Whole Wheat Croissants
by Judith Newton
From The Joys of Cooking: A Love Story
I ate a whole wheat croissant this morning for the first time in many years. They’re harder to find in Berkeley than you might imagine. Is it because people here no longer think of them as healthy? Did they ever? It was easier to have fantasies like that in Laguna Beach, where I first crunched my way through one of these flaky, butter-laden crescents.
I picked at pieces of a white flour croissant this morning too. (All right, I ate most of a white flour croissant, but just for purposes of comparison.) The white flour croissant lay smoother on my tongue, but it didn’t recall the magic of Laguna or the changes it had worked in me. We love some foods’ draw less for the physical pleasures they offer us than for the way they bring us back to a place and time that enchanted us.
I initially went to Laguna Beach to pursue a doomed romance. Did I know that it was doomed? Of course! I had met Simon at a conference in December of the previous year, and the first time I looked into his troubled eyes-—he was a Leftist, had a blond pony tail, and wore a full beard—-it hit me that there was something off. But the romance of his politics, the fact that he was over six feet tall, and the passionate sex we had in my hotel room that very evening diffused my initial clarity into a cloudy haze. Perhaps I had been wrong. Perhaps I should give this budding relationship a fighting chance.
Besides, Simon lived in Laguna Beach, the most charming ocean-side community in Southern California, and I had grown tired of winters in the East and even more tired of my teaching schedule–eight courses a year–which seemed beyond laborious. Simon had also mastered the art of the seductive postcard and wrote winningly about his domestic life. On one card he described cooking broccoli for his daughter while a rain storm blew outside, and on another he imagined me at the dinner table with them in their cottage near the beach. Divorced, single, and approaching thirty-nine, I’d begun to feel some interest in traditional family life. I also loved the Pacific Ocean.
When we spoke–or didn’t speak, because Simon had also mastered the art of staying just out of reach–I could see he was inclined toward harshness, withdrawal, inflexibility. He’d fail to call, or call, become annoyed at nothing, and get off the phone abruptly. But he was adept at romantic talk and was an elegant stylist of the written word, and when we visited each other—-once in winter and once in spring—-the sex left sheet burns on my skin.
During my visit in March I accepted Simon’s invitation to spend a year with him in Laguna. And despite the occasional dark moment–when I feared that being with him might not be worth the effort it would take to ship my typewriter to California–I rented out my house in Philadelphia, took a one-year leave from my job, and committed my typewriter to UPS. My plan was to stay with Simon for a month, then get a place of my own nearby. I also figured I’d find some kind of job when my year’s salary from St. Matthews ran out that fall. All of this seemed vaguely feasible until I arrived at Simon’s house and within twenty minutes saw, with stunning, if belated, clarity, that pursuing this relation had been a big mistake.
So there I was in California with no job for the fall and no place to stay except in Simon’s bungalow where our high-flying, long-distance relationship had just crashed. But, strangely, I was not that depressed because, the moment I breathed the salty air of Laguna Beach, I was more in love with it than I’d been with Simon.
A town of about 25,000, Laguna lined the lower Pacific Coast Highway and spread upward into the hills. A mix of sea-worn restaurants, boutiques, and bungalows, it had a sprinkling of white stucco buildings with red tile roofs. And the town was loaded with raised beds of orange and yellow Icelandic poppies, rose and white ranunculus, and stands of spicy eucalyptus trees along its streets.
The way from the airport was long and winding, a canyon road between hills still green from spring rains that eventually delivered you, like a birth canal, right onto the main beach. There, tan and youngish-seeming males played an endless game of volleyball against a sky that was opaline or sometimes deep and cloudless blue. It was the sky, in part, that made you feel that anything could happen there. After living in the East, I felt like someone had removed a large, obscuring cone from the top of my head.
People in Laguna acted differently too. The grocery checkers were so friendly that they could have been appearing in advertisements for the state. “How are you today? Isn’t it beautiful? Did you find everything you wanted?” Living in the East had coiled my insides like a spring, but the sunniness of these encounters melted the tightness right out of me.
As soon as I settled into a rented house, I bought a wok and began to stir fry vegetables (using a Sunset recipe book) because it seemed like such a healthy, California thing to do. By September of that year I had stopped seeing Simon and was living on “fruits, salad, broccoli, and sunflower seeds.” I should have added “wine and whole wheat croissants,” because this was also the culture of Laguna Beach, at least for women: eat vegetables, have whole wheat croissants and cappuccino, go to exercise class for two hours, eat vegetables for several days, indulge some more.
I entered this culture in May when I met Simon’s next door neighbor, Meg, and through Meg, Kathy, who’d once dated Simon herself. Both Meg and Kathy were living on alimony—-I had never even met anyone receiving alimony—-and I was mesmerized by their lives. Both were experts at leisure and pleasure, an expertise entirely foreign to my life so far.
It was Meg, slight and blond, who introduced me to the whole wheat croissant. Whole wheat croissants are heavier than white flour croissants and leave a tangy taste of whole grain on your tongue. But they crunch into a similar flakiness, then give way to a fragrant, yeastiness inside, and leave buttery traces on your plate. In Laguna, where pursuing pleasure maintained a delicate balance with being healthy and staying trim, whole wheat croissants were an indulgence you could partially justify—-forty percent butter, perhaps, but no white flour!
I’d been so ready for the sensuous, leisurely, healthy/indulgent culture of Laguna Beach that I began to acquire mementos of it as soon as I arrived. I bought blue parrot earrings, a pin spelling out CALIFORNIA, and a green aloha shirt with more parrots in red. I also bought a purple shirt imprinted with scarlet-colored fish and occasionally tucked a hibiscus flower in my hair. I wore those shirts for evening margaritas on the deck of the Hotel Laguna from which the white water of the waves was clearly visible through the mysterious dark.
In December I moved out of the rented house into a bungalow apartment near the beach. There were fewer tourists in winter and Laguna was especially serene. I ran on the cliffs in the morning, looked down on the crystalline blue coves, taught classes, stir-fried vegetables, drank wine, did two hours of cardio and weights, and ate whole wheat croissants with Meg in the Renaissance Cafe. I wrote in my journal that I had never been so happy, that I felt joy and peace, and that I never wished to leave. I thought vaguely of becoming a screen writer.
Oh, whole wheat croissant!
Whole Wheat Croissants
Adapted from www.best-bread-recipes
As you eat these, think about sun and blue-green coves. Imagine you have just sold your first screenplay.
2 T yeast
1 1/2 T honey
¾ c. warm water
2 c. butter, cut into ½ inches
1 3/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
½ c. water
1 T. water
1. Combine yeast and warm water, stirring to dissolve the yeast. Let sit for 10 minutes.
2. Add ½ of the flour. Add the ½ c. water and honey. Whisk until smooth. Cover bowl and let stand 1 ½ hours.
3. Combine remaining flour with butter and flatten butter pieces. Pour yeast mixture into flour and butter and fold together with a spatula. Moisten flour without breaking the butter pieces.
4. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Pat dough down and roll into an 18” by 12” rectangle. It dough is too sticky, sprinkle it with flour.
5. Use a metal spatula to fold 1/3 of the dough toward the center. Working from the other side fold 1/3 of the dough over the first 1/3.
6. Lift dough off the work surface and scrape the surface clean. Sprinkle the work area with flour and repeat, rolling and folding 3 times more. Dough must be hard. If it is not, freeze it for 45 minutes.
7. Pat dough into rectangle and cut into 6 equal parts. Each part will make 4 croissants. Work with one piece at a time and keep others in refrigerator until ready to use.
8. Roll each piece, one by one, into a 5 ½” by 7” piece. Cut each piece diagonally to form 4 triangles. Roll the triangles from the wide end to the point. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and curve ends to crescent shape.
9. Beat egg with one T water to form wash. Brush croissants with wash and set aside 1 hour. Wash again with the egg/water mixture.
10. Bake at 375 degrees until puffed and brown. Let cool and serve.