It is impossible to articulate every aesthetic sensibility of Nancy Meyers’s oeuvre by singling out one scene, but if it I were to attempt it, I would probably choose that scene from It’s Complicated, wherein Meryl Streep and Steve Martin get stoned and make chocolate croissants. The sequence is an aspirational fantasy of the highest order; a dream ballet, a fever hallucination. It asks you to suspend — nay, expel — disbelief and imagine that: (1) You are Meryl Streep; (2) You own your own bakery called “The Bakery”; (3) Your ex-husband Alec Baldwin gave you a joint and you smoked it before your son’s lovely graduation party, which (4) you attended with your architect-date Steve Martin, who is in love with you and (5) on the way home asks to stop at The Bakery to make some sort of pastry (because you are stoned) which (6) turns out to be the most difficult pastry of all, the croissant, but (7) even though you are stoned, you bake it quite easily and you (8) even have the zen presence of mind to pretend the pastry dough is your beard and then your bikini.
In the best possible sense, watching this scene feels like putting my own brain in a pastry oven, setting it to high, and letting it crisp. I especially enjoy it as someone who is deeply incompetent at cooking and baking and, for that matter, doing anything whatsoever while stoned, save for watching Nancy Meyers movies. Which is why when I was offered (read: begged for) the opportunity to do a Nancy Meyers Week here at Vulture dot com, one of the first ideas I presented was re-creating this scene as a self-punishing stunt. I wanted to know: Could a layperson make croissants high? Could an actual pastry chef even make croissants high? Or was this a skill bestowed exclusively upon Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated, inadvertently perpetuating a dangerous myth?
Step 1: Find the Actual Baker Responsible for the It’s Complicated Croissants
My first step is to call Sarabeth Levine, owner of Sarabeth’s Restaurants and master pastry chef. I’d read years earlier that, before shooting It’s Complicated, Nancy had reached out to Sarabeth to help Meryl get the relative hang of making industrial-grade croissants (and had filmed the actual scene from the movie inside one of Sarabeth’s original New York outposts). Sarabeth asks me no fewer than four times why I am doing this. “What does this have to do with anything?” she asks, perplexed. When I explain the concept to her satisfaction, she sighs. “Oh, Jesus,” she says. Then, “Let me FaceTime you.”
Over FaceTime from her own industrial kitchen, Sarabeth cheerfully recounts her experience teaching Meryl Streep how to use a “sheeter,” which is the large machine that her character (and actual bakers) use to make croissants. “Even for an experienced person in the bakery, it’s very intimidating to run the sheeter when you’ve never run a sheeter before,” she says. “Meryl had never run a machine like this, and she was so cute. So we work with it, and she’s running it, but I could tell she’s not in love with this moment, that she’s going to have to do this [onscreen]. In doing it, she had seen how it could bite a hole in the croissant dough and shred the whole thing and then you have to start all over again.”
But Meryl, of course, prevailed. “She was fantastic,” says Sarabeth. “When she was doing it during the actual shoot, I was standing by the corner, watching, so that if I had to step in, fix something, straighten the dough, I was there. Also as sort of emotional security with the stupid machine, because it’s a very big machine.” At one point, Sarabeth did have to step in and straighten the dough for Meryl; the two had a sort of mind-meld moment in which it became clear that Meryl was “looking at me” because she was “in trouble” with the big, stupid machine. As a result, for at least part of the scene, Sarabeth’s own hands are visible, running the sheeter. “I know they’re my hands, because they’re more wrinkled and old than hers,” she laughed. (Sarabeth also hinted at a brief moment of on-set drama: “Originally, somebody else was supposed to do the stand-in and run the machine — the food stylist. But that’s another story, which I’m not telling you.”)
In the end, shooting the two-minute scene took two full days, a drastic rearrangement of Sarabeth’s kitchen that involved removing windows and the backs of ovens in order to fit cameras, and enough dough to make “one thousand” croissants. But the shoot also gave Sarabeth a brief and rare window into the mysterious mind of Meryl Streep. “You know what I noticed about Meryl?” she says, mid-sheeter discourse. “I know this [week] is about Nancy, but I have to tell you this about [Meryl]: She would walk up and down the ramp over here, and she’d be looking at her lines, humming. She would just hum in between the takes. She’d just walk around in her own little beautiful world. I was, like, so taken by her. A very beautiful human being.”
I explain to Sarabeth that, unlike Meryl, I am not going to be a beautiful human being about all of this, nor am I going to be using a sheeter, and also, I am going to be actually stoned. She looks momentarily disturbed. “I would wait and get stoned in the rolling out,” she says slowly. “I wouldn’t get stoned in the making of the dough.” I ask why. “Because it’s too complicated,” she says. (Drink every time someone calls something complicated in this piece based on It’s Complicated.) “If you get too stoned and you’re totally incapacitated, then it’ll be a mess.” When I ask if she’d ever gotten stoned and baked, she balks. “Oh, no. Never, never. No, I never did it like that. I’d be afraid to run the machine if I was stoned.” She pauses, looking thoughtful. “It might be interesting,” she muses.
Step 2: Study the Recipe and Ask Steve Martin for Tips
Sarabeth tells me that the only way I can accurately make the exact It’s Complicated croissants is via her cookbook, Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours, which is now out of print; she insists on sending me screenshots of her copy while we speak. As she snaps the photos, she briefly hovers her phone over the cookbook. “Now look here. Here’s a quick lesson. Here’s the détrempe and this is the beurrage,” she says, pointing at a rotund mound of dough. “Meaning, the dough part with the yeast, and the butter. You cut back the little bird beaks in it. See?” Already lost, I ask if I can text her with any questions when I actually make my croissants. I also warn her that she is going to be very disappointed in my efforts. “No, I’m not. This is very hard,” she says. “Call me if you have a problem, we’ll do like Meryl does: Wave me in the window.”
Before we hang up, her tone turns conspiratorial and a bit flirty. “Do you know who would have been the best croissant maker of the whole group?” she asks me. “Who?” I asked. “Steve,” she says. “His hands, because he’s a banjo player. He would be a great baker. I told him that at the very end.” I ask what he said in reply. She grins. “He kind of liked that I said that to him.”
A few days later, on the phone with Steve Martin for another Nancy Meyers Week story, I mention that I will be re-creating his croissants scene, hoping he will offer some tips and then we will become friends and make croissants platonically in an industrial setting. “It’s funny, when I read the scene in the script about making croissants” — Steve pronounces “croissants” Frenchly, like he does in the film — “I thought, All right. But people cite that as some kind of cherished moment that they want to do, or want to be a part of, somehow. I never would have pegged that.” “Why not?” I ask. “I’m just a man, I guess,” he says.
Step 3: Get High and Learn What Détrempe and Beurrage Mean
I begin my own croissant journey on a cloudy Friday afternoon. I cheat a little bit by finding Sarabeth’s recipe online, since it’s rather complicated to try and decipher an expert-level recipe from a screenshot of a book. My first step is making the “détrempe,” or the dough, which requires cake flour, the one ingredient I couldn’t find at the grocery store. The internet tells me that I can “hack” cake flour by combining all-purpose flour and cornstarch, a process that involves multiplying fractions, which reminds me I am supposed to be stoned. I pop a weed gummy purchased legally from the great American state of Massachusetts and attempt to do fractions, giving up shortly thereafter and doing what I imagine Meryl would do, i.e. hum peacefully to myself and base the measurements on feelings instead of math.
The first step is to mix the yeast and flours and salt to create a “soft, sticky dough,” and I do so confidently, pausing only to eat several bowls of Frosted Flakes and stare out the window at a uniquely purposeful squirrel until I realize with a jolt that I am high as fuck. I shape the dough into a nice little fat ball, as I have been instructed to do, and though I begin to feel deep affection toward it, it feels more dry and less pliant than it should. I look around and wonder what I’ve done wrong, then realize the salt is still sitting on the countertop, unmixed. I text Sarabeth in a panic. “How bad is it if I forgot the salt?” I ask. “Not bad just not tasting great,” she replies. “I think I’m failing on many levels right now,” I text back. “Oh dear,” she replies. “Are you stoned?” “Yes,” I text back with a smiley face. “You should have made the dough and not been stoned and then get stoned when you roll out and shape,” she says. “Perhaps,” I reply.
Worrying I have somehow unyoked myself from the Meryl Streep energy of this project by taking drugs at the wrong point, I text my friend Ryan, who works at Martha Stewart Living and is the sort of person who effortlessly makes croissants with one hand while arranging flowers with the other. He gently suggests I start over, that it would be, in fact, “good for the story,” and that he could come over and be Meryl and I could be Steve. The idea of handing over the entire thing to an expert and just being stoned out of my mind, eating perfect croissants, is incredibly appealing. But I’m out of yeast, and the rules that I have arbitrarily made up dictate that I must go it alone, so I press forward.
The next step is making the beurrage, or the butter, which involves mixing and shaping two sticks of butter into a giant ball, as round and melty as the sun itself. The butter feels amazing in my hands, soft and creamy, like, uh, butter. I begin quietly eating the butter off of my hands. Why don’t people eat plain butter more often? I manage to stop myself before the butter thing goes too far, then refrigerate the remaining butter ball for 15 minutes next to the détrempe, like two little chunky twins. I stand at the door of the fridge, kvelling at my two stout children sitting politely next to each other. They are so well-behaved!!
As is the case with twins in real life, I’m then supposed to combine the two separate entities into one large ball. The recipe literally says to create a “butter-filled packet of dough,” which strikes me as the cutest thing I’ve ever encountered in my three arduous decades on Earth. I wrap the dough around the butter to create the fat little butter dough ball I’d never even dared to dream about. “I cannot believe this is real,” I say to the kitchen. I gaze upon my butter baby, glowing with pride and platonic love. I text half of the people in my phone — including Sarabeth — a photo of it. “This is my literal child,” I write.
My boyfriend enters the kitchen to see how I am doing, and I try to explain the butter baby, but suddenly begin laughing so hard I can’t speak. He stares at me, incredulous, as I laugh for five straight minutes, pointing maniacally at the enchanting rotunda of butter and dough. Finally, I recover my composure. “This is my son,” I choke, urgently. My boyfriend leaves.
Unfortunately, I must now flatten my plump offspring in order to “distribute the butter.” I hold it in my hands one more time, kiss its tiny keppie, then roll it out with a rolling pin, weeping. The incredibly complicated instructions for this portion of the recipe inform me I must now fold my flattened baby “like a business letter.” Not only have I never folded a business letter in my life, I’ve never written one or even encountered one on a business desk. I Google it, and learn that business letters are folded thrice, due to business. In between multiple and increasingly bizarre foldings of this manner — at one point I am instructed to fold it “like a book,” which sends me to my bookshelf and then into a deep self-questioning spiral — I must refrigerate the folded butter dough for 20 minutes at a time.
Time begins to stretch like the pliant dough I am not working with. The fridge door is slick with butter. I have eaten all of the Frosted Flakes and now have started on peanut butter straight from the jar. My boyfriend returns to the kitchen. “Why is there flour on your hips?” he asks. I try to tell him “it’s complicated” but can barely get the words out because I am so funny. (It was a sativa.) I write in my notes, “It’s complicated hahahaha.” I also write, inexplicably, “The dough and I are friends now and we finally agree.”
My last step is flattening the dough into a perfect 17-by-9-inch rectangle, folding it once more like a “book” (I have been folding books all wrong all my life), wrapping it in plastic wrap, and leaving it alone for at least 24 hours in the freezer, followed by 8 hours in the fridge. I simply refuse to measure my dough on principle; bringing a ruler into a kitchen feels as wrong as bringing a butter baby to a hot public park. My boyfriend measures it when I am not looking, and it is exactly 17 inches long, which I take to mean that I am a prodigal genius who should probably purchase The Bakery.
Despite this fact, no matter what I do, I cannot roll the dough into a rectangle; it looks increasingly like a wine bottle, or, as a friend puts it, “an uncut penis.” I shame this friend for sexualizing my dough, fold it like I have definitely always personally folded all of my books, try not to smush it with plastic wrap, escort it gently into the freezer, and bid it goodnight. I spend the rest of the evening wiping butter and flour from every surface in my home and on my body. As I drift off to sleep that night, I find bits of dough in my hair, which is particularly grotesque considering the dough has been, at various times, my child and my friend.
Step 4: Get High Again and Prepare to Meet My Croissant Children
Two days go by; it is now Sunday evening, and again I am 30 minutes deep into another weed gummy, this time with more of a full-body high. My dough looks insane, like the flattened outline of Wile E. Coyote, but I have faith, bestowed upon me by drugs, in its supernatural ability to become many gorgeous croissants. I’m now meant to roll it into a 16-by-12-inch rectangle, which I again eyeball and which again is not a rectangle whatsoever. I’m then instructed to make two rectangles out of the big rectangle and cut them both into perfect triangles with a pizza cutter. This proves … complicated. “My triangles are fucked to hell,” I write cheerfully in my notes.
I remember Meryl’s serene humming and I press on. The excess dough left over from the triangle-cutting rises into little puffs and I suddenly, desperately, must know what they taste like and feel like when punctured by my teeth. I eat one; it tastes like yeast and nothing. Its texture, however, is like one fat cloud. I eat four more, then text Ryan, “Is it bad to eat this dough?” “Not really,” he replies, “but it’s not going to be good like cookie dough.” I continue munching on dough clouds as I pause briefly to pretend my dough triangle is a beard, then a bikini. I feel closer to Meryl Streep than I ever have, which is saying something, considering she once walked very quickly past me at the Metrograph at a documentary screening I went to because I heard she was maybe going to be there.
Next, I roll the dough triangles upward into little half-moons that will soon become the croissants, watching a random French video of a French person doing this for extra help. (Understandably, Sarabeth has not returned my last text from Friday.) My half-moons are about half the size of the half-moons in the book, but as I place the teensy crescents gently on the baking sheet, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of protective love. They look like Ursula’s cursed polyps from The Little Mermaid and I would die for them. A low male French voice interrupts my maternal reverie and I scream, then realize I have accidentally left the French croissant video on and it’s been replaying over and over.
The unbaked croissants are now supposed to “proof,” or rise, either in a turned-off oven or a plastic bag. I put one tray in the oven and realize I have zero plastic bags, thanks to Bill de Blasio and, indirectly, the Industrial Revolution. I place the other tray, humbly, in the dryer. I’m now supposed to wait up to two hours for the croissants to proof, which, on this gummy, is like asking me to wait until the end of my natural life. I wonder what Meryl might do in this situation — time, as fluid as an unrefrigerated butter ball, unfolding before her. Instantly, I know: I open a bottle of wine, turn on my Christmas playlist two weeks early, and dance around the kitchen, occasionally opening the dryer to stare at my progeny. My boyfriend walks by, looks into the dryer, and says nothing.
After several hours, I check the clock. It has been 30 minutes. To pass more time, I form the remaining raw dough I’ve been eating into another ball, trying to recreate the magic of my first ball. It lacks charm. It produces no oxytocin and I do not bond to it. I place the dough on various surfaces around the kitchen and study it. I wonder if it knows itself. I write in my notes, “This dough has fewer vibes.”
Years later, the sun has died, the moon has shattered, the stars have blinked out, the Earth is a blown-out husk, and two hours have passed. The raw croissants seem to have risen enough to go into the oven. I place them inside for 10 minutes, then 15, as instructed, taking a time-lapse video of them the entire time that ultimately fails because I keep moving around excitedly. My kitchen smells like butter making love to an angel.
Finally, I remove the croissants from the oven and look upon them. They look sort of like real croissants, except infinitesimally smaller, like croissants you might make as a prank for a really high person. I open one slowly to see if it’s got the layers and the flake that are required to call something a croissant. They do! I am tentatively triumphant. I text a photo to Ryan. “You did it! You have layers!” he says. “Did you eat one yet?” I take a bite. The croissant tastes like yeast and nothing. I coat the next one with a layer of sea salt and try again. It is transcendent. I am Meryl and they are my three adult children who never fight, one of whom is engaged to John Krasinski and just had lunch with him at a hotel to talk about it.
I hand one to my boyfriend, who chews quietly. “The outside is nice,” he says, “but the inside is mushy.” I accept this to be true. Still stoned down to the deepest part of my brain stem, I eat four of them, pausing only to marvel at their complexities. Some are spewing little burps of butter while others are stately and professional. Some have a sense of humor and some seem rude. They are a family, a family of misfits. I will eat them all in the coming days, methodically and with decreasing joy, as they grow up to taste less like yeast and more like nothing.
I text a photo of the finished croissants to Sarabeth, a bit frightened that she will not find my petite and moody pastries as delightful as I do. Sarabeth replies immediately, “OMG,” she writes. “They are so cute and look stoned!!!” I jump from my seat (the floor) with joy, scattering croissant flakes across the room. “They look happy,” she adds, “and I’m sure they’re tasty.” I tell her that they do, in fact, need the salt I so recklessly forgot. “Ha,” Sarabeth writes. “Make them again without the weed.”
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