Pastry Queen: The life-changing magic of Steph Fischer’s croissants
“Do you wanna shape one?” Steph Fischer asks me, pulling apart two triangles of pale, stretchy croissant dough and placing them on the stainless-steel countertop at Comet Croissanterie & Creamery. “Croissants are my favorite to shape,” she says, smiling.
I look at the triangles with the clumsy nerves of a teenager. This dough has been places. It’s seen two days of rolling, rising and rotating; two days of flouring, flattening and Fischer feeling its mood with her fingertips. It’s been folded three times and weighed down to a hundredth of an ounce. It’s rested for hours and taken four trips to the sheeter – a gargantuan machine that magically rolls the stuff so thin it yields endless teeny, tiny layers of butter and dough. It’s been measured, trimmed and sliced – into strips, then rectangles and finally those near-perfectly congruous triangles. This croissant dough is the Mount Kilimanjaro of baking, and Fischer is going to let me help her to the top? I don’t even own hiking shoes.
Fischer didn’t set out to make the perfect croissant. In fact, when she and business partner Mark Attwood decided to open Comet Coffee in Highlands Plaza back in 2012, her aspirations were much more pragmatic. “Mark was really into coffee, and we decided to open a coffee shop together,” she says. “And what goes better with coffee in the morning than a croissant?”
Seems simple enough – just a nascent idea for a third-wave coffee shop and a single line in the business plan reading “croissants.” But simple doesn’t mean easy; it doesn’t mean straightforward; it doesn’t mean boring. For Fischer, simplicity denotes greatness. “If you do something simple really well, I admire that a lot,” she says quietly. “I think that showcases skill even more than doing something really complicated. I am a bit of a perfectionist. I really like to do one thing and focus on that.”
When Fischer was a kid, that thing was piano. She loved it – the practicing, the repetition, the feel of the keys beneath her fingers. But when it became clear that building a life around music would most likely mean teaching, she chose baking over Beethoven and enrolled in the culinary program at St. Louis Community College – Forest Park. As a student, Fischer was drawn to the most daunting feat: laminated doughs. It was like croissants were in her genetic code. But culinary school didn’t just make her a baker; it made her a teacher after all.
She’s constantly pausing her process to tell me little facts. You have to let the dough rest in a cold environment, or the yeast will produce carbon dioxide and the dough will puff up too soon. Compared to all-purpose, bread flour has more proteins that make gluten, which is made of glutenin and gliadin. Her method blurs the line between art and science, teacher and pupil, revealing the swift movements of a seasoned master and the perpetual curiosity of an eager student. One minute, she’s explaining to me why the butter and dough must be the same temperature before they can harmonize, and the next she’s hypothesizing with Union Loafers head baker and co-owner Ted Wilson about why winter water temperatures are wreaking havoc on their products.
The dough is warm now – soft, pliable and slick with an ungodly amount of butter. Fischer warns me: The more you touch it, the softer it will get, and the harder it will be to shape. (No pressure.) She instructs me to take the two corners at the bottom of the triangle where there is a small cut, overlap their inside ends, push out with my fingertips and roll. Overlap, push, roll. Overlap, push, roll. Ten seconds later, my croissant looks like a wobbly, misshapen clog. I look over, and she’s rolling one flawless croissant after another with an ease that convinces me she could do this blindfolded. She barely touches the dough, giving it a tap, tap, tap with her floured fingertips, rolling the triangles into identical little crescent moons in half a second. “It will still taste good,” she says kindly. I believe her.
Somewhere in the rhythm of the work, Fischer’s tiny frame and timid nature give way to a powerful, confident master of this craft. Some people put a thumbprint on the dough after each step so they know where it is in the very long, very complicated lamination process, she explains. Fischer doesn’t need to. She can feel it.
Bending the rolled dough so the ends meet like dolphin noses, she tells me that some people believe rounded croissants to be a sign they’re made with shortening rather than butter. I know better.
When James Beard Award-winning baking goddess Nancy Silverton was asked what makes the perfect croissant, she answered simply, “Good butter – and lots of it.” When I asked Fischer what sets her croissants apart, her answer was similar. “A lot of croissants aren’t made with actual butter,” she explains. “So that’s definitely going to change the flavor and the mouth feel. Butter melts at body temperature and shortening doesn’t, so if you eat something made with shortening, it leaves a waxy feel in your mouth.”
Fischer uses an 84-percent butterfat, European-style butter. That’s about 4 percent higher than most American butters – the difference between skim and whole milk. “It definitely makes a difference,” she says. “It’s more pliable, so it makes it laminate into the dough better. You can feel it even if you take a little cube of butter that’s 80 percent and you try to crush it in your fingers, it will kind of crumble. With a European-style butter, it will definitely feel a lot creamier – it won’t crumble as much. And that makes a huge difference when you’re trying to make little layers of butter and dough.” I ask which butter is her secret weapon. She doesn’t tell me. Respect.
After finding her butter, Fischer looked for a flour that was pure, simple and free of fuss – meaning bromation (a way to speed up the processing), DATEM (an additive) and dough conditioners (the thing that “makes a hot dog bun a hot bun”). She tested six different bread flours, each with different protein levels, before landing on her favorite. “I think it makes a difference in the flavor,” she explains. “It’s subtle, but I think it allows you to taste the ferment more; it definitely affects the texture.”
The next secret to Fischer’s croissants rising to the top of the ranks is the proofing. Fischer proofs her croissants at 68 to 70 degrees for three to four hours – a longer, slower rise than many recipes, in order to develop as much flavor as possible. She tells me the story of a 3- or 4-year-old customer exclaiming, “‘Oh, it’s so good – it tastes like cheese!’” after trying a croissant. “There’s no cheese in it,” Fischer says with a soft laugh. “It just has a lot more flavor when you ferment something a little bit longer.”
As the first inch of the pan clears the oven, I spot one last trick. While most croissants finish baking boasting shiny, honey-colored tops, these babies are seriously browned. “Our croissants are baked more French-style,” Fischer explains. “You see it with breads as well when you go to Europe – the breads have more of a crust; they’re baked a lot darker. That’s the Maillard reaction and the caramelization. I think it tastes better, and I almost think that it helps seal in moisture and kind of keeps it fresh and crisp and flaky. But it scares a lot of people.”
Not me. The smell of dough baking is intoxicating. Fischer pops a croissant from the pan into a paper bag with one quick flick of her wrist and hands it to me. I break off a little piece and a tiny cloud of buttery steam rushes out from the inside. A bite, and I suddenly taste every painstaking step Fischer has taken to wiggle the most flavor out of these pastries as humanly possible: the extra fat in the butter; the flour free from complication; the four-hour proof; the long bake time; the layers – oh, the layers. You can see each one, tiny sheets of butter and dough stacked to create a flakiness that’s next-level messy. The dark, crisp crust lends a deep flavor that goes past caramelization into steak-like territory. The center tastes of butter, cream and, yes, cheese – a tender richness I’d never tasted before in a croissant. These are mind-blowingly good; baking goddess-level good; I-don’t-care-if-my-pants-don’t-fit, I-don’t-want-to-live-in-a-world-without-these-croissants good.
There’s something romantic about taking on a task this big, diving headfirst into a craft and dedicating yourself to mastering it. But where so often the feeling of accomplishment languishes, the drive weakens and romance dies with time, Fischer is as enamored with making croissants as she was as a doe-eyed culinary student. “There is something about working with your hands that allows you to feel where something’s at,” she says. “Oh, this bread needs a little bit more work. Or, oh this bread feels really tight, I should let it relax. … It’s alive. And you’re working with yeast – it’s really fun to just watch it proof. You shape them and then you come back a few hours later and they’re twice as big. It’s just – wow,” she sighs, smiling. “It’s amazing. There’s something about folding in the butter – it’s meditative in a way.”
Fischer didn’t set out to make the perfect croissant. And like any humble master of her trade, she’ll argue that she still hasn’t. She wants to continue the learning that keeps her madly in love with the process. But perfect or not, one thing is certain: These are croissants all croissants should taste like – and then bow down to.
Comet Croissanterie & Creamery, 640 W. Woodbine Ave., Kirkwood, 314.394.1033; Comet Coffee, 5708 Oakland Ave., St. Louis, 314.932.7770, cometcoffeestl.com
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