One of my favorite things about Paris is the bakeries: they lure you in with their yeasty smells and their beautiful displays of croissants, baguettes, and sweets that are downright works of art. On our recent trip to Paris, we made sure to visit as many bakeries as possible to scope out the best French baked goods.Usually we stuck with sampling traditional croissants and baguettes, partly because I have attempted to make baguettes and croissants at home before and know they can be somewhat tricky; therefore, these two ostensibly simple baked goods seem a perfect test of a bakery’s merit. We set out on our research phase in Paris to hopefully enlighten and inspire us to improve our homemade versions of these baked goods.
What Makes a Good Croissant?
In my mind, an excellent croissant has distinct, extremely flaky layers (not a homogeneous doughy mess) and is crispy on the outside with a deep, dark golden brown color. When I made croissants before, I didn’t bake them quite long enough. Therefore, the outside didn’t get completely crispy and the very center of the croissant was slightly doughy.
While the croissants at the famous bakery, Boulangerie Julien, had a great flavor, they seemed to suffer from similar under-doneness symptoms. However, the croissant we tried at another equally famous shop, Maison Kayser, was exemplary. Slightly crispy on the outside, incredibly flaky on the inside, and it had a faint hint of sweetness. I would have loved it to be even more crispy on the outside, but the sweetness of the dough really won me over.
So How Do You Make Good Croissants?
How exactly do you get these mythical flaky layers and crispy outside? The layers come from alternating layers of butter and dough- you basically roll out the dough, place a pounded-out layer of butter on top of the dough, then fold the dough over the butter, and repeat this process over and over. When the croissants are in the hot oven, water evaporates from the butter, creating those wonderful air pockets inside the croissant.
There are several different ways to do the folding, either in half or in thirds like a letter. Previously when I made croissants I did the letter fold, but I would be curious to try the other method to see if helps increase the flakiness (fewer folded edges that prevent flaking/puffing). The brown, crispy outside comes partly from ensuring that you bake the croissants long enough, and partly from an egg wash. I don’t think I did an egg wash before (oops) so it will be good to try that the second time around.
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What Makes a Good Baguette?
Freshness is one of the keys to a tasty baguette. On one of our baguette adventures in Paris, we couldn’t quite finish the baguette and naively thought we’d save it for later. It was inedible after only a few hours.
Assuming that you’ve got a fresh baguette, it should have a crispy outside and light, fluffy interior with large air pockets. The crust should be so crispy that it makes a glorious crackling sound when you break it in half:
All of the baguettes that we tried in Paris were delicious, including those from Boulangerie Julien and Maison Kayser.
How Do You Make Good Baguettes?
Because baguettes are simply made from flour, salt, yeast, and water (and not pounds of butter like croissants!), the flavor of the bread comes from letting the bread rise a long time. So put on your patient pants if you want to delve into baguette-making.
In terms of getting all those holes inside the bread, that is controlled by the amount of water in the dough, which evaporates in the oven and creates air pockets. As for the crispy crust, ideally that is achieved by baking the baguettes in a steamy environment. One of the easiest ways to get a steamy oven is to spray the baguettes with water before baking.
Another key characteristic of baguettes is their distinctive shape. In my previous baguette baking adventures, the result was rather flat, more like a ciabatta than a baguette. The likely cause of this deflation was over-proofing the loaves. This is one of the trickier parts of baguette making, in my opinion. Knowing exactly when the baguettes have risen enough is something that can really only be learned with practice. And practice, we will!
With the memories of the croissants and baguettes we had in Paris, we hope to hone our croissant and baguette making skills and recipes when we return home.
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