Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Baking Croissants with Jim Dodge

I recently sweated through a croissants class taught by pastry chef Jim Dodge at the Tante Marie cooking school in San Francisco.

Actually, the class was taught at Tante Marie's other teaching site -- owner Mary Risley's home. Mary was in China so I was sorry not to see her. I was especially sorry not to see Mario the orange cat whom I had been honored to name when I attended another class at Mary's house. Mario the cat was named after chef and carrot-top, Mario Batali. Rumor has it that Mario has moved on to other adventures (the cat, that is).

Anyway, I say sweated because this was hard work. Plus, San Francisco was experiencing a rare heat wave that made working the dough an adventure since the dough consists of butter, butter and more butter.

The class started at 10 and my partner and I mixed and folded croissant dough until 4 pm with only a quick break of 30 minutes or so to mix and bake brioche dough. So, about five hours to prepare those delectable bits of dough. I now have a new respect for bakers of croissants and now think the price of a croissant is extremely reasonable given the work involved!

I suffered through this class because I am a bit of a croissant addict. In the interest of science, I consider it my duty to test every croissant I come across. I have now compared the typical American croissant with croissants from Argentina (called medialunas), Italy, Spain and, of course, France.

My favorite so far are the medialunas from Argentina. They are smaller than your average croissant and are slightly sweet. You are generally treated to a plate stacked with six or seven croissants at breakfast. All the cafes we visited were set up with what looked like a convection oven busily at work baking these small delights.

Sadly, I have been unable to find a recipe for medialunas. I emailed a friend of mine who lives in Buenos Aires and she said that no one bakes them; they buy them at the corner bakery. She gave me a recommendation for a bakery in San Francisco to try. I will report back on that later.

Jim Dodge is best known as the long-time pastry chef at the historic Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco. I have read that he was a favorite of M.F.K. Fischer. He has written two baking books: "Baking with Jim Dodge" and "The American Baker". He is now serving as director of culinary programs for Bon Appetit Management Company -- famous for their food offerings at such highflying companies as Google and DreamWorks.

But why did he leave the pastry world for management?? Baker's Lung. As we worked on our croissants, Jim sniffed and dabbed at his dripping nose. Yes, this pastry legend developed an allergy to flour! He recommended wearing a mask if we intended to make pastry/baking our career.

Jim is an excellent teacher and brimmed with good ideas that even the more experienced among us scribbled down in their notebooks. But he also has firm ideas and I could easily visualize him holding court and taking his assistants to task for their baking errors. He also doesn't hold back on what products to buy and from where.

We left the class not only with a bag of baked butter croissants (the chocolate croissants were consumed immediately out of the oven), but also with a bag of dough to bake at home.

I live about 30 minutes from S.F. so I put my dough on the floor of my car and blasted the air conditioner so my dough would survive the hot car ride home. I'm happy to report that I successfully shaped and baked the dough the next morning much to the delight of my happy family.

Baking Tips from Jim Dodge:
•Use a rolling pin without handles so it is weighted correctly
•Quarter sheet pans for the dough make it easy to roll into a rectangle

•Use sea salt
•Unbleached flour only -- do not use bread flour or bleached flour of any kind
•Buy European butter -- Pulgra is his favorite. American butter has too much water in it.
•Butter for croissants must be brick hard
•Ok to use instant yeast

•Only flour the dough, not your rolling pin
•Be obsessive about brushing flour off the dough. Excess flour will prevent the dough from fusing with the butter and that is what makes a great croissant.
•When rolling the dough, make sure you even out the dough because your dominant hand will make that side of the dough thinner.
•Roll the dough from the middle then to the edge then back and forth. Creates an even dough
•Make certain you roll out all the butter pellets because they can tear your dough
•Each time you roll the dough, pick it up and set it down again so that it reveals its true shape
•Every corner must be lined up
•When brushing on the egg glaze, make sure you scrape off excess glaze from your brush. Otherwise the glaze can roll down the croissant and form pools of egg that can burn

And never ever bake or eat the croissants that you can buy in your grocer's dairy case!

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