Still, not all breads are created equal. And few breads are not improved with the addition of butter. And if a little bit of butter is good, can we not assume that quite a little bit of butter might just be better?
Enter the croissant. This buttery pastry gets my vote for the most comforting food I know. Although croissants were allegedly invented in France more than 100 years ago, they only arrived in Spokane in 1981 when Fery Haghighi, a newly arrived immigrant from Iran, desperate to make a living, opened a bakery called Au Croissant. "We thought that croissants were something new for America," she says, noting that the only bakeries producing the time-consuming pastries then were in New York and Los Angeles. "Nobody knew about croissants," she says of the first days of trying to sell the novel pastries in Spokane. "We made a lot the first week, but we didn't advertise and so we had a lot left over. As we were driving home, we would stop and give them to people standing around." At one point, those bystanders turned out to be television reporters, and Haghighi says the bakery's buttery crescents were the subject of news reports for days after. "We didn't know what to do, how many to make. We would sell out at 10 in the morning. I had to say we can't sell all of them to the first person in line. We give everybody four."
Now croissants are nearly as common as donuts, sold in plastic-wrapped trays at Costco and every other grocery store. But while those croissants may do in a pinch, don't fool yourself. "They aren't horrible," says Kammy Magnuson, owner of ROCKWOOD BAKERY, "but to have a truly wonderful croissant is an experience."
So what constitutes a great croissant? Perhaps above all else, it should be light -- lighter than you might expect from looking at it. "When you cut a good croissant," says Haghighi, "It should be layered in the middle. It shows the butter has flaked and opened the door." That's because, unlike regular bread, yeast is not the only thing that makes a croissant rise. The butter itself gives off moisture, which lifts and separates the layers of dough. A true test of a good croissant is that the outside should flake apart when you eat it. "One good sign is you should make a mess with your croissant by the time you are done with it," says Magnuson.
While some bakeries order frozen croissant dough and bake it, which can create an acceptable product, the best croissants are produced fresh. And the process is time-consuming and labor intensive. "Breadmaking and dough making is an art," says Magnuson. "You do have to love it. Some people, even though they may be good cooks, just don't have a knack for it."
First, a yeast dough mixture is created, the dough is formed into a rectangle, and then a slab of butter is placed on one-third of the rectangle and the other thirds are folded over. Thus begins the process of rolling, chilling and re-rolling the dough, steadily incorporating layers of butter. After the dough has been repeatedly rolled and chilled, it is formed into a rectangle and then cut into smaller triangles, which are rolled up to form the familiar crescent shape. The rolls are then allowed to rise, or proof. Too long a time, and the croissant will have an off flavor as the yeast converts too much sugar to alcohol, and the croissant will be flat. If the rolls aren't proofed long enough, they're too dense.
Good quality ingredients are also important. Using all butter is the mark of a good baker, and one of the reasons supermarket croissants may not be as good is because often margarine or shortening is used for at least a portion of the fat in the recipe.
The three-day process requires patience and practice and dedication, and sometimes the results are better than at other times. "I do have moments of thinking we should buy the frozen dough," says Magnuson. "But something is lost when you use machinery to make the dough." Though Magnuson says croissants can vary depending on the weather and other unknown factors, "When they're right they are so good. They are so labor intensive though, it is hard to make enough." Seems nothing much has changed.