I am a person who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I fail. Sometimes in big ways. Often in small ways. And knowing I’d fail is, in many ways, the reason I picked Christianity out of all the frameworks for living a good life. I thought, “if there is a god who is good, then that god must accept that I will fail to be good” and of the handful of worldviews I examined Christianity was the one that seemed to fit that belief the best. So I decided some fourteen years ago that I’d let the Bible define who God is to me.
Now, this isn’t a defense of Christianity. It’s a newsletter about the first 12 times I will make croissants, so why in the world am I talking about how I came to accept being a Christian? Well, today I am going to write about how I came to make croissants and to do so I’ll need to type “God” and “Faith” a few times. If you aren’t a person of faith or if you left your childhood faith because people used words like “God” and “Faith” to do harm or excuse themselves from harm they’ve done, I’ll be trying not to do that. Feel free to let me know if I have by replying to this email. Only I’ll get it and since I can’t see your body language, your reply is the only way I’ll know if I’ve caused harm. But really, I’m going to be writing about why I decided to make croissants, so, all of this is hopefully not needed.
And now, for the break down of batch 8, the best batch (so far).
Break down and review
Expert Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Expert Review: Delicious! These were the best batch yet.
I think all who tried batch 7 can agree that they were only croissant in name. A few people have tried to tell me that the butter flavor was great and while I agree and appreciate the encouragement, the fact is that many things taste like butter and aren’t croissants. Being buttery is not enough.
A croissant needs to be full of layers. Those layers need to be flakey on the outside and soft on the inside. A croissant should seem light when you pick it up and melt in your mouth when you eat it. None of these things were done by batch 7, but I am happy to say that many were done in batch 8, though I’m hoping that the batch 9 croissants are much more airy.
Batch 8 was based off of batch 5 because batch 5 had been my best batch and having my mother-in-law in town (and helping) I figured I should try for the best. This means that batch 8 was made with normal all purpose flour. Since the butter flavor of batch 7 was good and the saltiness seemed correct, I used the same salted 85% butter fat butter and the same amount of salt as I did in batch 7. I also focused on two parts of the process with batch 8 that I thought would help the croissants puff up more before being baked.
The first part of the process I focused on was blooming the yeast. This week I let the yeast bloom for a fair bit longer in the water before pouring it into the flour than I have been. To be honest I find waiting for this step really hard. I just want to make the dough, I don’t want to wait for yeast to “bloom”. But, alas, I need more air and the people-on-the-internet seem to think blooming is an important step. My hope was that more activation would lead to yeast that was healthier and thus yeast that would be more active when proofing. I still think I could do this better, and I’m still really unsure what blooming yeast really does. So you know, thoughts/tip/words-of-advice on blooming yeast sent as a reply to this email would be appreciated.
The second part of the process I focused on doing better was proofing. I let the croissants proof overnight in the oven with the light on. I have proofed the croissants in the oven with the lights on a few times, and I’ve proofed the croissants over night a few times, but this is the first time I’ve done both. For the croissants on the top rack it seemed to work really well. The croissants on the bottom rack didn’t raise as much, so for batch 9 I’m thinking about trying to proof them all on the same level of the oven and then moving them to baking sheets before baking.
Oh, as an aside, a few people have suggested in the past that I use only the egg whites when making an egg wash. I tried this in batch 7 (and forgot to mention it) and found the egg wash hard to apply, so I went back to the full egg egg wash this time and I think it works a bit better.
The ideas I’m thinking about for batch 9 are
- Making the butter block fatter to help keep it thick enough throughout lamination.
- Adding more yeast. I toss half a packet of yeast each week, maybe I’ll toss it into the croissants.
- Rolling the dough out less, again to help with keeping layers distinct.
I’m going to use the word “leisure” a few times. Like my faith in God, my views on leisure define why I’m writing to you about making croissants. In reviewing this post, Caitlin pointed out that my definition of leisure is a bit different then hers and suggested I define it up top so that we’re all on the same page.
And so here is my definition: Leisure is a pursuit outside of work that is productive and done for joy, wonder or delight. Most of the time this excludes watching TV, flipping through social media apps and reading click bait be it on a screen or in a book.
Create for your neighbors
In late 2019 I was talking to a co-worker about poetry. He has decided that expressing himself via poetry is life giving and as a person who has felt the same enough to study writing poetry in college I wanted to hear how and why he was picking up this leisure activity. In the course of this conversation I mentioned that my poetry mentor, a man named John Leax, used to tell me that real poetry was poetry you shared with neighbors, not with publishers. It had been years since I remembered Leax saying this and saying it to a friend made the message clearer to me. Matthew, don’t look for validation in being a published poet, find it in sharing yourself with those around you.
This conversation was one of several I had in 2019 that kept turning me back to the idea of writing, but while the others matter this conversation about poetry and about how real poetry is that which you share with your friends made me realize that I could write for you and not some faceless mob and so I went downstairs into my workshop and wrote names of people who I thought might be down for reading my writing. In time, and because I was reading a newsletter by Robin Sloan that suggested people should write a newsletter, that list grew to be an email newsletter.
Neighbor is an interesting word to a Christian and Leax being a Christian, it’s good to note that he didn’t just mean those who live close to me, or those in my inner circle, he meant everyone who is a part of my life from friend to foe to stranger as Jesus defines a neighbor as anyone God gives you the chance to show God’s love to. And, as I’m writing this, I’ve realized there are a few people I’ve left off that I think I should have included, namely, my neighbors. I keep thinking, I should bring them croissants and I bet that would be a lot easier if they were reading this…
Leisure should pursue delight over gain
For most of my life I’ve done side projects. As a young teen I made a skateboarding website. As I grew older I learned to program and wrote lots of “cool” but useless software. In college I made a site for my friends that we now call “the original instagram” (it still mostly works). For much of my life up until a few years after college, I wrote short stories and poetry continually. Spending my free hours creating is what I do. But creating isn’t always healthy and I’ve long struggled to understand why I burn hours of my life away making things and often not finishing them.
After writing down that list of names, I started to try and decide what kind of project I could write about and, as I tend to do, I started to lose site of this newsletter as a way to share myself with my neighbors and started to make fully featured production. I started dreaming about how I could use this newsletter to serialize a novel, or document my attempts at starting a company. I dreamed about it following the 2020 presidential race and falling into the hands of some Washington insider just before the general election and somehow being so insightful that I was asked to be interviewed by this imaginary news anchor who, truth be told, has interviewed me in many other day dreams. But, none of these felt right, though I couldn’t explain why.
At this same time, thanks to something I was reading but have now lost track of, I found myself confronted with an atypical definition of consumerism: the belief that all things can be valued in money.
As a person who sometimes takes too much pride in staying clean from consumerism, this definition cut me to the core. This is me. All of the ideas I had for this newsletter that lasted long enough to warrant a daydream were ideas that I could see a positive monetary value in. Going further back into my life, most of my side projects are things that either cost me nothing but time and so I was ok with doing them or things I was doing because I felt there might be a way for me to gain from doing this. Seeing this self-serving greed filled side of myself was mind boggling.
I spent hours thinking this over and considering how this had impacted my life. I told my wife this idea over and over again until she clearly was done hearing about it. And then I started to write manifestos (a weird habit of mine I’m sure). In the end, writing the manifestos made me see how doing something so that you can know and be known by your neighbors was clearly in opposition to doing something because it might have a financially prosperous future. God’s call to “love your neighbors” is not intended to be a followed up by a “so you can get rich”. Seeing this behavior in myself made me realize that I needed to make something physical that I could share with you all and not just write about it.
Learn in ways that grow your understanding of the world
Now, with a list of names in hand and a realization that I needed this project to be something I could share with people in the flesh, I pretty quickly found myself at baking. I think it was Caitlin who suggested croissants and knowing me well, it fit. Not just because I like croissants (though I really like croissants) but because part of what being a person who believes in God has grown to mean to me is that I should take wonder in his creation. For some I’m sure taking wondering in God’s creation means talking long walks deep into the woods. For others I’m sure it means hearing the life stories of friends. And yet for me, it’s about understanding how the world works.
Over the last four years this need to explore God’s wonder has shown itself in a few ways. My parents will say this explains why I enjoyed taking about my gameboy as much as I enjoyed playing it. As an adult this has been most evident in the pursuit to understand whiskey a few friends and I have been on for the last five years. And, ever sense Caitlin and I started watching the Great British Bake Off, it has meant trying to bake cool things.
The fact that you can take some rather basic kitchen ingredients and apply time and a process and have croissants is amazing to me. It strikes wonder. It makes me want to make croissants better. It also makes me want to try weird ingredients like flour from the farmers market, honey in the butter and sourdough starter rather than yeast. So why I’m writing about croissants is that I want to understand how the world works and right now I’m understanding that by baking 12 batches of croissants. There is some admission there that I need to use my hands to make things in order to learn that I could dive into as well, but its late and so, that can wait for another time.
So, why did I decided to write a newsletter about croissants?
First, I was reminded that knowing and being known by your neighbors is important and so I decided to try my hand at a newsletter. Second, I was reminded that what one does for leisure should be for fun and not for gain and so many of what might be more typical “Matthew” actives were stricken from the list. And third, what makes me tick is seeing how things work and doing so with my own two hands.
Thanks as always for reading.
See you next week,
PS: I started making a sourdough starter thanks to some help from my mother-in-law this week. Here it in its first moments of life.