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A croissant is a type of pastry, classically made with puff pastry dough so that it is light, flaky, and extremely buttery. Traditionally, croissants are formed into crescent shapes, which is probably where the name originated, since croissant means “crescent” in French. The pastries are extremely popular in France as well as in other nations, and are typically eaten with breakfast. In some cases, croissants may also be filled with sweet or savory ingredient, or used like bread to make croissant sandwiches.
Making croissants requires patience, several days of time, and skill with pastry. Many cooks prefer to buy frozen puff pastry dough or ready to bake croissants for this reason, since frozen doughs are easy to work with and they usually taste perfectly passable. Purchasing frozen dough or croissants also allows bakers to cook just a few as needed, since croissants taste best when they are fresh out of the oven.
For bakers who would like to try their hand at making croissants, start by heating one and one half cups milk until it is warm, but not boiling. Pour the milk into a large mixing bowl, and sprinkle in one and one half tablespoons of yeast, along with three tablespoons of sugar. Some bakers also like to add vanilla or almond extract, in which case no more than two tablespoons should be added. In another mixing bowl, sift together three cups of flour with one and one half teaspoons salt, and then slowly pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined. Cover and chill overnight, allowing it to double in size.
Once the dough has been made, prepare a butter block by blending one and one half cups of butter with three tablespoons of flour until the mixture is uniform, and then mold the block into a solid wedge before chilling it. The butter block will be used in the next stage, preparing the puff pastry dough.
Start by turning the dough out onto a well floured surface and molding it roughly into a square. Stretch the corners out, turning the square into a ragged X, and then place the butter block in the middle. Fold the dough over to make an envelope, and seal it tightly before rolling the dough out into a rectangle. Next, bring the two sides of the rectangle together to meet in the middle, and then turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat the process, overlapping the sides a bit in this case. Flatten the dough lightly with a roller, and chill it for 30 minutes before pulling it out of the fridge, allowing it to warm for 15 minutes, and repeating the folding process.
You should plan on three complete cycles of dough folding, although some bakers fold the dough four or five times. Each fold creates new layers of pastry folded in butter, and these layers will turn flaky and golden when they are baked into a croissant or another puff pastry of choice.
After the folding cycles are complete, chill the dough for another half hour before rolling it out, cutting triangular shapes into the dough, and then rolling them up into the classic crescent shape of croissants. Let the croissants rise for at least two hours before baking them in a 350 degree Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius) oven until golden brown and crispy. Brush each croissant lightly with eggs before baking for a more glossy appearance, and serve warm.
Strictly speaking, croissants are made from puff pastry with added yeast (not all puff pastry uses yeast). Making them is probably as much a question of what the French call "tour de main" as anything else - that is, like mayonnaise, it takes practice, well beyond what any recipe can tell you. And chilling the butter is a big deal - it can take days of repeated application to do right.
For those who care, the croissant appeared in Paris in 1839 as the Austrian kipfel (itself documented back to the 13th century) when August Zang, an Austrian artillery officer, opened the first Viennese bakery on the rue de Richelieu. The kipfel, shaped like a crescent, was given the French word for that shape in France, and subsequently their paths parted (kipfel can contain lard and croissants are now, as we see, made of puff pastry).
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