In the Kitchen with: Chef Eugenia Theodosopoulos of Essence Bakery Café
Making: Croissants and Chocolate Croissants
On an early Wednesday morning, when the sun is hanging low in the sky and the sounds of rush-hour traffic mingle with the gentle hum of leaf-blowers, six people are milling about outside Essence Bakery Café in Tempe. They look not unlike an illustration from the Richard Scarry children's book What Do People Do All Day?: There are construction workers leaned against their truck; a pair in business casual chatting about the coming day; and one young woman, in her finest hipster chic, with a brightly-colored bicycle.
It is ten minutes to 7 a.m.- the weekday opening hour - and inside Essence the final preparations are taking place before the barrier, those tantalizingly see-through double glass doors, can be breached by this eager crowd. Inside the pastry cabinet, little towers of pink, green, and vanilla macarons - one of Essence's well-known specialties, sometimes playfully dubbed "chocolate hamburgers" - stand waiting to be dissembled, while just above trays of fresh pastries - from the classic buttery croissants to French Almond, Chocolate, and Rolled Raisin - are set out at the last moment (so as not, perhaps, to tease the waiting onlookers for too long). It is the croissants in particular that "get attacked" each morning, says Chef-owner Eugenia Theodosopoulos, as customers stream in for their morning coffee.
Flaky, fluffy croissants fresh from the oven and oozing with chocolate after the jump.
The "Open" sign flickers on as Eugenia leads us back into the kitchen, a tight labyrinth of shiny stainless steel, whisks the size of bird cages, and metal trays filled with cooling fudge mini-cookies and other delicacies. On the refrigerator is a magnet that reads "Life is Short - Eat Dessert First," a fitting motto at Essence.
Eugenia has a warm, easy smile and exudes a clear passion - as well as a methodical level of dedication that you quickly appreciate - for her craft (or métier, as she says in French). She attended the École Lenôtre culinary school in Paris, where she did catering for American diplomats before moving to Arizona. That early training abroad is as evident in her speech - often peppered with French words - as it is in the high level of quality you find across the Essence menu. In the kitchen, Eugenia follows the French philosophy of respecting your products and selecting only the best ingredients: That, she says, is the key to making "a great croissant."
Making croissants, we quickly learn, is not to be taken lightly - and really only for the most adventurous and ambitious of at-home bakers. It is a "full-on two-day process," and the 7 a.m. start time is actually a generous exception for us; usually, it would begin at 3 a.m. On one of the shiny metal tabletops, Eugenia has prepared several bowls raging in sizes with the ingredients required for the first part of the process: the poolish. The French word for "starter," this refers to the dough that will, after rising and falling and having butter folded into it twice, eventually become croissants. About 25 croissants, in fact.
As Eugenia begins to mix the ingredients (the recipe is secret, but we can divulge that there are no less than three flours involved, selected to create that perfect taste), she pauses to take the temperature of everything. And we mean everything - even the flour. "It's all a temperature game," she says, using ice to cool one of the bowls down. To Eugenia, who started baking pies when she was 13 at her parents' restaurant, the kitchen seems to be a little bit of a playground, a little bit of a science lab, and a lot like home.
"Between croissants and macarons, your arm gets a serious workout," she says, as she begins to fiercely mix the batter. Once it's ready, it will sit for a while until cracks begin to form on the top. The scent of yeast fills the air. "This is when you treat it like a baby; you don't want to disturb it," she says. As people move about the kitchen, Eugenia is very protective: "Just don't touch my baby right there!"
For the amateur roller of Pillsbury crescents, this look behind-the-scenes can come as a bit of a shock, but in the making of a great croissant, every little step is of vital importance. That's because it's all these many details - and Essence is all about the details - that add up to a croissant that is at once "crusty on the outside, but tender on the inside," says Eugenia. And that's no easy feat. In fact, Essence only began serving croissants two years ago, and only after Eugenia's mentor - a highly celebrated French pastry chef - came over to help perfect the recipe and process. "We decided, if we're gonna make a croissant, it's gonna be the best croissant you're gonna get," says Eugenia.
As we watch the cracks slowly but surely forming in the bowl, Eugenia is grinning. "This looks like Heaven to me," she says. "This is the beginning of the life of a croissant." Once it's ready, the contents are mixed using a large machine that looks like a pretty kind of corkscrew sculpture. The result: a large lump of dough. Eugenia takes this back to a sheet on the table, where she tosses flour on it like someone throwing dice, packaging it in plastic wrap to await the next step. The dough will rise, then fall, and then this evening, Eugenia will fold in butter (a creamy French butter with 3% extra butterfat, a necessity for both consistency and flavor) for the first time.
Eugenia uses a brush to glaze the rolled croissants with an egg wash. This tray of prepped croissants - now at last taking shape! - will go into a machine called a "proofer" for a couple hours before transferring to the oven. The Panimatic proofer, purchased from a French baking show, has a dial for humidity to get the croissants to rise. This is one of many reasons why recreating this lengthy process at home can be a complicated undertaking. "It's not easy," Eugenia admits. Her advice to the brave home baker? "Make sure you get really good butter and make them early in the morning or late at night."
On the other side of the kitchen, Eugenia pulls a tray of fresh chocolate croissants newly out of the oven. They have expanded significantly, and now seem to take up every bit of space on the baking sheet. As I bite into one, picking at the flaky, brown crust and savoring the warm chocolate, it begins to feel a bit obscene to pay so little for a treat that requires so much labor. But then I remember that what I call labor, Eugenia calls "love and affection." Those are perhaps the real secret ingredients to this scrumptious pastry you'd swear came straight from Paris (and customers have even claimed it's better than Paris). Either way, it's no wonder that, at 6:50 a.m., there's a bit of a crowd forming.
What's Up Next for Eugenia: Once citrus season gets into full swing, you'll see popular croissants like the Meyer Lemon re-join steady favorites like French Chocolate Almond and Gruyere Cheese. But have you ever dreamed of a peanut-butter-and-jelly croissant? Eugenia promises it's in the works, as well as the next major project for the bakery: "the perfect baguette."