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Baking Lessons

Hoca

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“In professional settings,” writes Claire Saffitz of the New York Times this week, “machines called slab rollers in temperature-controlled rooms laminate the dough quickly and effectively, producing light, flaky, uniform croissants. Home bakers, however, must complete these tasks by hand, making it harder, slower and much more variable.”*

The article makes me snort. I guess the cafe isn’t a professional setting. I’ve been negotiating the variables of homemade croissant production for the past five years. I still can’t get it predictably right. The kitchen was cold yesterday when I made the detrempe. Or the flour, which I stored through the winter, was too old. I made one batch of detrempe and it felt like a ball of led. The yeast was brand new, so it couldn’t be that. My inner perfectionist demon swelled in my belly. Most of the time she is quiet. But sometimes she will not be silenced. She screamed at me that the first detrempe was entirely unacceptable. So I threw out five pounds of the dough and twenty pounds of flour. I heated up the kitchen, tore into a fresh sack of flour and made another.

We’ve investigated slab rollers and professional proofers to bring the process under better control. The space is too small, the customers too few. We would have to become a croissant factory to justify that kind of equipment, wholesaling the flaky pastries for a 120 mile radius in every direction. The goal of having a cozy community Saturday morning cafe would be shot.

So every week, I work with variables. I weigh my ingredients, invest in the best butter, and yes, send twenty pounds of flour to the compost if necessary. There’s more, however. Turning out homemade croissants each week requires a certain knowledge in my fingers. I’ve learned to twist the handle of my butter pounder with a tiny flick of the wrist so that the butter doesn’t stick when I sculpt the beurrage. I’ve learned the speed required to work so that the butter stays cool and doesn’t start melting into the granite beneath it; to carefully lift it onto wax paper with a bench knife so that not a speck is left behind. When rolling out the dough, there’s a sensation I feel in my arms when I’m fighting gluten, a certain way the dough contracts back into itself when it needs to rest to prevent tears.

And today I’m standing in the kitchen, teaching these things to Ula. For the past two years, Saoirse was my faithful croissant companion, working with me to turn out the delicate pastry. In time her croissants looked better than my own. But now she’s working on the farm, doing chores, pulling customer orders, bringing our inventory system under better management.

And Ula takes the opportunity to come in to the kitchen with me. I try to give words to the lessons my body has simply absorbed. She pounds the butter and it splats unevenly across the counter, half of it smeared, half of it still in thick chunks. I scrape it together, move it to the fridge to chill down, cut a fresh chunk and make her do it again, showing her out to keep it even. And then I make her do it again. And again. And again.

The next day we roll them out, and the process of instruction repeats. Ula wants to go to a corner of the kitchen, put on her headphones, tune me out and get the job done. I want to let her. But I can’t. She’s working the gluten in too many directions. The pastries will be tough. Her dough is tearing.

“That’s going to leak butter, see? We need all that butter to be sealed in the dough. When the heat of the oven hits it, that butter is going to melt and push up the dough layers. If there’s a rip in the dough, it’s just going to leak out on the pan.”

She is getting annoyed with me. I’m making a seemingly simple task seem complicated.

I’m getting annoyed. She’s mauling everything she touches.

That raging perfectionist demon is pounding inside my chest now, screaming for me to hip check her out of the way with those wretchedly potent words a parent can use to effectively alienate their children:

I need to get this done right.”

The demon has a good point. The cafe has been closed for winter. When people come back in after the long break, I want them to have the delicious croissants they remember. Bad pastries make us look bad. New customers will think we’re a joke.

But there’s a danger here. I could have perfect croissants. But I could lose Ula in the process. What if this is what she’s meant to do? What if the kitchen could give her as much joy and fulfillment as it does me? That is not something that can be known straight away. That can only be discovered with time, lots of errors, and patience.

I really want perfect croissants for opening day. But there are bigger goals to consider. I want the community to have an enduring business where friends and neighbors can gather. I want our children to love the business, so that they will share with us in its stewardship, or help shepherd it into the appropriate hands when the time comes. And I just plain ol’ want to be with my kid.

So I step back. When she gets it half right, I let her run with them. There is knowledge I can share, but there is experience that can also be gained after repeatedly working dough. So I let her crank upo her K-pop and repeat the process of laminating and rolling out the dough over and over again.

And on Saturday morning when we bake them off, they come out like little croissant-shaped bricks. We laugh at them and share one between us. The flavor’s great. They’re every bit as good as my own first efforts. By May, with a little coaching each week, I’m optimistic Ula’s croissants will be better than my own.

But on this Saturday, that’s all we’ve got to serve. My perfectionist demon will have to fixate on scrambling the eggs properly and making smooth gravy for the turkey, instead of those pastries. And so the croissants go out to the customers. And they eat them. And no one complains. When Ula checks back at the tables, I hear the customers tell her that her croissants are delicious….Just as they used to tell me my first croissants were delicious….Just as they used to tell Saoirse her first croissants were delicious.

It’s not just our family that’s in it for the long game. The customers are, too. They understand that the way to keep a place like this going is to keep showing up, to keep showing support as the generations transition skills, to keep letting the business renew itself year after year. This farm and cafe will never be a true professional setting, as the Times calls it. “Light, flaky, and uniform” just don’t seem to be apt descriptors for this family or this business. “Harder, slower and more variable” is just gonna have to do for now. But thankfully, that combination still tastes delicious.
 
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