Sunday, August 21, 2016

Baker Daughter Julia Williams

Another member of the next generation of writer-cooks debuts today on Mystery Lover's Kitchen!

Today we have a very special guest, my daughter Julia Williams (I hope it’s not nepotism). What is she doing on Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen? Because she works at a handful of different jobs in Chicago, and one of them is making croissants and other pastries for a chain of coffee shops there. Lots of flaky pastries! She’s been sending me pictures from work for a while, and I wanted to share them with you. (In case you’re worried, she’s quite svelte, although she will admit to eating some of the malformed pastries now and then. Baking can be hard work!)

So she, 
the baker with hands-on experience has explained to me how commercial croissants are made, with pictures. It’s unlikely you will ever be called on to produce croissants in numbers like these, so I won’t give you a recipe (“start with 50 pounds of butter and . . .”).

First you mix: combine the ingredients in a big mixer. The blade spins in place, and the bowl rotates around it.

Divide the dough into 3.5 kilo (just shy of 8 pounds) lumps, and put them in the proofer for an hour. [For those who don’t know what a proofer is, like me, it is an oven that controls temperature (at around 85 degrees F) and humidity (around 70%) so that your dough can rise quickly without drying out. In case you’re really curious, if a baker wants a slower rise, the dough is put in a “retarder” which is warmer than a refrigerator but cooler than a proofer.] The proofer that Julie’s bakery uses is about the size of a walk-in closet, and has a retard setting as well (goes from hot to cold in half an hour). (Aw, come on, mystery readers--don't start thinking of ways to leave a body in a proofer--which would lend itself to all sorts of good titles.)

Remove the (now-large) dough balls from the proofer. Shape them roughly, place on sheet pans, and freeze (yes, freeze). Later they will become “books,” which are sandwiched with sheets of butter, frozen again, defrosted, and then “laminated” with many folds (that is, you fold and roll again multiple times, which produces those lovely thin flaky layers in your croissant).

Once they are laminated, they are rolled out in a big sheet and cut into narrow triangles, which are rolled (pointy end out) to form the classic croissant (yes) crescent shape. Proof, egg wash, and bake.

Rolled and cut


There are lots of different options. Ham and cheese croissants, for example. Chocolate croissants. Filled croissants. Or use the same dough for Danish or kouign amann (look it up).

How to make a lot of croissants!

You can make puff pastry at home, if you really, really want to. The Great British Baking Show offered one recipe (and we watched the contestants struggle with it), but the ingredients were basically flour and water for the dough (Julie says the recipe she uses includes yeast and powdered milk as well), although the rolling and layering with butter is the same. Out of curiosity I checked a Julia Child recipe for Easy Puff Pastry and found she avoided the layering altogether, instead choosing to break up the butter into small chunks and roll (multiple times) from there. I can’t say I’ve tried it, but surely it must give a different result than the layered approach?

And that takes time. Make dough. Chill. Roll out butter. Fold butter and dough into a packet. Chill. Roll. Repeat a number of times, chilling or freezing between each rolling. The end product is delightful, but do you really want to do all that work?

Here’s one suggestions: grab a plane to Paris, find a café with tables on the sidewalk, and order a croissant or two to go with your coffee. And enjoy, knowing that a baker has worked hard to give you that lovely flaky pastry.

Julia Williams graduated from Smith College with a degree in comparative literature, and worked in a large independent bookstore for five years. Currently she lives in Chicago, where she both writes plays and performs with local theater groups—when she’s not producing pastries!

I’ll ask if she can respond to questions about the baking process, but she has an odd schedule (she has to start the croissants at 4:30 a.m.

A few less than perfect examples that they
couldn't sell. Wonder who are them?


  1. What a fascinating post! Thanks Sheila for getting the dope on baking pastries and thanks Julia for sharing.

  2. Fascinating! thanks. Great post!

  3. What a lot of work, but what a marvelous end product!
    Wish her goodies were nearby.

  4. Tell Julia I said hi! (Waving at her.) This was absolutely fascinating. One of my objectives is to try baking my own croissants one day. I made the mistake of trying to make my own Danish with a misnamed "easy" recipe. I won't bother with that again! Some things are just better left to bakeries!

  5. Oh, what fun! Love seeing the process and hearing the terms. This week, I was able to eat a croissant at the Park Ave Bakery in Helena that inspired the fictional bakery in my Food Lovers' Village series, and I'm always sniffing and peering at what's going on, so curious. Thanks for the inside view -- and what fun to catch a glimpse of your daughter!

  6. I made croissants once back in college. I had been watching Julia Child. That's my excuse. They were a little on the giant side but they were tasty. I'm afraid I haven't made them since.

  7. Making puffed pastry is so time consuming and having to keep refrigerating it is a pain so in my older years I now buy frozen Phyllo sheets and for mini tarts I buy the little puffed tart shells, and that just has to be good enough. People eat them so fast that I really don't think it matters that the dough is bought. I love to make Baklava so that is why I started making my own, but with all the syrup and nuts in them, it didn't matter if it took you five hours to make them or minutes with the frozen and thawed dough.

    Now, as to those less than perfect croissants; I think that they have a story to tell. My favorite croissants are dark chocolate (lots of it) and apricot which is hard to find, so I make them myself too. When we were at the Cape (Cape Cod) in May, their best seller was their Nutella croissant I heard.

    This was a fun posting and thank you and your daughter for sharing it with all of us. She is beautiful.

    Cynthia B.

  8. A wonderful post, Sheila and Julia, thank you—and thanks to Julia for the hard work she does on a daily basis to make so many people happy. I got a kick out of your mentioning the kouign amann. A French bakery near us in Queens is run by a pastry chef who was born in Brittany. He refuses to bake it in the summer because he’s a stickler for a crispy sugar crusting and it’s too humid here to achieve it. He’s right. It’s too humid here to do nearly anything, including sleep, cook, and think (come on, fall)!

    Thanks again for reminding us how deliciously difficult puff pastry is to make. I, for one, am happy to leave it to pros like Julia.

    ~ Cleo

    FYI--Here’s a fun link for anyone anticipating a trip to New York City. To read "Where to Eat the Best Kouign Amann in NYC," which includes descriptions of the many variations of this treat by local pastry chefs, click here.

  9. More than once I have bought the ingredients and researched different recipes to make my own croissants (both plain and chocolate), and every single time I got cold feet and never even started! I'm in awe of Julia's talent, and she/you have just inspired me to try again! Thanks for a very interesting post! :-)

  10. Julia, you are lovely, and you make lovely pastries! I bow in appreciation; I have made croissants. Let's just say I'd much rather leave them to you! Thank you, Sheila and Julia, for the informative and mouth-watering post.

  11. Fascinating, but so much work. But, I'm sure the finished products are delicious. Thanks for the information on making croissants.

  12. Great post, Sheila! And Julia, thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. Now I need to go find a croissant...