It's Science and It's Magic.
Making the croissants took a total of twenty hours. Five to make and laminate the dough, twelve to chill, two to rise, and one to make frangipane and fill them and form them and bake them to a golden crispness. I didn't know croissants were something a regular person could make. One without special tools I mean, or an industrial oven. I didn’t have those things. I have bread flour. And a beautiful wooden rolling pin a friend gave me. I have hours to myself on most Saturdays. I am lucky in this way. I have Paul Hollywood’s cookbook, and I have watched the three seasons of The Great British Bake-Off that are available on U.S. Netflix. I know Mary will always find a nice thing to say. I know Paul shakes a baker’s hand when he is truly impressed. And so, after reading Paul’s instructions, I decided to try this notoriously tricky pastry.
I made croissants for the first time last March. Six months or so before that I had broken up with a boy I truly loved because he was an alcoholic. One month prior I began dating another man with whom I felt such a connection that just looking at his name on my phone made my heart flutter, even when the message was I’m working a double. I do not consider myself a good cook. But I am a patient person. You must be to spend a year with someone nursing an alcohol habit and an anger problem. You must be to teach college freshman, to work retail, to binge watch a reality show where people make English muffins competitively. You must be a patient person to make croissants. I bought a food scale. That first time I did not have a stand mixer with a dough hook so I used my hands. I didn’t have a marble pastry board to keep things cold so I used the top of my washing machine.
Croissants only have six ingredients: bread flour, salt, sugar, yeast, water, and butter. I mixed the dry ingredients and water, twisting them together with my hands for the recommended seven minutes. Croissants have a layered texture because the butter does not melt until they are in the oven. Everything must be kept cold. Everything must be exact. You don’t mix the butter in. Instead I placed the cold butter between two sheets of parchment paper and pounded it flat to the exact dimensions of 19 cm by 40 cm. The noise I made was so loud my neighbor thought my landlord was fixing something and texted to make sure I was okay. After the dough has chilled for an hour and been rolled out the flattened butter is placed on top, in such a way that it covers two thirds of the dough. The naked third is pulled over like a blanket. The exposed butter is carefully sliced away with a knife and placed on top of the folded dough. The other end is folded on top that. Paul recommends tucking the edges together. The dough will be rolled out to an exact measurement and folded in thirds three times after this. This is called laminating the dough. It takes patience and it takes courage.
Because if you’re going to make croissants you have to love baking. You have to treat each simple ingredient like it has the potential to be greater than itself. Because it does. It’s science. And it’s magic.
The dough has to chill for an hour between laminations. It was almost 80 degrees in North Carolina the day I first made these croissants. I sent pictures of the stages to the boy I was dating and awaited his replies. Dating is not new to me, but it felt different after my last boyfriend. I was cautious, or I tried to be. I suspected everyone of being an alcoholic. I still believe most people are. I tried to take up as little space in the lives of the men I dated as possible. When my ex and I were together, each thing I asked of him was one too many things. I told myself often and he told me often that he loved me. But I no longer knew what that meant. When he stayed over I’d wake to find him in the spare room, claiming he didn’t want his snoring to wake me. Claiming he slept better. I hid my hurt. Not well. I swallowed so many words that I never thought I would. That a younger me would have never believed.
After the last lamination I lay on my couch, hoping for the new boy to text me. He seemed sweet, and unlikely to be an alcoholic. He worked at a coffee shop and went hiking every weekend. While I was making croissants he was in Japan. Before he left we slept together for the first time. Though we’d only been dating a short while, we knew a lot about each other. He was open and honest. He told me about his grief after a significant death the previous year, and his bad breakup, both of which were still weighing heavily. He wanted to go slow, and I did too. I am not one to shy away from sadness. So I was surprised he wanted to have sex, and surprised that afterwards I felt hurt and distant, not closer to him. He left for the airport at 4am that day and before going he kissed me in the stairwell. I drove home in the dark, assuming I would never see him again. Assuming that, like most of the men I knew, I had one value for him. I was surprised when he texted me the next day, a day ahead in time, with a picture of a tree lined street in Tokyo that could have been anywhere, were in not for the signs in Japanese.
I know that it is easy to feel beauty is useless when I have always or almost always been considered beautiful. I know that so many things are easier when others find you attractive without knowing a thing about you. I, for example, have never paid to have a computer fixed, and regularly get a discount when replacing my car tires. I know it is more than that. I know beauty enables me to walk around the world and be seen as good for no reason other than people like to look at me. But I also know that beauty and femininity make one into a possession. Or at least, I have often felt like a possession. When lamenting my bad luck in love I like to joke that I won’t be young and beautiful forever. My friends laugh, but like any joke this one holds a truth. And my truth is that I didn’t know what I had to offer men besides a nice face. So few of them have ever wanted anything else that the loss of one who did, despite his alcoholism, and then one who could have made me fold in on myself. Made me want to bake croissants for days because that kind of baking doesn’t let you think about anything else. When my dough was chilling overnight I had dreams about it instead of the dreams I usually had. Anxiety dreams about looking for things, and losing things, and a wad of chewing gum I could never fully pull from my mouth.
Although I saw the new boy when he returned from Japan it was so he could tell me he wasn’t ready. I understood, but I was hurt. I felt and still feel that I, that all women, do not get to decide if we are ready, others decide for us. Or the men in my life always have for me.
Croissants have to rise again once formed. I did not have the counter space so I left them on the floor of my bedroom with the fan on high. I lay on the ground next to them and inhaled the smell of sugar and butter. I didn’t know then if it would be worth it, if they would come out like Paul’s picture, or melt into nothing like I’ve seen happen to the bakers on t.v.
Much has been written on addiction. Much will continue to be. I know so very little about it. But I know that loving someone who says they’re going to get half and half and comes back with wine made me wonder what good love was. If my love couldn’t save him, couldn’t save me, why did it matter? I still have a succulent he gave me a few days after my 27th birthday. An extra present to apologize for making me cry when he drank too much at dinner with my mother. Lovers of alcoholics have lists of these kinds of stories. Of arguments through slammed shut doors, sleepless nights, tears and anger and loneliness.
Much has also been written about baking. What I really want to say about it is that I wish I had discovered how much I love it sooner. It sounds silly to say that baking taught me to be brave but it did. It reminded me that I am smart and capable. Why is that so easy to forget? I made six ingredients, things I see and use everyday into something beautiful and extraordinary. My hands did that. In my little kitchen. In my oven that is often 5 degrees too hot.
Since making that first batch of croissants I’ve done a lot of things I was afraid to do. I’ve stood up for myself, and applied for new jobs, and talked to new people. I’ve knit sweaters and traveled to Norway and said yes to things I wanted and no to things I didn’t. I’ve been strong and brave for myself and for the people I love. I know this isn’t all because of the croissants. I know a lot of that is just getting older. Growing up. But I also know forcing myself to slow down and spend twenty hours making a pastry changed the way I view my days. It changed the way I view myself. It showed me how to fall in love with a skill, with a moment, to be okay with something that will be gone the next day. I learned it is easy to want things to last forever but that very few things do.
When I took my croissants out of the oven I didn’t want to eat them, I just wanted to look at them. But the point is to taste the flaky pastry, the frangipane, the butter melting with each bite. When I bake I spend at least four hours on something that will be gone within a day. And I have loved every moment of it. Every loaf of bread and jar of jam and madeleine cookie. Falling in love with things won’t last. But falling in love with a process will. Falling in love with the hours I’ve spent learning and which I can still hold each time I open my oven has served me well, not just in baking, but in the rest of my life too. And maybe that’s the best any of us can hope for.