Sunday, December 6, 2015

Secrets of Fire Island Foccacia and Soudough -- a Baking Class

Carlyle Watt, chief baker at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, with a batch of sourdough ready to make into loaves.

Fire Island classes serve three purposes -- students learn the secrets of baking delicious things; they go home with plenty of loaves or cookies to demonstrate that they have actually acquired the skill, and they appreciate much more the fact that Fire Island will do all of that baking for them. Along with seven other engaged students, I took Carlyle's class on sourdough and foccacia on December 3. For three hours we mixed, folded, and baked loaves of sourdough bread, and cut up toppings for the trays of foccacia. We left with loaves of fresh bread, slices of foccacia, and our own sourdough starters for many generations of home-made breads.

Shaping and baking sourdough loaves, using dough that's ready for the final stage

Weighing the dough cut from the big chunk above to make individual loaves.

Here's where it starts -- with the scales. Bread-making may be an art, but like other arts, its roots are deeply twined in the sciences. Physics, biology, chemistry, and math are all critical to creating bread that's edible and beautiful. Sciences are precise -- so bread-making starts with weighing everything. Carlyle cut pieces from the mass of dough that he started with, and showed us how to shape them into rounds.

Hands are perpendicular to the table, cup the loaf, and turn it lightly, shaping it into a round. The small pile of flour in the middle of the table is for flouring hands to make the process smoother. The huge bag of organic unbleached white flour that is used in all of Fire Island's  creations is from Central Milling Company in Utah (available at Natural Pantry in Anchorage in more manageable quantities).

Once shaped, the loaves are set in place for their final rise. Carlyle is gently placing a round of dough into a proofing bowl that will give the loaf a classic "boule" (French for "ball") shape with the rings of the bowl imprinted on the final loaf.  Before putting the dough in, he dusted the inside of the bowl with flour so that dough wouldn't stick to it. We also learned how to fold a couche, a heavy piece of cloth so that it would support the rising loaves.

A stack of proofing bowls.

Boules on their final rising.

We baked the boules either in a cast iron Dutch oven, or on a pizza stone in the oven. Here's a close to perfect boule in the Dutch oven where it was baked. The loaves baked on the pizza stone turned out a little flatter than those in the Dutch oven, but just as light and tasty.

Carlyle shows us what it looks like on the bottom when done: well-browned, crusty. When tapped lightly with fingertips, it sounds and feels hollow.

The texture of the sliced bread is open with lots of good-sized holes that have thin membranes. It smells delicious and tastes better. In theory, you would let it cool a bit before slicing, but the class had eight hungry people, eager to taste the fruits of their work.

Mixing and shaping, and raising our own dough.

Measuring water using the scales.

For the next major part of the lesson, we mixed our own dough to take home and bake later, carefully measuring the water first, then the white and whole wheat flours and the leaven (starter), and mixing thoroughly. The dough needed to sit for half an hour so that the flour could absorb water (the technical term is "autolyse"). Next we added the salt and a bit more water, and mixed again.

Mixing the dough -- it's wet and sticky.

Carlyle showed us how to make a sourdough country loaf using Chad Robertson's method of starting with a wet dough, and then folding and resting it several times over three hours. There are many other methods of allowing gluten strands to develop and shape the bread, and the yeasts to work their magic. The yeasts need time to eat the flour and convert its sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The proteins that make stretchy gluten hold the carbon dioxide bubbles into place, giving the bread its texture; the alcohol burns off.

Pulling up the dough to fold it over itself eight to a dozen times substitutes for the more traditional kneading to develop the dough.

The folding is gentler, and allows the larger holes and more open texture of the sourdough loaf. If the same dough was going to be kneaded, it would start as a drier dough. After the kneading, the final loaf would have a finer, more even texture.

Making foccacia

Finally, foccacia -- my main reason for taking the class was to discover the secret of this flatbread.

Carlyle made the foccacia dough in an automatic mixer. The ingredients differ in a couple of ways from the the sourdough loaf - the foccacia dough has some olive oil, a very small amount of commercial yeast to keep it more consistent in flavor and texture, and a higher percentage of whole wheat flour to white flour.

After "developing" the gluten in the dough by continuing to mix it in the machine at a higher speed for several minutes, we set it aside to rise. How to know if it's ready? Carlyle is demonstrating the "window-pane" test -- stretching a little piece of dough gently to see if it can be pulled so thin that you can see through it. When it's reached this stage, it's ready to rest and rise  for about an hour.

After rising, foccacia dough is spread in the baking pan, with a thin layer of olive oil beneath.

The top is dimpled from the pressure of finger tips pushing it to the edges -- the idea is to work gently so that the trapped gasses don't get pushed out.

For toppings we used caramelized onions,

sliced mushrooms, and diced sweet potatoes. Then the dough needed to rise for another half hour before baking.

The mushroom foccacia baked for about 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven. We pulled it out, spread on the caramelized onions, and added some chunks of cheese; then baked it again for about five minutes until the cheese melted.

This is the finished sweet potato foccacia, garnished with arugula leaves, already a quarter gone just a few minutes after it came out of the oven..

Students savoring the foccacia.

My home-baked loaf -- not the perfect shape, but its crumb is very good, and it tastes just like Carlyle's.

For more information about Fire Island classes, click here.   

Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop has three locations now: the original shop at 1343 G Street (the entrance to the shop is around the corner on 14th Avenue), and 2530 East 16th Avenue, just south of DeBarr and east of Lake Otis. The newest Fire Island shares the parking lot, a beer, and much else with Anchorage Brewing. It's at 160 West 91st Street (off King Street).

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It's a Wonder Bread Life . . .

     We never ate Wonder Bread when we were kids in the 1950s, only the knock-off look-a-likes that came in bigger loaves and lower prices. They were our staple; hardly a day went by for all of the years of childhood that didn't feature a couple of slices of soft white bread. We ate it as toast or sandwiches, for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was always a good Irish-English meat, potatoes, boiled vegetable, and a dessert, but bread ruled during the rest of the day.

    These days, Wonder Bread gets a bad rap. I wrote about some of the cultural aspects of Wonder Bread in 2011, and recently decided to re-visit those fine white slices. There is still a gulf between those who eat and enjoy Wonder Bread and its kin, and those who eat only artisan breads, from their own oven or someone else's. I feel that someone has to stick up for the people who eat Wonder Bread, whether because that's all that they can afford, or  because they enjoy it.

      People have railed against soft white, sliced and packaged bread, practically since Wonder Bread introduced the first commercially available packaged sliced bread in the 1930s. In her essay "How to Rise up Like New Bread," (from How to Cook a Wolf) MFK Fisher characterizes sliced white bread as "stupid," and "tasteless [and] almost worthless nutritionally,"  . .  .  "emasculated pale stuff sold by every self-respecting bakery." She says that "class snobbism has conquered once more over good sense, for no matter what proof the Ministry gives that white bread will cause bad teeth, poor eyes, weak back, fatigue, the Britishers gone on eating what has for decades meant refinement and 'good taste.'" [Although there was evidence that removing the bran and germ from wheat during the milling process caused diseases, it was also a matter of fact that Dublin children developed anemia and rickets during World War II from eating 100% whole-wheat bread because high levels of phytic acid in the whole grain prevented the absorption of crucial nutrients].

     In the 1950s small-town Midwest, we ate sliced, packaged white bread, and found it good. Our mother who spent her early years, from 1914 to about 1928 on corn farms and in small towns in central Illinois probably ate home-baked bread, but I never saw her bake anything made with yeast. She made delicious pies, cakes, biscuits, quick breads and shortcakes, but never yeast bread. Her mother and two sisters, all excellent bakers, did make Parker House rolls but that was as close to yeast as any of the family got.

     They (but not us) ate Pepperidge Farm bread regularly, the epitome of desirable bread. It was white, sliced thin, a bit firmer than regular cheap white bread, and elegantly square, smaller than a regular slice. One could not do better than to be served a slice of Pepperidge Farm bread, perhaps spread with real butter, not margarine.

    That was the dream. The usual reality, and we were fine with it, was something equivalent to Wonder Bread, with a soft brown crust (belying the the name, "crust"). For breakfast, we toasted it and lathered on the margarine and jam. In high school, I added peanut butter to the breakfast toast, and it kept me from starvation until lunch. Lunch was often bread with peanut butter and jam, although by high school I experimented with everything available -- radishes, celery, raisins, as well as the old classics of sliced bananas, and honey. Tomatoes, delicious as they were on buttered toast, didn't work well with peanut butter.

     A memorable peanut butter sandwich day from about fifth grade was the one when we came home from school at lunch time and found my father Al in the kitchen. My mother was in the bedroom -- with the doctor, Al said, having a baby. We didn't ask more because in our childhood, we didn't ask. Al gave me the job of making the peanut butter sandwiches for lunch for all of us, and sat at the kitchen table watching and instructing. I had no idea that he could "cook" anything, but knew that following instructions carefully was the only option. "No, no, spread the peanut butter all of the way to the edges of the bread." "Don't put so much jam on. "Now spread the jam out evenly." And so forth. It was an odd thing to be in that hushed house, but everyone had to eat lunch and go back to school. When we got home later in the day, Al just said that the baby named Marie had died, and that Mother would be resting; he would take care of her. And that was that. We probably said a brief prayer for Marie and Mother when we said the usual rosary kneeling on the hardwood floor in the darkened dining room before bedtime. Marie was buried in the cemetery by my father's mother in the family plot, but we never visited her grave until after we were grown.

     A Sunday breakfast treat was eggs and fried Spam. My father, Al, liked Spam, and it was inexpensive, one of the fundamental criteria for food in a household of two adults and seven growing children. My mother fried the Spam in the big frying pan (not a skillet) first, then set it aside while cooking the eggs. The pieces of Spam were folded into a sliced of buttered (i.e., margarined) toast and eaten as a sandwich.

      As soon as the first real snow fell, Al sprayed water over large parts of our backyard, and made an ice rink that extended from the back porch out past the standalone garage, and well into the back lot. We helped shovel and clean the ice each night after we were done skating, and kids from all around town came over to skate. On Sunday mornings in the winter, my mother would bring the electric frying pan out to the back porch and cook the Spam on the spot for sandwiches. Washed down with hot chocolate by the gallon concocted of powdered milk and  Nestle's Quik, those winter sandwiches made the meal that every one of us remembers as one of the best things in our childhood.

     In my memories, picnics were just as good as the Spam sandwiches on skating days. On every summer day when the weather was good, we ate lunch out of doors, spreading one of the old "picnic blankets" -- something too worn to put on a bed, under the maple tree in the backyard near the house. We made the sandwiches in the kitchen and carried them out, along with sliced raw veggies or hard-boiled eggs, maybe with raisins for dessert. The ants got a few crumbs that 'accidentally" fell off the bread, and we watched them drag the bits of bread off to their sandy hills.

      On the best days, we packed sandwiches made with white bread into tote bags, along with celery and carrot sticks, and walked three blocks south down the hill to where our street ended at the bridge over McCoy's Creek. I hated the bridge -- two logs with planks nailed across and always with planks missing. I feared it, and cried, but crossed it, pushed along by my siblings' annoyance and pulled by the anticipated delights of dragonflies and tadpoles at the Frog Pond a little ways up the hill by the railroad tracks. My mother carried a jug of red KoolAid and cups, one of us carried the blanket, and we set up lunch under a big oak tree near the pond. We sat down, said the standard Catholic grace that preceded every meal, made the sign of the cross, and settled into the sandwiches hoping that a train would go by so that we could wave at the engineer.

      Sometimes we did have sandwiches with other fillings -- tuna salad, egg salad, slices of Velveeta cheese (or the bargain equivalent). Lunch meats were rare -- they were too expensive. We had hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, and they were usually encased in the same white bread that made up our daily quota. On special occasions -- if company came, which was rare -- we splurged on hot dog or hamburger buns.

     Bread showed up as a special treat in other forms. Sometimes on Sundays we had French toast instead of eggs, with fried Spam. At Thanksgiving, bread cubes showed up as stuffing inside the turkey. Bread crumbs might be sprinkled on top of a Friday night tuna fish casserole (with canned peas, macaroni, and something to bind it -- not Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup). At my mother's parents' house in Kalamazoo where we ate once a month, bread crumbs appeared on top of corn casserole, but no matter how much I loved the crumb topping, it couldn't make up for corn and red pepper filling underneath.

     Our first encounter with yeast was not bread but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee packaged pizza, which arrived in Buchanan years and years before any actual pizza parlor. It might have been as early as the late 1950s, or 1960 that it showed up in the local grocery stores (I can't find an exact date). I was fascinated by mixing up the yeast and the warm water, watching it bubble and smell, waiting for the dough to rise, and then eating this wholly foreign food -- not a potato or bit of tough chuck roast in sight. It was still years before I got around to baking bread, but pizza became a staple.

    White bread -- stuff to butter, to drench with honey until it stiffened, to mound with butter and payers of white sugar, to toast and drown in butter with sugar and cinnamon piled on to the thickness of the bread, to eat plain if necessary -- white bread filled my stomach and nourished my soul with its dailiness, its willingness to collaborate with so many other foods, its availability when the next-to-last dollar had to stretch two more days, the kids were sick, or the twelve-hour working day was the reality.

     All of this is to say that white bread --  plastic-wrapped, dirt cheap, nutritious mostly because of the vitamins and minerals added back into it -- has its place. I haven't eaten it often in recent years but it sustained me, day in and day out through much of my life. Artisan bread has its place too, but should never forget that its white bread working-class sibling feeds much more of the world today than can ever afford that crusty baguette or the flour-dusted ciabatta loaf. Even white bread is the staff of life for many, and deserves its own measure of respect and appreciation.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Great Harvest Bread -- An Anchorage delight

Anchorage has its share of excellent bakeries, among them Great Harvest Bread. It has the distinction of being a national franchise, with local owners Dirk Sisson and Barbara Hood bringing to fruition the high standards set across the country. Dirk spent an hour recently showing me around and describing the care and attention they pay to every aspect of their work.

Outside their bakery and store/cafe sits a bale of straw with pumpkins for the season. Inside, racks of the day's breads, and courteous staff people cutting samples to be topped with butter or honey greet customers.

Dirk and Barbara support local artists and writers, and this month their show focuses on intriguing photos by Bob Eastaugh and collages by Suzanne Dvorak.  

Bob Eastaugh photo.

Suzanne Dvorak collage.

Customers can get their breads or pastries to go, or relax in the cafe section.

Great Harvest bakes more than fifty types of bread and rolls, along with cookies, quick breads muffins, scones, pound cake, and more. Their home page lists what's fresh each day.

What makes Great Harvest unique? Besides their consistent high quality, and the great variety, their insistence on freshness adds depth to their food. They grind their own whole wheat flour fresh each day, using a hammermill set in one of the back rooms of the bakery. The wheat comes from Montana fields, blended to assure uniform performance from the grain in each batch. Dirk says that they grind only enough to use within a few days so that the oils in the kernels have no chance to grow stale or rancid.

Bins of white flour, and fresh-ground wheat flour ready for mixing. The copper pipes in the center of the bins of whole wheat flour draw away the heat created in the grinding process so that the flour stays cool enough for making dough.

Like most bakeries, even those featuring small-batch artisan loaves, Dirk uses both bakers' yeast, and his own sourdough, depending on the needs of the bread. The lower shelf of the cart holds his fermenting dough, each one marked to show where it is in the three-day process of developing as a sourdough.

This temperature probe is one of the most essential tools for good bread, Dirk says. Bread-making is a mix of science -- the exact proportions of flours, liquids, yeast, salt, sugars (Great Harvest uses small amounts of honey in their breads, in part to encourage the yeast to grow, and in part for flavor), and art -- every change in temperature of the room, moisture in the batch of flour and in the air, and a dozen other factors will change how the dough grows (develops). Dirk suggests using the temperature probe about five minutes before the estimated baking time is finished. There are various ideas about the temperature for a loaf of bread; if you are baking, check the recommendations in your recipe.

One interesting point was the order that Dirk uses to mix the dough. Because flours can vary so much in their moisture content, he measures the water first and puts that into the mixing tub. Then he adds about three-quarters of the flour specified in the recipe and begins to mix. Within a short while, he can tell by the way the dough is coming together whether it needs more flour. He adds the flour  slowly, to make sure that the dough doesn't end up too wet or dry. If the dough is a little "harder,"  than usual, he bakes it at a slightly lower temperature, but for about the same amount of time.

 Bakers test the loaves daily, and record  how long the bread was kneaded, how long the dough took to rise, how long the bread spent in the oven, and more. Standard, detailed measurements are described for each of the qualities that Great Harvest expects from its bread.

We talked for a while about the protein content of wheats. Very high-protein wheats are often considered the best for breads, but they may not have as much taste, or may be missing other desirable qualities. Mills often blend flours so that a lower-protein tastier grain combined with a higher-protein wheat gives the baker the optimum combination for reliably rising bread that is also delicious

Finished loaves cooling on racks.

Dirk Sisson and the beautiful breads that he and Barbara have been baking since 1994.

A densely-seeded loaf.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Knik Valley Wheat: Haibun

                                   Wheat flowering, Ben VanderWeele's farm, July 21, 2015.


bread in hand                                                 
farmer resting from sowing
wheat for next year’s loaf                                                      
            Knik Valley wheat fields – they are harvested by farmers from the Midwest, from the Netherlands, from temperate climates, who brought their seeds to plant in the subarctic shadow of Pioneer Peak. The Denaina Athabascan/Ahtna Indians who came a thousand years ago after the Yupik/Chupik people called the area Benteh (many lakes). They fished and hunted around Eklutna, Niteh, and their other villages for eight hundred years before the Russian Orthodox missionaries came looking for souls in 1840, and the American and European adventurers came seeking gold thirty years later. The Indians knew nothing of grains or bread until the Russians brought them Holy Communion and the Sourdoughs brought them fry-bread.

            The soil into which the Knik Valley wheat sinks its shallow roots is eolian – wind-blown, loess – dust particles from the rocks ground away by the glaciers. Two hundred and fifty million years ago the Mesozoic Era began, bringing dinosaurs, ferns, forests, the grassy ancestors of wheat, and the first mammals. Pangaea was breaking up. Late in the Mesozoic the tectonic plates were carrying the continents to their present places on the earth, pushing ocean floors up against the continental plates to build the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Alaska Range, and the Chugach mountains that frame the Knik River Valley. The earth is still restless today, pushing the mountains higher and reshaping the valleys.

            In those hundreds of millions of years, seas rose and fell, covering much of North America. The sea creatures died, settled into the dirt and detritus that collected underwater, and slowly packed together into rocks. When the ocean floor began crunching against the continental plates, the beds of bodies and sediments pushed up and shaped the mountains, mixed in with rocks spewed out from the hearts of volcanoes. In science-speak, “The Mesozoic lithologies, primarily marine sediments and volcanics, have been intensely metamorphosed, folded, and faulted and have been intruded by small to moderate-size igneous [rocks from the volcanoes] bodies.”  

                                          Knik Glacier.
            Then the glaciers arrived, covering and uncovering, and re-covering the river valleys, wearing the rocks into soils made of silt and sand. Shallow-rooted white spruce, large cottonwood trees, and balsam poplar forested the flat lands in the river valleys, with shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses on the slopes. The farmers who came in the early 1900s stripped the land of its trees, and sowed wheat into long straight rows stretching from their roads to the feet of the mountains. 

Ben VanderWeele's wheat, August 2, 2015, Knik Valley with Chugach Mountains in the distance. 

            Today winds blow off the Knik and Matanuska glaciers, lifting the soil made of ancient ocean lives from the bare fields in late winter and laying it down on forests to the south and west. The farmers must fertilize what’s left, and irrigate in the spring and summer to make up for the sparse rain. Sixteen inches in a good year, it falls in August and September when the grain should be drying for harvest. Even the nineteen hours of sunlight in June and July doesn’t warm the air enough to make up for the cooling winds off the glaciers and the nearby ocean. It’s not ideal for wheat, but the stubborn farmers grow it nonetheless.

BenVanderWeele's wheat -- the rows in the middle ground (wild grasses in the foreground). Snow on the Chugach Range. September 5, 2015.

heavy brown wheat heads
too wet to harvest this week
snow on the Chugach

today’s Communion
wheat rows in slanting light
of September dusk

                                        Ben VanderWeele in his wheat fields, July 21, 2015.

Ben VanderWeele photos by TW Carns.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Alaska State Fair, Saturday afternoon


crowds running to cars
Ferris wheel turning beyond
gold wheat bent by rain

            The Ferris wheel is halfway to the top when the rain starts. I’m strapped into one of the chairs by myself, dangling, swinging, sulking as the wheel halts, listening to my stomach growl. I was too busy arguing with Dad about something dumb to eat lunch. Down below the carnies are letting people out, but we are just getting started. We’ll be here a long time. I’ll shrivel and float away from starvation probably.

            My hair is dripping down into my eyes, and I’m trying to keep my phone dry beneath my blue jacket. Some girls were screaming, but they must have worn out. The tinny organ carnival music rises up against the rain, up from the bright lights of the corndog vendors and ice cream stands. On the paths, people run to the exhibit halls and to their cars to get dry. Wimps. I am loving the rain. Not, but I can pretend I’m tough until the smell of fried dough drifts up all around me.
            The chair lingers at the top and I look out at our wheat fields on the other side of the road. The ripe golden heads bend beneath the wind’s strokes, beneath its voice, swaying in the lashings of rain. I watch them bowing in the afternoon gloom, wondering if we can finish the harvest. Dad sold most of it to a distillery and it would be cool to have some of the vodka.
            Dozens of quilts hang in the exhibit halls below. My mom’s is there, my aunt’s, Jannie who cuts my hair. Everyone around here quilts. They like the ones with a thousand little pieces that fit together like puzzles, like lives on a farm never fit together. I like the quilts with stories in them, the ones with the Knik River and Pioneer Peak, with the ravens and auroras. People are sentimental about their quilt patterns. Right now I’m thinking about the one with appliques of salmon on it that won the big purple Grand Champion ribbon.

            I can see the barn where the farmers and 4-H kids take their giant pumpkins and cabbages to be admired. My pet zucchini grew fat this year – twenty-five pounds, but all crookedy. No reason to even enter it. The summer was too hot for zukes, but perfect for the wheat. If it doesn’t go all soft, I’ll carve a vampire zucchini for Halloween.
            The rain lessens as the wheel lurches to the bottom. The Saturday afternoon crowd drifts back into the Midway, and the carnies beg them to toss the ball, throw the dart, bet on the racing rats (they’re really gerbils). The sun breaks through the clouds. Dad will be happy when he can run the combine through the wheat, happy when it’s already vodka, happy when he can worry about what kind to plant next year. Then he’ll forget about me.

            I head straight for the fried butter stand, already tasting that crispy brown batter, and feeling the hot butter running down my chin. Then I’ll head over to the big barn to watch the 4-H turkeys being auctioned off.     

too hot for huge squash
and no prize wheat at this Fair           
but fine crop of quilts

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Creating Croissants at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop

Sammy's birthday present was a class on making croissants and Danish pastries at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, He's just finished adding the blackberries and raspberries to a pan of cream-filled Danish pastries. 

The Danish pastries, hot from the oven. Note the ways in which they are ideal -- rich brown tones, a slight shine from the whole-egg glaze, lots and lots of flaky layers visible because they were layered and cut correctly, berries still whole and plump.

What's a delicious way to spend a Monday evening? Baking croissants and Danish pastries at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop comes right at the top of the list. Ten people assembled on October 19 to learn the secrets of Anchorage's best croissants. Rachel Saul taught the class, with April and Lisa assisting. The pay-off, after three hours on our feet, was boxes full of croissants that we'd shaped and baked -- traditional, chocolate-filled, ham and cheese -- and Danish pastries with cream cheese or frangipane and berries.

A perfect chocolate croissant, with crisp egg-glazed crust, too many layers to count, and plenty of chocolate.

There are many magical treats wrapped in wheat flour. One of the most mysterious is the combination of a yeast dough and pure butter, layered together in a "laminated" pastry. It's also called Viennoiserie dough, and is rich with eggs and sugar.Croissants, Danish pastries (which in Denmark are called Viennese bread), and brioches are examples. All are made from a thin slab of butter, wrapped in dough, then folded and rolled, again and again, to make dozens of fine layers. When the pastries are baked, the water in the butter turns to steam and keeps the layers separate. The proteins in the flour and butter, and the egg glaze all combine to create the crisp brown crust.

April pouring drinks for us before class starts.

As we came into the warm bakery, April and Lisa handed us Fire Island aprons, and offered us foccacia, coffee, and drinks. Rachel gave us each a sheaf of recipes and notes, and led us into the back kitchen. We did every step needed for making croissants, from measuring the ingredients to mixing the dough, rolling it and laminating it with the butter, filling and shaping the pastries, baking them, and of course, eating them at the end. 

Rolling a croissant into the classic shape.

The most important thing to know about making croissants is that you are learning a technique for making layers of dough and butter. Butter melts at room temperature (and bakeries tend to be much warmer than most rooms), so the trick to keeping it layered with the dough rather than melting into it is to keep everything cold.

Mixing the dough with the industrial-strength machine.

  • The dough gets mixed in two stages, beginning with egg yolks, flour (Fire Island uses a mix of organic all-purpose white flour and some whole wheat), water, and pre-ferment (a chunk of yeasted dough that has been rising for at least a day), and let this rest for twenty minutes. The resting (technical name, "autolyse," which means to take up water by itself) lets the flour soak up some of the water. 

  • Add the yeast and salt, and mix thoroughly. Then add the sugar and butter, gradually. Continue mixing until the dough all looks the same.
Window pane test -- this dough has enough gluten development that it can be stretched thin to let the light through without tearing. It's ready to start working with.
  • Continue mixing until you can take a piece of dough and stretch it very thin -- called the window pane test. That shows that the gluten is beginning to "develop," that is, to make the chains of gluten proteins that make wheat-based doughs so stretchy. The gluten chains will capture the carbon dioxide bubbles that the yeast is making as it eats the starches in the flours and turns them into sugars.
  • Separate the dough (depending on how much you are making) into "pillows" -- somewhat rounded but flat pieces of dough. Cover them tightly with saran wrap or other flexible plastic and put into the freezer for about an hour. The essential steps that make the croissants so flaky mostly have to do with keeping the dough and the butter chilled. Take the pieces of dough out of the freezer and roll out into flat sheets about 4 millimeters (three-eighths of an inch) thick. Wrap and freeze again until solid. 

Slicing the  Plugra butter (very high in butter fat) for the butter layers in the croissants.
  • Next, flatten the butter.

Rachel pointing out the thickness of the partially rolled butter. She sliced the butter thin, put it between two sheets of silicone, and used the "sheeter" machine to roll it out to 1/4 inch thick.

A rolling pin works too, and the workout saves you a trip to the gym.

 The 1/4 inch sheet of butter laid onto the dough.

Folding the dough over the butter for the first time.
  • Put the layer of butter onto the sheet of dough, and fold it (instructions are here at   -- she has excellent photos and descriptions of the layering, folding, and rolling processes).
Rachel covering the dough with plastic to keep it from drying out, before putting it in the freezer.
  • Once the first set of folding and layering is done, the dough goes into the freezer for an hour or so. 
Folding and running the dough through the sheeter -- we did this several times.
  • When it comes out, it gets folded and turned and folded again. Then it goes back into the freezer for at least twenty minutes. When it comes out, it's ready to be rolled out, cut and shaped into croissants.   

Class members shaping classic croissants.
  • At this point, it's time to pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. A website ( shows one way to cut and shape the croissants; the photos below show the Fire Island way. Rachel emphasized using a very sharp knife or pizza cutter, and taking care to keep the cut edges safe from being crimped or mushed together so that as the dough rises the layers stay separate and can puff up during proofing and baking. 

Partially trimmed dough, with the box of chocolate bars. The trimmings from the pastries, like the piece in front, get tossed with cinnamon and sugar and baked into monkey bread.

 Rachel measures and trims the sheet of dough before using a five-bladed cutter for the chocolate and ham and cheese croissants. Consistency is critical -- the customer (you and me) wants the same wonderful chocolate croissant every time.

The properly rolled chocolate croissant, with two chocolate bars in each one. The seam of the croissant goes flat against the tray (which is lined with parchment paper).
  • Set the shaped croissants on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper leaving a couple of inches on all sides. Cover them with a sheet of plastic or plastic wrap, and set them to "proof" in a warm place for twenty to thirty minutes (that is, to rise -- they should get to be about twice the size they were when you first shaped them).
 Danish pastries filled, decorated, and ready to bake. The back two have a cream cheese filling topped with blackberries; the front two are filled with frangipane, a sweet almond mixture.

Into the oven -- note how far apart they are on the baking sheet, to make sure that they have maximum space to rise and brown.
  • When you're ready to bake them brush the tops lightly with a pastry brush dipped into a beaten whole egg. Be sure to only brush the tops. If the egg gets onto the cut edges, it will seal them so that they don't spread apart to make the flaky high-puffed desirable croissant.
Finished croissants, ready to savor.
  • Bake them for about nine minutes, then turn the pan around to make sure that they are baking evenly, and bake another nine minutes or until dark golden brown. 

Rachel showing the many-layered interiors, and the exteriors that flake onto the pan because the top layers baked just right.

For hours or to contact Fire Island, click here. They have the same hours (7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.) at both their South Addition location (1441 G Street) and their brand new Airport Heights location (16th and Logan, just off Lake Otis).

The new Fire Island on a rainy opening day.