FOOD AND DRINK
Perfect Your Croissant-making Game at Montreal's Baking Boot Camp
At Le Maison Christian Faure, you can learn to make almost any French pastry, and you also learn not to make excuses
I miss Montreal’s buttery, melt-in-your mouth croissants. A decade ago, I moved from Quebec’s largest city, which is known for its culinary scene and European flair, to a community of 2,300 people in the Northwest Territories. I now live in a town so small that you turn left at the main intersection for Chinese food and right if you want pizza. There are neither traffic lights nor a bakery serving croissants. On the eve of Montreal’s 375th anniversary, I travelled more than 5,000 kilometres back to the French culture capital of North America to learn to make my own. Excuse me if I sound a little desperate.
Some 12 hours after my plane lands, I find myself on the third floor of Old Montreal’s La Maison Christian Faure with a dozen other students ready for the challenge of a one-day workshop on how to make croissants and brioches, watched over by a French pastry chef. Faure founded the bakery and boutique baking school in 2013. He also offers workshops for amateurs like me. The one-off, single-day courses for “serious amateurs” cost $250, and there are series as well.
We’re using the bakery’s recipes, but our instructor starts with a disclaimer before the first ingredient has even been measured. “You will each interpret the recipe differently,” French pastry chef Christophe Sportellini cautions. “If you get results that are different than what you see downstairs [in the bakery], it’s your fault.” Got it. If my pastries look terrible and taste even worse, don’t blame the teacher.
“Viennoiseries aren’t complicated to make,” he assures us. Clearly, he hasn’t seen me in the kitchen. Come to think of it, neither has my husband. But I’m determined to try. The key is to use good quality ingredients, make sure the dough remains cold enough to keep the yeast from rising, and allow for time to let the dough sit. “It takes 24 hours to make beautiful croissants,” Sportellini says. “You won’t be making croissants at 6 a.m. and have them ready for 8 a.m. unless you’re taking them out of a box.”
“If you get results that are different … it’s your fault.”
We create a well in the middle of our flour and drop salt and sugar in different corners, like boxers in a ring. We mix everything together and pour in the yeast as well as cold milk and ice water to prevent the dough from warming up too quickly between our in-expert hands.
Then the real workout begins. I flip the dough into the air energetically, but I’m not pounding it hard enough when it lands on the table before me. “Imagine that you’ve just spent an hour in rush hour traffic,” Sportellini tells me. “Now get your frustrations out.” The chef hangs his head in disbelief when I tell him that my community is so small we don’t have rush hour. The most we can muster is the rush minute. Nonetheless, I dig deep into my imagination and give my dough what the chef decides is an impressive pounding. Once the dough has reached an elastic consistency, it goes into the fridge to keep it cold and give it time to rest. Apparently, the dough needs a nap after all that exercise.
Courtesy Hélèna Katz
Later, when the dough comes out of the cold, so does the biggest block of butter I’ve ever seen. All 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of it, sitting on the chef’s table like a large chunk of soapstone about to be carved. Sportellini grabs a knife and starts slicing off pieces that we place in the centre of our rolled-out dough. Then we flip the sides and ends of the dough into the middle – as we would wrap a Christmas present. A rolling pin flattens it out. Then we fold the dough into thirds like bedsheets, tuck it inside wax paper and send it back to the fridge.
During the dough’s next trip to my table, it’s folded twice more into thirds and rolled out to a centimetre thick before being cut and shaped into croissants. As a child who grew up in a school system that mixed imperial measures with a sprinkling of metric, I wonder just how big a centimetre is.
As I paint my little masterpieces with egg wash, Yvon, an amateur baker with whom I’m sharing a workstation, grins at me. “So now people in your community will turn left for Chinese food, right for pizza, or go straight for croissants,” he jokes. After letting the croissants puff up for 45 minutes before going into the oven, I realize too late that I need to brush up on my metric system; my dough wasn’t thin enough when I rolled it out.
Fortunately, I have more luck making brioches. After giving the dough time to rest on metal baking sheets in the fridge, we roll the dough into a long sausage before cutting up and rolling small pieces into the shape of dinner rolls. I braid half the loaf before brushing it and my brioches with egg wash. They’re covered in plastic while they double in size. “You can use a garbage bag before you throw crap into it,” Sportellini deadpans.
By the end of the day I’m so tired that I feel like curling up on a giant cookie sheet, just as my dough did before me, and having a nap. Instead, I wait patiently for my culinary creations to finish baking. “Don’t worry about what they look like,” Sportellini says as he pulls trays of croissants and brioches from the oven. “The important thing is that you’ve learned how to make puff pastry.”
My brioches and braided bread emerge looking pretty good and don’t taste too bad, either, but my sprawling croissants are so badly disfigured that they’re unrecognizable. “Don’t try this at home,” my dad jokes when he sees the results, but I’m undeterred. I still want to try making braided bread and chocolate croissants. But judging by my first attempt, Fort Smith won’t be getting a bakery serving up croissants anytime soon.
This story was originally published Nov. 2, 2016.