William Alexander set out to master the Art of French Speaking in his New York Times bestseller, Flirting with French. Hand in hand with speaking French is eating French food. And cooking French food. Oh, the food — magnifique! In honor of Bastille Day on July 14, here’s an excerpt from Flirting with French about making the quintessential croissant:
(Adapted by William Alexander for the Twenty-First-Century Home)
1. La première heure: Mix flour, salt, yeast, milk, and water into a very tight (that’s bakerspeak for dry) dough and work it until your fingers start to cramp up. Place in fridge to chill for two hours.
2. La troisième heure: Observe belatedly that Julia notes, “The minimum time required for making croissants is 11 to 12 hours.” Figure out how to cut a few corners while working up a sweat trying to roll out the dough, which has the consistency of Play-Doh and keeps springing back to its original shape. Take out your frustration on the butter. Julia instructs you to whack the cold butter repeatedly with a rolling pin, beating it into submission until it’s a rectangle that fits into the center of the dough (I never knew you could soften butter so quickly that way — good to remember). Note Julia’s warning to work quickly and keep dough and butter chilled at all times or risk greasy mess. When doorbell rings, frantically wash hands and run to find two Jehovah’s Witnesses who have all morning to discuss the matter of your saving. Explain it’s your croissants that need saving, take the literature, run back to kitchen, fold warming dough into thirds, and chill for thirty minutes. Roll out dough again, fold, and chill. Observe that rolling this dough is like trying to skin an antelope. A live one. Take two ibuprofen to ease pain in shoulder.
3. La quatrième heure: While dough is chilling, watch video of Julia Child making croissants. Her dough isn’t nearly as tight as mine, although by the end of kneading, she, too, is audibly out of breath. Note that she is assisted in her task by a rolling pin the size of a small birch tree. Picking up one of her smaller pins (that is, one about the size of mine), she mutters, “I don’t know why I ever bought this thing!” and tosses it into the garbage. I’ve always loved Julia Child, but at this moment I love her for a new reason that’s just occurred to me: Julia went to France and . . . became French! I can do this, I tell myself. If she could, I can. Julia is now panting heavily. She would never get on TV today, which tells you about the sad state of TV today.
4. La sixième heure: While dough is chilling, watch video of Steve Martin and Meryl Streep making croissants on the spur of the moment in the middle of the night at the bakery owned by Streep’s character. Oh, please! The movie is called It’s Complicated, which certainly does not refer to their making of croissants. They are having a barrel of laughs, but Streep has a sheeter, which does all the rolling, and a good film editor, who cuts out all the chilling. And when it comes to croissants, there isn’t much else. Meanwhile, back in my kitchen I’m wrestling with the dough and not laughing at all. After four folds, or “turns,” my dough, according to Julia, now has fifty-five layers! Which explains the ache in my lower back. Take two more ibuprofen.
5. La septième heure: Into the seventh hour, you may be reminded of the Ingmar Bergman movie The Seventh Seal, which is not, I warn you, a tale of a half-dozen semiaquatic marine mammals, but is about a knight who loses a chess match with Death. Lesser known is the sequel, in which Death develops a strange affinity for viennoiserie. Finally, after seven hours, having shaved four hours off Julia’s most optimistic estimate through judicious use of the freezer, we are ready to bake. As Julia would say, Bon appètit!
THE CROISSANTS ARE DELICIOUS, and ready just as Anne comes home. “You made croissants?” she says, sounding surprisingly incredulous. “I was only joking.”
You don’t say.
“Was it a lot of work?”
“About as easy as learning French.”
She takes a bite. “Oh, God, these are good! Let’s do this every Sunday!”
William Alexander, the author of Flirting with French and two critically acclaimed books, lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.