The last time I was in Paris six years ago, I stopped by one of my favorite bookstores in the city (and honestly, the world), Shakespeare and Company. Located in Paris’s Left Bank neighborhood, it’s an English bookstore that once attracted some of America’s best expat writers including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In addition to being quaint and historic, it also has a resident cat that has very discerning tastes in people (it did not like the guy I met up with in the city), and it has a wonderful selection of books. When I saw Will Torrent’s “Pâtisserie at Home,” I knew I had to get it.
I sat on the book for a couple years. I loved to page through it; it has beautiful photos, as you can see from the cover, and everything looked amazing inside. I used it once when I lived in D.C. to make macarons with a friend.
But the real thing I wanted to use it for was making pain aux raisins. When I lived in France, pain aux raisins was my favorite pastry. It’s made out of snail-shaped croissant dough and full of plump raisins. My favorite part is the middle. I used to unroll the pastry and eat that part first. Picture a biscuit made out of buttery, flaky croissant dough, and slightly sweet, and that’s what eating the middle part of a pain aux raisins is like.
However, I doubted that I could pull it off at home. Will Torrent makes it sound doable in his cookbook, but I read through all the steps (there are many), and thought, this is a lot. That’s saying something for me, because I’m usually not afraid to invest a lot of time in a recipe.
Also, I had multiple people discourage me from doing it over the years, including a French baker who told me that croissants are impossible to make at home. A friend of mine from my old work told me he tried to do it, and they can’t compare to the ones you buy at a real bakery.
Still, I had a burning desire to make pain aux raisins that wouldn’t go away with time or discouragement. So yesterday, I impulsively decided to fulfill a years-long dream and make them. I read through Will Torrent’s recipe multiple times, assembled my ingredients, and decided to go step by step.
It’s going to sound corny, but making pain aux raisins is like life. You have to go slowly and focus on one step at a time to be successful.
Also, as with anything in baking, it helps to follow the recipe to the letter, especially if it’s your first time making it. I found myself wanting to cut corners and deviate, especially when I realized that it was almost 11 PM and I was locked in to the baking process until at least 1 AM. But I persisted.
All in all, the process was not bad. In fact, it’s easier than making other bread-like pastries such as Swedish cardamom buns. There’s a lot of rolling out dough and waiting, but you’re not twisting or tying anything with dough, which can often end in disaster. To make pain aux raisins, you follow the croissant recipe and then you roll the dough up, much like you would do for cinnamon rolls, cut the dough into 1-inch pieces, and wait for them to rise.
If you don’t want to wait for them to rise after you cut the dough, you can proof them in the refrigerator. I read about that technique on this helpful blog after I decided to stay up all night making them. Oh well; at least I know for next time.
Or, you can freeze the little cut pain aux raisins and proof them on a baking sheet overnight. I do this a lot with Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants. (If you’ve never had those, you might want to change that, soon.) It’s easier than waiting around for the dough to rise because you can set them out and go to sleep. For impatient people like me, this is important.
Also, another tip that Will Torrent didn’t have in his book, but I found on the aforementioned blog, is to spray the oven before you put the croissants in and once after you set them on the racks. You can do this using a spray bottle. I happened to have one from my watercolor class, so I filled it up and used it. It makes the croissants even more flaky and crisp on the outside.
The smell of these pain aux raisins while they were baking was other-worldly. I wanted to bottle up the smell and have it forever. It took me back to times when I would go into the bakery in France early in the morning to buy bread for lunch, and they would have all the glistening viennoiseries set out. The smell of fresh pastry filled the air. I would stand there for a few minutes, taking it all in. It’s one of the best smells in the world.
I’m not going to tell you these pain aux raisins are as good as the ones I had in France. I realized after the fact that Will Torrent’s recipe did not include crème pâtissière, which is found in most pain aux raisins, and it did not have the sugar glaze that most traditional bakers add to the pastries after baking them. It also had cinnamon, which I thought was weird because I didn’t remember that from traditional pain aux raisins. As it turns out, a more standard pain aux raisins calls for fresh vanilla beans and rum in the cream filling for flavoring.
Still, for a recipe that you make in your own kitchen without the added step of making crème pâtissière from scratch, it delivered. The croissant dough especially was delicious. It was buttery and flaky, and came close to what I remembered eating when I lived abroad. The raisins were juicy and slightly caramelized from baking, and the cinnamon paired well with the raisins, even if it wasn’t the taste I remembered.
I ate a pain aux raisins straight off the baking sheet at 1:30 AM, when I took them out of the oven. I fell asleep to the smell of fresh pastry, which is better than any scented candle or incense.
I’m glad that I finally took the plunge and tried a croissant recipe from Torrent’s cookbook. Next up? Pain au chocolat.
Here’s a song to get you started on your pain aux raisins journey.