Sometimes it feels like more is better, especially when you’re in the kitchen. More chocolate, more pizza, more salt, more recipes: all things that should have limitless bounds, if you ask me. Though in just a few special cases, less is actually more. Being less fussy and doing less work can yield a better final product. This is the story of a surprising (and notoriously fussy) character: the chocolate croissant, a.k.a. pain au chocolat.
Let me introduce you to our Pain au Chocolat recipe, originally added to our website in 2009, courtesy of our research and development team. Loosely based on our Baker’s Croissants, it starts with a yeasted, slightly enriched dough that encases a beautiful butter block and sticks of rich, bittersweet chocolate.
As with most laminated dough. the butter is encased by the dough (or “locked in”), and then the dough is rolled and folded repeatedly to create lots of layers. The original recipe calls for four sets of what bakers call either a “single fold” or a “letter fold.”
What’s a letter fold, you ask? The dough is essentially folded in thirds, as if folding a piece of paper to put in a business envelope. The bottom third is folded up and covers the middle third, and then the top third is folded down, covering that same section.
This process of performing letter folds is repeated another three times in the original Pain au Chocolat recipe, with some rest periods in between. The final result is 163 layers of dough and butter!
If you’re thinking that almost 200 layers seem excessive, you might be onto something.
How many folds are too many?
“Man, that’s a LOT of folds!”
This is precisely what King Arthur baking ambassador Martin Philip thought when he started playing around with the Pain au Chocolat recipe in hopes of coming up with a chocolate version.
To see if his gut instinct was right, Martin compared the four-letter-fold process to other well-known bakers and bakeries. Sure enough, bakers like former King Arthur Bakery director Jeffrey Hamelman, Roger Gural (formerly of Arcade Bakery in Tribeca), Karen Bornarth (of Hot Bread Kitchen in Brooklyn), and Bruno Albouze (of the eponymous San Diego bakery), and even Team USA at the 2016 Coupe du Monde (the World Cup of Baking) all use fewer folds (and in some cases far fewer folds) in their croissants.
Was there something these bakers were achieving that we were missing in our pastries?
What are we missing?
Now that it was clear King Arthur’s original Pain au Chocolat recipe had far more folds, and thus more layers, than similar recipes, it was time to let the baked goods do the talking.
Martin made the recipe as written, including four letter folds (making all 163 layers).
And then he made another version, one where he aimed to create a marginally more open structure — what he described as a slightly wider “honeycomb” texture on the inside. This version had just two sets of folds instead of four: one letter fold followed by one “book fold,” or “double fold.” (In a book fold, the two short ends of a rectangle are folded toward the center until they meet in the middle. The whole packet is then folded in half down the middle as if closing a book.)
Croissant math is a little tricky since you have to account for all the places where the dough touches dough (it’s only a layer if it’s dough-butter-dough). But trust me when I say that, unbelievable as it might seem, Martin reduced the number of folds from 163 layers to a mere 25 layers.
Fewer folds in less time
There’s one other key change Martin made to the lamination process aside from simply reducing the number of folds. He performed the folds back to back with no chilling time between. *Gasp!*
No chilling time? Isn’t that one of the pillars of perfect pastry? Roll your dough, fold, chill, repeat. Isn’t resting the dough essential, to allow the gluten to relax?
It is to a point. If you tried to perform the original four sets of folds back to back, you would have ended your attempt in tears of frustration. It’s practically impossible to roll dough that many times all at once because the gluten would become too strong. But with just two folds, the gluten doesn’t get activated quite as readily. The dough is more forgiving and you can almost trick it into behaving if you work quickly.
Martin made this shortcut version of laminated dough but otherwise kept the formula the same. He put the packets aside to proof and continued on to make two versions of Pain au Chocolat: one with the original 163 layers and one with a mere 25.
The proof is in the pastry
As Martin says, the structure told the tale. According to him, the original four-letter-fold recipe had “many fine layers that compressed into one another, creating a tight structure.”
Slicing into the pastries revealed that the one with fewer folds had a gorgeous open texture that truly did look like a honeycomb, as well as more clearly defined layers.
When you get to the point where your dough has 160+ layers, the butter is pressed so incredibly thin that it doesn’t have quite enough moisture to create the steam that typically makes the dough layers separate and puff. Plus, the dough is stretched so tightly that it resists the puffing motion.
Instead of opening up into a beautiful open crumb (that “honeycomb” structure), a croissant made from such highly manipulated dough is tight and has almost a cell-like appearance on the inside — not exactly what most of us are looking for when we bite into a delicate, crispy croissant.
Find your quintessential pastry
Could this truly be right? Could fewer folds actually produce a better final product, or in this case, a more desirable croissant? The pictures of the pastry baked as sheets don’t lie.
That’s not to say this method is the definitive process for making laminated dough — just consider some of the French pastry chefs who go through painstaking measures to create a tightly layered structure. To them, the small cellular texture is what defines success. But for others, an open honeycomb-like inside with a flaky, rough-puff-pastry-like texture is the end goal.
Bottom line: what defines one person’s quintessential croissant may not be the same for the next, and there’s room for all types of approaches — we've simply opted for an open-crumb croissant with more distinct layers. The shatteringly crispy shards that fly everywhere at first bite are like croissant confetti, and the distinct, buttery layers beg to be pulled apart one at a time. It's pastry made perfect.
Bake, rate, and review our Pain au Chocolat recipe, and let us know exactly how many folds you prefer your in your croissants, in the comments, below.
Cover photo by Liz Neily.