“Mon Dieu! Your butter is leaking!”
And indeed, it was. The instructor, a French-born-Chinese pastry chef, spoke heavily accented English, but her tone was an unmistakable mix of contempt and disappointment at my weak efforts to properly seal the corners of my dough. She snatched the rolling pin from my hands to salvage the oozing mess that was piled on the steel table in front of me. As a former Pastry Chef for Paris’ esteemed Hotel Meurice, she surely understood how to make passable pastry from my shoddy sow’s ear.
It wasn’t yet 10am and already I’d been humiliated. Unable to blame my bumbling on neither wine with lunch or skunky weed scored in a local park, I hung back and watched her work my dough into something more worthy of being baked into the French national treasure: a croissant. This early morning baking class, offered near Paris’ Hôtel-de-Ville, held out the tantalizing notion that I would soon be capable of churning out flaky, airy delights in my own kitchen. Now red-faced and smocked in a cheap plastic apron with my name scrawled across its front in blue magic marker, I wasn’t so sure.
The history of the croissant is as layered as the pastry itself. In 1683, Vienna was under attack by the Turks who, unsuccessful in their attempts to starve the city into submission, began to tunnel underneath its walls. Viennese bakers, slaving away at their underground ovens, heard the racket and alerted the city’s defenders who thwarted the Turks’ intentions. To celebrate their victory, bakers made a pastry in the shape of the Turkish crescents they had seen on the enemy’s flags. The legend continues that it was a young Austrian princess by the name of Marie Antoinette, who married Louis XVI and insisted that her Parisian chefs recreate her favorite pastry, thus introducing the croissant to France.
The amount of butter used to make a dozen croissants is gluttonous. But the French appetite for high-quality butter is a constant and guilt-free accoutrement to the table, not unlike liters of quaffable wine and the ashtray. We weighed ingredients, composed silken almond cream, and kneaded balls of fleshy dough. We talked of tempering and egg washes and cacao percentages. The highly organized basement kitchen, now covered in the detritus of a war waged on sacks of flour, was soon filled with the comforting aroma of baking dough. Strong coffee was passed around, as we tasted through our morning’s accomplishments.
As I walked into the bright, early summer sunlight and away from the Beaux-Arts building housing the cooking school, I reached into my culinary swag bag and tore into a still-warm chocolate croissant. My gustatory critique of the rather dense pastry told me that with practice, I could do better.
Hours later, as I sat enjoying a café crème, I wiped at the corners of my mouth. Looking down at my black cloth napkin, I realized, with more than a bit of pride, there was a thin coating of flour on it.