Croissants and the art of living.

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In three days I move to Seattle.
Three days (!)

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I’ll live there for the next bit of foreseeable future. Beyond that, who knows. All this life and being twenty-something stuff, it’s so exciting!

Over the past week I’ve savored post-graduate freedom. From the first hour, I made it a goal to master the art of doing nothing. Yet after two hours spent thinking of everything I could be doing, I scraped my attempt at nothing-filled nirvana.

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It’s not that this Buddhist mindfulness exercise is a load of cotton candy. It’s just that, well, I’m an addict.

<meeting begins> Hello my name is Jessie. I’m a work addict.

I thrive working twelve hours straight. I love making goals. I feel guilty when I do something relaxing. Let’s just say I can get a little too intense. As a challenge to my achieving-addicted self, I decided to live the past week without big goals or many expectations.

And, oh boy, was I rewarded. This past week has been free and just darn good. Without trying to control the week’s outcome, I was able to let go of any relaxation guilt and do things (for fun!) that I was too busy to do these past four years. I drank cocktails every night. I read Catch-22 and a book on the mind-body problem. I hung out with family and friends and gave away most possessions, the ones that have been steadily accumulating in my bedroom for the past twenty-two years. I’ve been rethinking human logic as we know it, and making pastries. Lots of pastries. In doing everything, life has been simple, sweet, whole.

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Nothing lasts forever, I remind myself in my best Dalai Lama voice. In five days I will face a big, cold world with jobs and paychecks and taxes and writer-baker paychecks (that’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact, an acknowledgement of my near-future state of starving artist which sounds too much like Tantalus, on account of me working with food all day long but still being a young writer and thus starving. How about hungry artist?) It won’t be so easy to be a little happy buddha when I’m working the four a.m. shift at the bakery five times a week. Or meeting never-ending editor deadlines or trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.

But paychecks and plans have nothing to do with contentment. Money, work, approval from others, stubborn self-reliance makes us feel secure. Yet these things don’t actually make life good. I’m talking really good in a primal, beautiful I-might-just-crack-open-with-love-and-ridiculousness-and-everything sort of good.

I’m finding that life is good when we are quiet, when we are confident enough to let it be good. It’s good when we set goals without worrying if we’ll achieve them in the way we think we should– the world has too much imagination to give us complete control– while being aware that, regardless of the outcome, it will be alright. I like to think of this mindfulness as an art because, through balance and awareness, we create our reality. I could’ve read Catch-22 for pleasure or spent more time with my family the past four years, but I told myself I was too busy. And so I didn’t.

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I don’t want to be a work addict. I want to make time for the things that really matter. It’s quiet these days; I’ve made it a goal to continue.

No activity is better to jump start your meditative inner-musings than croissant making. Time becomes flaky. Air wears the silky, sweet smell of butter. Your senses, your mind becomes softer, as malleable as kneaded dough. Be prepared to spend a whole lazy morning making your croissant babies and let the good life flow.

P.S. These croissants make the perfect Father’s Day breakfast! (Hint hint, nudge nudge) By the three crumbs left on his plate, I think my Dad approves.

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Chocolate Almond Croissants

Makes 16 croissants. Adapted from Williams-Sonoma’s Essentials of Baking. Oxmoor House, 2003.

In May, I tried my first pain au chocolat aux amandes at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery in Napa, California. I’ve been dreaming of that fancified, amaretto-scented croissant ever since. This recipe is my (very successful!) attempt to recreate Bouchon’s magic. Enjoy with good coffee.

FOR THE CROISSANT DOUGH
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons warm water (105-115 degrees F)
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted but cooled
1 cup cold whole milk
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast and pinch of sugar in warm water. Let stand until foamy, around 5 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, combine yeast mixture, remaining sugar, salt, melted butter, milk, and ½ cup flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until blended. Slowly add remaining flour just until dough comes together in a sticky mass.
3. On a lightly floured surface (granite, stone, or metal countertops work best because you can cool them by placing a clean ice pack on the surface 1 hour before working with dough,) roll out dough into a ½-inch thick rectangle. Cover with plastic wrap, transfer to plate, and let cool in refrigerator for 30 minutes while you prepare the butter layer.

FOR THE BUTTER LAYER AND BAKING
1 cup unsalted butter (very important to use unsalted butter; unsalted butter usually tastes better and is of higher quality than salted butter)
2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 large egg beaten with 1 Tablespoon milk (for a golden, flaky crust)

1. Place butter on a work surface and sprinkle with flour. With a rolling pin or the heel of your hand, beat butter into a 6 x 8 inch rectangle with the flour worked in. If, at anytime during croissant making, the butter becomes too soft (softer than the texture of the bread dough) refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. This next step is called laminating the dough. Roll out dough into a 9 x 13c inch rectangle. With the short side facing you, place the butter on the lower half, leaving a ½ inch border on all sides. Fold over the upper half to cover the butter and press edges together to seal. Then, with the folded side to your left, roll out the dough to a 10 x 24 inch rectangle. With short side facing you, fold the bottom third up, then fold the top third down, as if folding a letter. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This completes the first turn.
3. Return chilled dough to lightly floured work surface with a folded side to your left and repeat the process to make 3 more turns: rolling, folding, and chilling. (To complete a total of 4 turns.) After the fourth turn, refrigerate dough for at least 4 hours or overnight (or, if you want croissants later in the week, freeze dough now.)
4. To form the croissants, roll out on a lightly floured work surface to a 9 x 18 inch rectangle. Cut in half lengthwise. Cut each half crosswise (forming 4 squares.) Cut each square in half (forming 8 squares.) Cut each square crossways (forming 16 triangles.)
5. Lightly butter 2 sheet pans. Working with one triangle at a time, gently stretch each triangle about twice its original length. Gently stretch the long edge. Fill croissant with a bit of minced dark chocolate, almond paste, both, or neither. Place hands at top of wide end and gently roll pastry toward you. Seal tip with your thumb, place on baking sheet and form into crescent.Repeat with remaining triangles, spacing them about 3 inches apart. Cover with a moistened kitchen towel and place in a warm spot to let rise until doubled in size (about 1-1/2 hours.)
6. Position rack in middle of convection oven (place higher if not) and preheat oven to 425 degrees.
7. Lightly brush the tops of your pastries with the egg mixture. Bake them one sheet at a time until golden brown (15-18 minutes.)
8. If you want a sweet almond crust on your croissants, take out your croissants 5 minutes before they are done. Sprinkle with sugar water and almonds. Return to oven to complete baking time. Dust with powdered sugar when completely cool.

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