Skolnik, 34, began her business, Frenchie’s, just two years ago, using the kitchen at the specialty food store Seasonal Pantry as a work space where she prepares catering orders for pastries and turns out baked goods, such as banana bread and cookies, to sell in the shop. She was in no rush to launch her own shop before doing as much market research as possible, so she decided to test the waters by opening a stand at the farmers market to showcase what she calls her “wow factor”: croissants.
“And then I realized, okay, I picked an item that has to be done in the middle of the night. Probably not the smartest idea,” Skolnik said.
She did what she had to do. To make sure the croissants are as fresh as possible, she made the commitment to start baking at 11 p.m. every Friday, continuing until right before she leaves for the market at 7 a.m. Saturdays. So, hours after tucking her 2-year-old son into bed, Skolnik says goodbye to her husband, leaving their home in Petworth with a large thermos of coffee on her way to Seasonal Pantry.
In the kitchen, she delicately shapes dough into croissant swirls with such precision that she seems on autopilot, but she is plenty focused — and far more pleasant company to a visiting reporter than anyone should be in the dead of night.
Though Skolnik says making croissants is not difficult once you get the hang of it, hearing — and seeing — the process shows just how time-consuming it is, with the actual production spanning three days. It begins when she activates a starter sponge, or preferment, mixes it into fresh dough and allows the dough to slowly rise in the fridge. Then she starts laminating, or rolling the butter into the dough and folding to create distinct layers. By far the most arduous step, laminating is what creates flakiness. Afterward, the dough must relax until Skolnik is ready to roll out the croissants and shape them, the step that waits until Friday night, just before they are baked.
Here’s where things get tedious: Skolnik does all the laminating, rolling and shaping by hand, a job larger bakeries usually leave to a mechanical dough sheeter. (Skolnik doesn’t scoff at that idea, but she wants to wait to invest in one until she has a permanent location, one with space for such equipment.)
As it is, Skolnik spends at least an hour of the night walking up and down the stairs, between the cool and open storefront on the first level, where a long wooden table functions as her workspace, to the stifling hot basement kitchen. Upstairs, everything — including that butter — stays cool while she handles the dough, before she takes it downstairs to bake.