Pain au Chocolat: The Method Behind the Flaky Madness
The way Roger Gural explains it, croissants weren’t really his thing. He’s a bread guy at heart, with 20 years of making technically perfect, eye-catchingly beautiful French-style loaves under his belt, and stints at Bouley, Almondine, and The French Laundry to prove it. Gural spent years teaching breadmaking at the French Culinary Institute, and when he talks about his career, he doesn’t fuss over the boldfaced names on his resume. He comes off as a humble, patient guy who just so happens to have worked at some of the world’s best bakeries.
Croissants weren’t on his agenda until Gural was asked to represent the United States at a prestigious baking competition in France a few years ago. Part of the competition (which also included, delightfully, a section dedicated to “decorative bread sculptures”) was viennoiserie, a category of baked goods that blurs the line between bread and pastry, made with yeasted dough that’s often enriched and laminated—things like croissants, brioche, and danishes. Gural set about learning to make croissants, aced the competition, and the rest, well… the rest is still unfolding.
Today, Gural runs Arcade Bakery, a Euro-vibed, weekdays-only operation semi-hidden in the lobby of a 1920s-era office building in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. It’s an unexpected place to find some of the city’s finest breads, viennoiserie, and pastries, but word of Gural’s pedigree has spread among New York’s carb-lovers since Arcade opened two years ago. Among their highest praise is that for his croissants and their brethren—pain au chocolat (sometimes called chocolate croissants in the US), almond croissants, ham and cheese croissants, and the like.
Making viennoiserie is not a casual undertaking. At one point, my editor wanted this article to be about how to make pain au chocolat at home, but it quickly became apparent that that was an unrealistic undertaking for most home cooks (it’s certainly not impossible, just very labor-intensive—more power to you, though, if you do!). So instead, Gural invited us to observe the pain au chocolat-making process from a professional level, in the attempt to understand more about the craft.
Making pain au chocolat is the same as making croissants for the first several steps, until it’s time to fill and shape the pastry. “Croissants are interesting, because they make it easy to see how all the parts of the baking process are interconnected,” Gural says. “When you make bread, there’s often a long waiting period between each step, but with croissants, you’re more in touch with the dough. I feel like they help me understand the whole process of baking better.”
It begins, as most baked goods do, with the dough. A mixture of flour, sugar, yeast, milk, butter, water, and malt powder (“to give it strength,” says baker Amadou Ly, who’s worked at Arcade for almost three years), the dough is worked in a massive standing mixer until it’s smooth and pliant, with Ly keeping an eye on the machine throughout. “The friction from the machine causes heat,” he explains. “I have a DDT—that’s ‘desired dough temperature’—of about 73°F, and you to have to watch the mixer so everything gets evenly incorporated without overheating.” From there, Ly works the dough (referred to as a “head”) into a perfect ball, wraps it, and allows it to ferment at room temperature for about an hour. This is where the yeast gets to work, deepening the flavor and structure in the dough and creating gas bubbles that cause it to double in size. From there, Ly pats it down to release the bubbles and chills it overnight in the refrigerator.
The following day, the dough is ready to be laminated, which is where things start to get tricky for home cooks. At Arcade and most professional bakeries, they have a machine called a sheeter, which resembles a sort of giant pasta maker, to roll large batches of dough into perfectly uniform sheets. It runs the dough back forth with the push of a button, and you can set the desired thickness of each sheet. Laminating is the process of sandwiching together sheets of dough and butter, which helps create that flaky texture we know and love. As the pastry bakes, the butter melts, creating steam that causes the layers to rise in a honeycombed pattern.
Laminating is a labor-intensive process, even with a sheeter. First, the baker must roll out slabs of chilled butter into large, thin squares that are pliant but still cold. Then, they roll the chilled dough out into a larger, thinner square, and place the butter on top. They fold each side of the dough around the butter, like a business letter, and run it through the sheeter. As the dough and butter get pressed together, they create a long, floppy slab that must be carefully straightened and folded over itself to create those all-important layers.
Every head gets rolled out and folded twice, with the goal of distributing the butter in the dough as evenly as possible (thus creating perfect layers). Each sheet yields around 50 pain au chocolat, and the bakers at Arcade laminate about five sheets per day—not bad for a bakery that closes at 4 p.m. every day.
The laminated dough chills for a few hours, then it’s time for shaping. This is where pain au chocolat become pain au chocolat and croissants become croissants. Using the sheeter once more, bakers roll out the laminated dough into one long, thin sheet that covers their entire work surface like a canvas. They then use a five-pronged bicycle cutter (which looks like a mini pizza slicer) to cut the dough into little rectangles that are 4 ¾ x 3 ½ inch.
The chocolate in pain au chocolat comes in stick form little waxy batons that look like Kit-Kats and soften without melting completely during baking. Arcade uses 55 percent dark chocolate batons from Valrhona, which Gural prefers to the super-dark stuff: “Whenever someone uses bittersweet chocolate in a pain au chocolat, I just think it doesn’t taste right—I expect a certain kind of sweetness,” he says. Bakers place two batons, one on either end of each dough rectangle, then curl the dough up and around the sticks, forming a neat tubular pastry with two distinct chocolate arteries.
The pain au chocolat are then brushed with egg wash and chilled overnight again. On the third day, the pastries take a final trip to a temperature-controlled proofing box (held at 80 degrees) for an hour and a half, where they triple in size. After a second dose of egg wash, they’re finally ready to be baked, in a 440-degree oven for about 12 minutes.
You might think that pain au chocolat are best eaten hot and fresh out of the oven, but Gural prefers to let his sit for about 45 minutes before biting in, which gives them time to cool and become more texturally complex. “There are a few things I look for in my ideal croissant: First, the croissant should have a good volume but feel very, very light when you pick it up. Second, I want a really crispy outer layer so there’s contrast when I bite in. Third, we try to ferment the dough very well, so the pastry itself should have a deeper flavor that goes beyond just tasting sweet. That’s my trifecta for perfection.”