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Bread Is Back: Following the Ferment

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After being shunned for years as the sinister carbohydrate that adds nothing but empty calories and muffin tops, bread is once again on the good list. In a swift return, it has spread from coast to coast like a slice of clarified butter. All kinds are now readily available, from the svelte baguette to toothsome nut-and-berry whole grains to encrusted soufflés. Witness Panera, the nation-wide franchise offering breads both sweet and savory, rated by Business Week as a 'hot growth company,' and by Zagat as 'best healthy option.'

This shift in status has been great news for bakers, both professional and amateur. A closet breadie, I decide to make the most of this window and take a class with a pro. My goal? To learn the mystery of the croissant. For out of the pantheon of yeast doughs, puff pastry seems the apex of the art.

Bread resembles other modes of creation in that it began simply but developed a multitude of variations. The ultimate form is arguably the croissant. Alternating layers of butter and dough, its laminated sheets build exponentially to rise in an extravagant puff of buttery flakes.

Who popularized this wonder of leavened layers? The French, mais bien sûr. And what better place to study this sophisticated invention than the International Culinary Center, formerly known as The French Culinary Institute. The curriculum has expanded to include global culinary influences but the school's roots are French, and I feel assured of proper croissant instruction.

To my unexpected pleasure, the class draws from all over North America. A woman from Chihuahua wants to bake the bread she can't get in her Mexican province. A couple born in The Seychelles Islands plan to open a bakery in their adopted Montreal. A man from rural Kentucky yearns for good bread at home. Then there are the four brothers from the Iowa prairies, engineers who run a hydraulic lift company. Their mother sent them to New York City on a brocation, whose intent is unclear but they are surely getting a change of scene. And our fearless Chef Brynne from Wisconsin, land of milk and cheese and apparently some excellent bakers.

The gleaming kitchen is ship-shape. Flour hoppers line the floor under wooden counters, and one wall holds double banks of half a dozen stacked ovens. The room smells of yeast and flour and, when the ovens are on, baking beauties.

Our uniforms cover us top to bottom, from hat to apron to gingham plaid pants -- fitting clothing for the careful engineering to come. The initial gathering of ingredients is precise. We measure flour, yeast, water and salt exactly, using super sensitive scales that tip at a fraction of a gram.

As with raising other forms of life, every little thing counts. Close attention is a must while the dough forms. What may seem like minor variations make the difference between a bagel or ciabatta, pretzel or challah.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre... we combine ingredients in a giant steel mixer that resembles a KitchenAid on steroids. The enormous steel bowl revolves around the twisting dough hook, which reaches to the bottom and scoops any wayward bits back into the fold- no doughlet left behind.

Croissant dough must be strong and resilient, as needs to put up with a lot of interference. As the dough grows, long strands of gluten proteins form in lines; the dough takes on a grain. The baker encourages this direction, as it aids in shaping.

However, at this point the dough has reached adolescence and wants space to do its own thing. This calls for a more detached involvement on the part of the baker. Cooperation is key, for while the dough wants to make its own way in the world, it also needs guidance and transportation.

You will have arguments. In rolling out the dough and trying to mold it, clearly it has a mind of its own. Gentle negotiation is required. You make a suggestion, but it may resist. Have your say and let it rest. When you return, it will be more likely to comply.

Croissant-making is like origami -- you measure and fold and tug it into shape. The strongly structured dough needs to be a big, squared-off rectangle. Achieving this requires the patience and repetition of an animal trainer.

Meanwhile, there's the butter. It needs to be a thin rectangle of even thickness, exactly one half the width of the dough. Previous experience with the whack-a-mole arcade game comes in handy here as you wield a rolling pin to beat the butter into submission, to assume the shape of its parchment-paper mold, a precisely measured straight jacket.

The disrobed butter then cozies up on the dough rectangle, which folds around the sheath. Then you roll it out, and fold again. And again. With resting and cooling in between, there are soon multiple layers of butter and dough, either 27 or 81. But Chef warns us not to get carried away -- if the dough is rolled too thin it will not rise. Sustainable excess requires restraint!

The butter-dough at this point is remarkably strong -- you can pick it up and toss it around like a folded bed sheet. Measured out in inches and cut like cloth, it makes neat triangles that are stretched and darted and rolled into graceful crescents that will rise once more before going into the oven.

One of the Iowan brothers proves to have a way with the final forming- the magic touch of a mechanical engineer? He accepts his praise modestly: "I'm not going to quit my day job yet."

Along the way we pepper Chef with questions. She often responds by pointing out the considerable active variables and concludes, "So, I cannot answer that question."

Finally, the culmination of our efforts arrives. The croissants come out of the oven and are as lovely as can be. Tawny flakes curve over the top, the shiny egg-brushed surface gleams, the tapered ends point together like circling arms. Inside, layer upon layer of moist, tender crumb yields softly to the bite. It's good, really good. I bow to the yeast gods and the inventive chef who first dreamt up this delicacy.

But can I reproduce it in my own kitchen? My hopes are high. But at least I've got an ace in the hole- now that bread is back, I know where to get a good croissant.