The first morning of my first visit to Lebanon, two years ago now!, a beautiful platter of pastries was presented at our table for breakfast. I wasn’t surprised to see French pastry in Lebanon—because the country was a French protectorate for so many years, French culture and language are part of who we are.
And if that means more croissants, I’m good with it.
What did surprise me was when I pulled apart the ethereal pastry to find a thimble of za’atar filling in the middle. The za’atar was subtle, very unlike the way we heap it onto our man’oushe, our za’atar flatbreads, oily and earthy and delicious. And there was no indication of the za’atar on the croissant’s exterior, no hint that this brilliance was coming my way.
I was giddy over the za’atar croissant to the point of plotting to ask to spend some time in the hotel kitchen there at the Four Seasons Beirut, to look into that and any other brilliant ideas they may have, while I was in town. I wish I had, but time was tight and it was a Mary Poppins-spit-spot sort of schedule we were keeping (there were cousins to hug, windy monasteries to visit and ancient ruins to touch).
The next day we strolled past a Starbucks in the city centre, and went in to see what was what. Instead of lemon pound cake or cheese Danish, there were za’atar croissants. I ordered and ate before I even took out my money to pay.
It was a Starbuck’s croissant, not special, but the unusual presence of the za’atar elevated the pastry and gave me yet another iteration of it to take in, and the idea that za’atar croissants must be de rigueur in Lebanon, not just a Four Seasons thing. Then, back home, I saw the za’atar croissants on the menu at Shatila in Dearborn, and understood.
As I was finishing up work on the manuscript for my cookbook recently, Geralyn asked me what I was going to do with myself after I turned it in. Clean the kitchen? I said. But I’d really been thinking about the freedom I would have, during that deep breath after finishing, for a baking project. I’ve had the croissants on my mind for a long time, and thought if I could just get my book done, at least the first draft, I would allow myself the time to make za’atar croissants (and take their photos, and write their recipe, for all of us).
This is one in a long line of pastry projects that consume me as much as I consume them. There were these cookies, this tart, this cake, and others that never saw the light of blog-day for such complexity that a girl had to ditch her camera and just focus.
I can’t say I didn’t wonder how you might feel about the croissants, too. Not for the eating, of course, but for what’s required in the kitchen. I also wondered how I could possibly share the technique when my work is so very solo, not even a mama or a sister around to help demonstrate.
But like anything that one allows her mind to wander around and into, like leaving a job to go to culinary school, or making that trip to Lebanon, or writing a Lebanese cookbook…it was going to keep humming its little za’atar tune in my ear until I listened. And shared.
The technique for making croissants, once you read through it and think it through, is more of a time commitment than it is complicated; plan on a full day, much of it spent chilling the dough between roll-outs. Once that’s done and the croissants are shaped, they need to rise for another couple of hours. They can be frozen before rising after they’re shaped (they’ll need an additional half-hour of rising time, about 3 hours), or frozen after they’re baked, so that an early-morning croissant can be yours. I relied on the techniques we learned at Tante Marie’s, as well as the recipe and techniques at my trusty Cook’s Illustrated. Use European-style butter to encourage flakiness and enhance the flavor of your pastry.
Here is the method in a nutshell: To make the croissants’ flakey layers, the dough is “laminated.” This means a pliable block of butter is wrapped and sealed inside of the dough, which is then rolled out in to big rectangles and folded several times, chilling at length in between to keep the butter from melting into the dough. Long triangles are cut from the dough, filled with za’atar, rolled up, and then left to rise before baking.
Makes 2 dozen
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 12 ounces (24 tablespoons or 3 sticks) European-style butter, very cold
1 3/4 cups whole milk
4 teaspoons rapid-rise or instant yeast
4 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 large egg
1 teaspoon water
1/4 cup za’atar
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the milk and warm to 85 to 90°F. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yeast into the butter-milk mixture and let it rest for about 5 minutes, or until it begins to foam and proof. Add the flour, sugar, and salt and knead with the dough hook on low speed until the dough forms, 2 to 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-low and knead the dough for another minute. Remove the bowl from the mixer and cover it, with the dough in it, with plastic wrap. Set this aside to rest for 30 minutes.
Place a piece of parchment on the counter and transfer the dough to it. Shape the dough with your hands into a 10- by 7-inch rectangular block about 1 inch thick. Wrap the dough securely in plastic wrap and chill on a flat surface in the refrigerator or on a pan or plate for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the butter block. Line the counter with wax paper and arrange the cold butter in a square-like shape (cut it if needed; if using sticks, line the three up in a row). Hold a rolling pin by the handles and press (bang!) the length of the pin into the butter to meld the pieces together. Use your hands or a bench scraper to shape and smooth the sides of the butter, keeping a paper towel handy to dry your hands as you go, into an 8-inch square that is 1-inch thick. Place a large sheet of plastic wrap next to the butter and gently lift it and transfer it to the plastic. Wrap the butter tightly in plastic, using another sheet if needed, then smooth the butter all over. Chill the butter on a plate in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes.
To laminate the dough, place the chilled dough in the freezer for 30 minutes. On a lightly floured counter, roll the dough to a 17- by 8-inch rectangle. Unwrap the cold butter and place it in the center of the dough rectangle. Fold the long sides of the dough up over the butter and pinch the seam tightly together. Use your hands and the rolling pin to seal the dough over the butter on the other two open sides, and along the top seam. Roll the packet lengthwise into a 24- by 8-inch rectangle, starting by gently pressing the rolling pin into the dough across the packet to get the rolling started. Use your hands to shape the dough to keep the edges straight and the corners as squared off as possible. Fold the rectangle like a business letter in thirds to form an 8-inch square. Wrap the square tightly in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
Unwrap the dough and transfer it to a large, lightly floured counter space. With the opening of the square facing to the right like a book, roll it out again, starting by pressing with the pin across the dough, into a 24- by 18-inch rectangle. Fold the dough like a business letter into thirds to form an 8-inch square. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and chill for 2 to 24 hours.
To shape the dough, you’ll need a large work surface. Place the chilled dough in the freezer for 30 minutes. On a lightly floured counter, roll the dough to an 18- by 16-inch rectangle, with the long side facing you and the edge of the counter. Use a ruler and a pizza cutter or sharp knife to cut the dough in half lengthwise so there is an upper and lower rectangle in front of you. To cut triangles to shape into crescents, measure and mark 3-inch spaces along the top long side each rectangle of dough. Along the lower long edge of the rectangles, move in 1 1/2 inches, mark it, then mark every 3 inches along the edge. Cut the dough in triangles from the top marks to the lower marks. Save any scraps from the sides of the dough.
Line 4 sheet pans with parchment. In a small bowl, combine all but a teaspoon of the za’atar with the olive oil to create a lightly dampened, but not wet, mixture. Cut a 1/2-inch slit in the middle of the short side of the dough triangle, and gently stretch the sides apart. Gently stretch the triangle from the long tip end as well. Place 1/2 teaspoon of the za’atar just under the cut on the triangle. Fold the short edge over the za’atar, then roll it up half way. Stretch the tip of the triangle again gently, and finish rolling the crescent up. Finish with the tip of the triangle underneath the crescent and place it on the parchment-lined pan. Curl the right and left sides of the dough together to form an arched crescent. Repeat with the remaining triangles, placing 6 on each sheet pan. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let the croissants rise until they are doubled in size, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
To use the scraps, roll them out together into a rectangle. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Roll this up like a jelly roll, divide and cut into several pieces. Place the buns in a buttered muffin tin, rise for 2 hours, then bake for about 7 minutes or until golden brown.
To bake the croissants, preheat the oven to 425°F. Whisk the egg with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of water to make the egg wash. Lightly brush the tops of the croissants with the egg wash, and sprinkle a little line of za’atar over the top. Baking one sheet pan at a time, place a pan in the oven and reduce the temperature to 400°F. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes, or until the croissants are golden brown. Cool slightly, and enjoy.