If Erica Skolnik is being honest, sometimes she’d rather be making butter. Now and then she daydreams of life on a small farm in Vermont, where she could churn away the hours. “Sometimes I think, ‘God, we need some more good butter,’ ” she says.
She is so passionate about quality butter that she might even have smuggled some into the United States when returning home from a trip to France. And it’s that love of butter that makes her croissants — the pastries she is baking every week this summer for shoppers at the H Street NE FreshFarm Market — truly remarkable. Because she knows that the secret to a good croissant is in the butter.
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.
Among her rules of croissant-making, learned over the years through trial and error: Keep the raw ingredients cold. Bake at a high temperature. Serve fresh. And, of course, “Always have a really high-fat, high-quality butter,” she says. “The flavor and flakiness is in the butter. With flat, pale croissants, it’s a butter issue.”
She gets hers not from France, but from local creamery Trickling Springs, which like the European stuff is extra high in fat. She believes in sourcing locally, which fits in with the FreshFarm mission as a “producer-only” market. According to FreshFarm’s market coordinator, Maddy Beckwith, it’s one thing for bakers to use local fruit; for Frenchie’s to use local butter represents another degree of sourcing commitment.
Skolnik’s appreciation for high-quality local ingredients comes from her “life-changing” time in San Francisco, where she worked for a chocolate company after graduating in 2003 from the baking program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. “They cared about food here” in Washington, she says, “but it wasn’t to that level. And high-quality food is affordable to everyone in California, as I think it should be everywhere.”
When she decided to move back to the District and start the baking business she had dreamed of since she was in high school in Silver Spring, she knew she wanted to keep that local sourcing. But the inspiration for the pastries themselves came from her one and only trip to France in 2009.
On a day trip from Paris to Normandy, she went into a cheese shop, where the owner “had a big block of fresh, creamy butter sitting on his counter,” she said. She had to have it — and to bring some home. She ended up bringing home more than just the butter; she brought home a love for traditional French baking.
The French, she said, “just have a different way of preserving food culture, and I always knew I wanted to bring that in to my business. That is Frenchie’s.”
The farmers market stand has been a good move, Skolnik says, as it took a while to figure out how to run even a small stand; she enlisted her sister Maya Sanford for help.
“Our first weekend at the market, we sold out in like half an hour because we had no idea how much to bring. We had no idea what we were doing. And so I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What did I get myself into?’ But now we finally have a good rhythm. I’m coming in earlier to make sure we have plenty.”
And by “plenty” Skolnik means at least 100 items every Saturday. She started with plain croissants, but now adds such fillings as prosciutto, cheese, raspberry jam and almonds, selling for $3.50 to $4.75, depending on the filling.
Now she makes more than just croissants, including items such as summer vegetable galettes and hand pies filled with seasonal fruits. One of her best sellers is her version of a “morning bun,” made from croissant dough, butter, sugar, cinnamon and cardamom.
In just a few months at the market, Frenchie’s has gained followers, including Northeast locals Anna Kushnir and Karl Erlandson, regulars at the stand since Day One.
“We hit almost everywhere usually. But Frenchie’s stands out,” Erlandson said on a recent Saturday. “They know how to make a croissant. And croissants are usually not good, is the thing. That’s why we come here.”
Added Kushnir: “You can tell they are all obviously fresh. When we buy them, they don’t normally make it past noon on Saturdays.”
Skolnik appreciates that her customers recognize the difference in her croissants: They’re dark, and they’re flaky. “It is like caramel,” she says. “You don’t want a caramel that is blond. There is flavor in the color.”
A year ago, Skolnik says, she was nowhere near ready for the next step. But she is in a much more comfortable place now, and Frenchie’s is doing better than breaking even on a consistent basis.
Ideally, she would like to open her own bricks-and-mortar location, preferably near her home in Petworth, where she could bake more, sell food in a cafe setting and even teach classes.
“I thought I was never going to make money doing this,” she says. “But I knew the field I was getting into a long time ago was not about getting rich; it was about doing something you really, really enjoy. I really don’t know what else I will do.”
Except, of course, for that fantasy of making butter in Vermont. But would that really give her the same adrenaline rush as when she works through the night making croissants?
“You know you have this production, and it is going to be big,” she says. “And in the end, when people are smiling and walking around the farmers market eating it, that is when I go, ‘Yes, that’s why I did that.’ ”
Frenchie’s (www.frenchiesdc.com) sells croissants and more at the H Street NE FreshFarm Market, which runs 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays through Dec. 21 at the corner of H and 13th streets NE. Seasonal Pantry, where she sells some baked goods, is at 13141 / 2 Ninth St. NW, 202-713-9866, www.seasonalpantry.com.