When faced with a challenge, I typically turn my back, pretend to see someone I know in the other room and casually walk away.
Challenges are hard. I’m not good at hard.
But every rule has an exception, and mine is cooking. If I see a recipe that looks difficult, I feel an obligation to try it. A craving, really. And that is especially true if the recipe also looks exquisite, though I’ll also try it even if it doesn’t seem that great. It’s all about the challenge.
And so, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours after I wrote a recent column about a particularly difficult recipe for croissants that I realized I was going to have to make them.
So I did.
Making croissants the right way, the proper way, takes three full days. Much of that time is spent letting the dough chill in the refrigerator or allowing it to rise in a warm place.
So you can get other things done while you’re making them. But for hours at a time, you cannot stray too far from the kitchen. You’ll have to come back to them in an hour or two.
I knew this because I had read about it, but I had never actually made croissants myself. I had never made them because, and forgive me if I am repeating myself, they take three full days to make.
But I had been challenged. I had been challenged by a cookbook. And in a rare moment of fortitude, I decided I was not going to let any cookbook call me a coward.
The cookbook is called “Poilâne,” by Apollonia Poilâne, who runs a bakery in Paris called Poilâne. The book mostly features recipes for bread, which is the bakery’s specialty, but I’ve made bread. It was the recipe for croissants that caught my eye.
It’s not as if I haven’t seen recipes for croissants before. But I just checked nine baking or French cookbooks within easy reach of my desk, and none of them has a croissant recipe that takes three days. Only one of them has a recipe that even takes two days.
The recipe in “Poilâne” threw down the gauntlet. Or, as they say in France, jeté le gant.
The first thing I did was to buy the best butter I could find, and by “best” I mean “most expensive.” Croissants are all about the butter: They are basically flaky leaves of butter surrounded by thin sheets of pastry.
I went to Whole Foods — home of expensive foods — and picked up a bar of Isigny Sainte-Mère butter for $6.99. That’s not too bad, right? Except the bar was only 8.8 ounces. That works out to $12.70 a pound.
Fortunately, I only needed the 8.8 ounces. Actually, I needed 10 ounces, but I added an extra ounce of cheap butter from Schnucks I already had in the fridge.
Incidentally, the Isigny Sainte-Mère butter was nearly worth the cost. It comes from Normandy, the part of France most associated with dairy products, and the cows that make this butter are not just contented, they spend leisurely afternoons at the pool, sipping margaritas.
Challenge No. 2: I had never made full-on puff pastry before. I had always made a simpler version known colloquially as rough puff. But croissants are croissants, and if I was going to make them, I was going to make them right. In for a penny, in for $12.70 a pound, I always say.
Besides, the Isigny Sainte-Mère butter was easy to work with. The high fat content made it softer than American butter, and more malleable. On the other hand, that also made it harder to work with, because it quickly became too soft, and I had to put everything back into the fridge to get it the right consistency again.
Whether I actually hit the correct consistency is still open to debate.
With croissants, you first make a nice dough (with yeast, which makes it different from other puff pastries), refrigerate it and then roll it out into a square. You put slightly soft — but not too soft — butter on top of it and fold up the corners of the dough so that you end up with a thin rectangle of butter completely enveloped by dough.
You roll this dough out into a rectangle, fold it like a letter and refrigerate. Then you roll it out into a rectangle, fold it like a letter and refrigerate. Roll it into a rectangle, fold it like a letter and refrigerate.
By now, two days have passed.
On the third day, the dough is rolled out again, but this time it is cut into triangles.
I am not good at cutting triangles. Geometric shapes in general cause me trouble, and that includes straight lines. Triangles have three straight lines, or they do when other people cut them.
You roll up the triangles into croissant shapes and let them rise for a couple of hours. Then you top them with an egg wash — which I forgot to do — but it only makes them look prettier, and you bake them. Nothing could be easier.
I tried a couple, and I liked them fine, but they weren’t as shatteringly buttery as the best croissants I’ve had. They were certainly superior to anything you’d get out of a tube in a grocery store refrigerator case. To be honest, they were also better than some of the more desultory versions I’ve had at stores and even halfhearted bakeries.
I put them out in the newsroom, and they were gone in maybe a minute and a half. No one was cutting them in half and sharing them with others, either. Everybody seemed to like them a lot, except for one photographer.
“Too buttery,” he said.
”Poilâne,”by Apollonia Poilâne, goes on sale Oct. 29. Copies can be pre-ordered through amazon.com.