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Croissants are essentially puff pastry with the addition of yeast, and typically baked in the shape of a crescent. They can be made plain or wrapped around almond paste or chocolate before it is baked (in the latter case, it becomes like pain au chocolat, which has a different, non-crescent, shape). Some are sliced to admit sweet or savory fillings. Instead of curving them into a crescent shape, they are often left straight to signify they are filled.
Croissants are made from laminated (layered) croissant dough that results from the use of fat and the turning of the dough. That is done by encasing butter in the dough, and taking it through a series of rolls and folds, called turns, to produce many layers of butter in between sheets of dough. The key to success in this process is maintaining the integrity of each layer. If the lamination is successful and the layers are maintained the product will be light and flaky. This is similar to how puff pastry and Danish dough are made.
SARAH SAYS: The average croissant is given a minimum of 4 turns or folds, resulting in 81 layers!
The leavening in laminated dough is derived mainly from the steam generated by the moisture in the butter and dough during baking. The laminated fat acts as a barrier to trap the water vapor formed during baking. As the steam expands in the oven it lifts and separates the individual layers. Croissant and Danish dough do contain a small amount of yeast to aid in leavening, unlike puff pastry which relies solely on steam.
Factors that affect the success of the lamination: The dough must have a well-developed gluten structure to be able to support the expansion in the oven. The fat must be rolled evenly in continuous layers. To accomplish this butter must be in a "plastic" state when laminating. That is, able to be rolled out easily without breaking into pieces (not too cold) but firm enough that it won't squeeze out of the edges of the dough layers or allow moisture to seep into the dough (not too warm). The butter and dough should be at approximately the same temperature, and the layers of each must remain distinct from each other or the product will resemble brioche more than delicately layered and flaky laminated dough. However, because croissant contains yeast, they require warmth, or proofing before baking, so they can be layered as puff pastry.
Allowing the dough to rest between turns allows the gluten structure to relax, making the dough more extensible and less likely to tear. Puff pastry, lacking yeast and its dough conditioning benefits, is more susceptible to tears and shrinkage during baking. Since it is also laminated to a further degree, the rests between turns are even more critical to ensure extensibility. If any of thedough are overworked without being allowed to rest, the gluten structure will tear, the dough will become tIf any of the dough are overworked without being allowed to rest, the gluten structure will tear, the dough will become tough and the finished product won't have the desired volume or texture.
SARAH SAYS: Make bread crumbs from left-over croissants. If you have a stale one, freeze it first; it will make it easier to make into crumbs. To make them, hit the side of the bag with a rolling pin. Top gratins or pasta dishes. The butter in the croissant crumbs makes for a crisp topping and a nice texture.
The origin of the croissant is one of the great food legends of all time. While the history of pastry dates back to ancient times, the history of the croissant (as we know it today), seems to be a relatively new invention. Part of the problem may be how one defines "croissant." Food history sources confirm that crescent-shaped pastries were baked in Vienna during the 17th century and that they migrated to France soon thereafter. They recount, but do not confirm/deny the story of the brave bakers who supposedly created the first croissants. This is what Mr. Davidson has to say:
"...croissant in its present form does not have a long history...
The earliest French reference to the croissant seems to be in Payen's book "Des substances alimentaires," published in 1853. He cites, among the "Pains dit de fantasie ou de luxe," not only English 'muffins' but 'les croissants'. The term appears again, ten years later, in the great Littre dictionary  where it is defined as 'a little crescent-shaped bread or cake'. Thirteen years later, Husson in "Les Consommations de Paris"  includes 'croissants for coffee' in a list of 'ordinary' (as opposed to 'fine') pastry goods. Yet no trace of a recipe for croissants can be found earlier than that given by Favre in his Dictionnaire universel de cuisine [c. 1905], and his recipe bears no resemblance to the modern puff pastry concoction; it is rather an oriental pastry made of pounded almonds and sugar. Only in 1906, in Colombie's Nouvelle Encyclopedie culinaire, did a true croissant, and its development into a national symbol of France, is a 20th-century history."
---Oxford Companion to Food (p. 228)
Chef Jim Chevallier, who has conducted extensive research on the history of the croissant, concurs the origins recounted in most texts are truly "colorful tales." Chef Chevallier's research focuses on the connection between the French Croissant and the Viennese Kipfel. In doing so, he pushes back the date for this particular breadstuff [in Vienna] to 1630. He credits August Zang, a Viennese baker, for introducing this item to Paris in the late 1830s. If you would like more details we recommend Chef Chevallier's book: August Zang and the French Croissant: How Viennoiserie Came to France. Source 1-31-2011
In the United States, sweet fillings or toppings are common and warm croissants may be filled with ham and cheese or feta cheese and spinach. In the Levant, croissants are sold plain or filled with chocolate, cheese, almonds, or zaatar. In Germany, croissants are sometimes filled with Nutella or persipan. In Switzerland the croissant is typically called a Gipfeli which typically has a crisper crust and is less buttery than the French style croissant. In Argentina and other Latin American countries, croissants are commonly served alongside coffee as a breakfast or merienda. These croissants are referred to as medialunas ("half moons") and are typically coated with a sweet glaze ("de manteca", made with butter). Another Argentine variant is a medialuna "de grasa" (of grease), which is not sweet.
Croissant ordinaire or croissant au beurre: Made with pure butter.
Croissant Amande: Almond croissants are not simply croissants topped with almonds and powdered sugar. This delightful treat is also filled with almond paste (which is made from sugar, almond mill and butter and/or cooking oil). The result is a crispy, nutty, yet soft in the middle treat
Pain au Chocolat: Cousin to the croissant and my personal favorite French pastry, a pain au chocolat is basically a croissant-type puff pastry containing strips of chocolate (usually dark chocolate). Literally translated as “chocolate bread” pains aux chocolates are a favorite in France and are best when served hot with the chocolate melting into the pastry in the middle.