ledger is more than just the taste. It’s the compliments you will get. The smiles. The bragging rights, if you are the sort who brags about cooking (I am).
It is also about the calories. There is no earthly reason to spend hours making a dish that is unreasonably good for you.
Every cook has his own threshold. Up to a certain point, the benefits of cooking the dish outweigh the effort. Beyond that point, though, we’ll ignore the recipe no matter how marvelous it may be, and how bad for you.
Do you know what tastes amazing and is in no way healthful?