NEEDHAM — Holding a triangle of dough in her hands, Valerie Coullet stretches it delicately but deliberately until it’s almost 1½ times its original length. She pinches the corners of the short side (the base of the triangle) and rolls up the dough, four times around, to form a croissant. Hers are straight across, not curved at the ends. She explains that according to French tradition, croissants made with butter are straight, those made with margarine are crescent shaped. The tips of the triangles sit at the bottom, so the croissant doesn’t pop open during baking.
Coullet, 52, started her business, Le Petit Four (“the little oven”), in her former Needham home in 2018. She made and sold small batches of croissants and pain au chocolat. (For the latter, she rolls up rectangles of dough around two chocolate baking sticks.) This was four years after she and her husband, Daniel, and their children moved to the United States and, while Coullet had always baked for her family, she says it became her goal “to master it and better understand the chemistry of baking.”
Coullet, who grew up in France and worked in various business fields, is a combination of self-taught and well trained in the art and science of bread and pastry. She attended The French Pastry School in Chicago in 2018 and San Francisco Baking Institute in 2020. It’s also in her genes. Not long ago she learned that some of her ancestors were artisan bakers from Ischia, Italy. She attributes her natural ability and love for baking to this familial link, as there is something instinctive in her finesse with dough.
In starting Le Petit Four, Coullet says, “I wanted to be me here and share my culture and my baking.”
As the business grew, Coullet looked for a store to rent. Working from her home, she says, “I couldn’t keep up with the demand.” But retail space was too expensive. As luck would have it, the couple found another house in Needham with a standalone garage, perfect for turning into a commercial bakery kitchen. They bought the house in April 2020, at the start of COVID, and completed renovations six months later. “It’s unique, a private bakery in a country space,” she says. “It’s exactly what I like.”
Croissants, pain au chocolat, and brioche buns are part of a category of baked goods called Viennoiseries, made of yeast-leavened dough with the addition of butter, milk, eggs, and sugar, depending. Originating in Vienna, these items fall squarely between pastry and bread.
Making croissants begins with a basic dough called detrempe. Coullet’s recipe is a mixture of flour, yeast, milk, water, sugar, malt, salt, and a little butter. The dough is kneaded in a commercial mixer, then divided into four large blobs, each to yield 30 croissants.
After the detrempe rests in the refrigerator overnight, Coullet begins the lamination process of folding a large, thin slab of butter into the dough, and rolling it out and folding it a few times, with chilled rests in-between, to get many alternating layers of dough and butter. “At the end, you have 25 layers,” she says. In the oven heat, steam from the butter, along with the yeast in the dough, causes the croissant to puff into luxurious layers.
Coullet uses a Vermont-made, European-style butter called Beurremont with 83 percent butterfat. “I want high quality and for it to be local, as well,” she says of her choice of butter and other ingredients.
After shaping, the croissants rest for two hours in the proofer, which controls heat and humidity as the dough rises. Then comes baking, the quickest part: 17 minutes in a 350-degree convection oven.
“It’s a long process, which is why I get up early,” says Coullet, who is up before dawn, at about 3 a.m., five days a week.
Coullet’s croissants are dark-golden, almost medium-brown in color. Too often, the ones made on this side of the Atlantic are underbaked and possess little or none of the three characteristics of an authentic croissant, which Coullet describes as “flakiness, buttery taste, and inner honeycomb structure.” Hers are delicately crisp on the outside, crackly as you bite into them (causing flakes to fall onto your lap), with tender inside layers and the rich taste of butter lingering on your tongue.
While quality is her mantra, Coullet says motivation comes from her customers. “My clients gave me the inspiration to do new things,” she says. Encouraged by their requests, she added almond croissants and caneles (little custardy cakes with a dark caramelized shell) to her product line. She also makes pains aux raisins, brioche au sucre (buns sprinkled with pearl sugar), French-style danish with seasonal fruit, cinnamon rolls, and madeleines. Her take on American-style items includes blueberry muffins, apple turnovers, and chocolate chip cookies. Coullet makes two breads, ciabatta and fougasse (a Provencal-style bread, shaped like a leaf, sprinkled with olives and herbs), and dinner rolls. She’s currently perfecting a baguette to her exacting standards.
Word of mouth and weekly appearances at the Needham and Dedham farmers markets during the summer have brought her a loyal following. Le Petit Four has grown from 200 clients at the start of the year to about 1,100 today. “My clients give me a lot of love,” she says. “Especially with COVID, they felt comfortable. It’s just me here.” (She recently hired two part-time helpers.)
Above all, Coullet says her French-style Viennoiseries need to be “gourmand,” a word she uses to mean generous. She explains it like this: “When you see it and eat it, it’s enough. It has the right balance of everything. It is wow!”
Check out Le Petit Four’s menu at www.lepetitfourneedham.com. Order online, at least two days ahead, for pick up from Wednesday through Sunday.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com