Croissants: Hours to make, a lifetime to master

PARIS, France — It’s 8 a.m. and six guys in white aprons swarm around the oven, like stock traders at the opening bell. They have been up for hours, and while the small radio is blasting popular French tunes, they carry burning trays of golden croissants, beat eggs and arrange strawberries on a tart. Welcome to the basement kitchen of Aux Peches Normands, an award-winning Paris bakery.

It’s become fashionable for young urbanites to spend an evening with a chef to learn how to make a fancy dinner. L’Atelier des Chefs, for instance, located in a bourgeois Paris neighborhood, for about $55 a pop teaches students how to cook dinner "like grandma" in just 60 minutes. L’Atelier des Chefs, self-proclaimed "most hyped cooking in town," even has its own iPhone app.

And it’s not just happening in Paris: London has its Gordon Ramsay master class ($330 for two hours). New York has the Miette Culinary Studio in Greenwich Village.

So when I set out to find a Croissant Master Class in Paris, I thought it would be a piece a cake — but it was far from it.

As it turns out there aren’t classes open to the public. And unfortunately, you can't make croissants just by looking up a recipe on the web: The croissant dough is a delicate combination of flour and butter and its preparation is probably one of Paris’ best kept secrets.

In the absence of actual classes, I set out to find a baker willing to teach me.

Aux Peches Normands is probably one of my favorite bakeries. The place is pretty, but not pretentious.

Located right next to Republique, the big square where the biggest strikes and demonstrations take place, it’s a bakery for the neighborhood's urban “bobos,” or bourgeois-bohemians, and working-class residents.

To me, the croissants at Aux Peches Normands are just perfect, precisely because of their imperfections. Unlike the croissants sold in supermarkets, none of the traditional bakery’s croissants look the same.

Some are rounder, others more flat. Some are brown, others more golden. The way to spot a top-notch croissant is to press it gently and hear how it crisps. That’s the trick baker Christophe David taught me. He has been making croissants at Aux Peches Gourmands for 12 years, so he is definitely an expert.

Since baking croissants is such a difficult craft, finding someone to teach you is no small matter. So after buying my croissants at the same place for months, I was lucky to come across the chef.

On a busy afternoon at Aux Peches Normands, owner and baker Philippe Conan was behind the counter serving clients. But his white aprons, generous smile and large belly told me that he wasn’t a cashier.

I had to meet with him three times before he agreed to show me the ropes of baking.

“You want to learn how to make croissants, right?” Conan, asked, “Well, there aren’t any schools for amateurs. You would have to take a two-year course. And we’re so busy here, that I can't have you around.”

But some flattery seemed to strike a chord. I told Conan that I was an avid cook, and mastering croissants was my next frontier. I told him that for me it would be impossible to learn the craft without the help of an expert like himself.

“Ok,” he said, “then, come tomorrow at 7 a.m.”

I was ridiculously excited and ran back home, grinning at no one, like a young graduate who just got a mouthwatering job offer.

“The croissant guy is here,” said Conan, as I came in a few days later at the appointed time (an earlier lesson was aborted when I arrived slightly late for the hours-long endeavour). Conan gave me one of those cool white aprons, and handed me over to David.

As we were walking down to the basement, we went through rooms where bakers were taking smoking baguettes out of the oven. There are a dozen bakers at Aux Peches Normands and each one specializes in one task.

For croissants, the youngest apprentice prepares the initial dough. He mixes flour with sugar, salt, yeast, water, gluten and one secret ingredient: “ameliorant,” or enhancer.

The ameliorant looks like beige flour, and it doesn't smell like anything, but Christophe was rather elusive when I asked him what it was exactly. “It’s not chemical, it’s natural,” he said, “and you won’t be able to buy it at a supermarket.”

The bakers were clearly amused to have a rookie around.

We flattened the dough, placed a huge square of butter in it, then folded the dough around the butter like an envelope. We pressed it over and over, while Christophe would sprinkle a bit of flour with nonchalance — “it makes baking easier,” he said.

One of the golden rules for making good croissants is to let them rest, and rest some more.

“If you work your dough too fast, if you ask too much from it," said David. "Your croissants will look like crap. You have to give them some time, let your dough breath, and it will express itself in the oven.”

All in all, between the stages of preparation, the dough usually rests for more than 12 hours.

Only after that long and meticulous process does the baker cut the dough into triangles and roll the croissants. David did all this with disconcerting ease.

He then let the croissants rest for another hour and a half.

After that, another baker brushed on an egg wash and baked them. Then staff were taking croissants in and out of the ovens, and dozens of them were carried upstairs to be sold to the bobos and workers of Republique for about $1.50 each.

David proudly told me that Aux Peches Normands won the prestigious “Prix du Croissant” several times, an award given every May in Paris to the makers of the city's best croissants.

As I gave back my apron and headed out of the bakery, my head was spinning with images of hot trays of crispy croissants. My hands still covered in flour, I tried to remember all the golden nuggets that David had shared with me. I dreamt that one day I, too, would hang the “Prix du Croissant” on my kitchen’s wall. But for now I'm glad I live near Aux Peches Normand.