Suitcase and World: My Weakness. The Croissant.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

My Weakness. The Croissant.

"00 Croissant. Yum" by Mark Mitchell - Flickr: Yum
(Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

ne thing I am truly looking forward to, when we're in Paris, is getting a freshly baked....preferably handmade, croissant!  I absolutely love, love, love this humble pastry and when I was working, I would pretty much have one or two for breakfast every week even though the croissants that I was getting were sub par compared to anything I could get in Paris.  Hey, when you're desperate, even sub par will do.

A croissant is made from flour, yeast, milk, sugar, a bit of salt, and a ton of butter.  But, in the hands of an skilled French baker, these simple ingredients are transformed into the most quintessential of French pastries.  Of course, the ingredients also have to be top notch. Case in point.  Competitors in the annual Fête du Pain (aka Bread Festival) are required to not only use butter (not margarine) in their dough, but a specific AOC protected butter. The French don't fool around when it comes to food!

Photo by © Skop. Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0
Setting the aside the need for top quality ingredients,  it also takes a lot of time to make the dough for the croissant. It involves a process called laminating - basically layering butter between folds of dough, rolling out the dough and then repeating several times o there are layers upon layers of butter spread between several upon layers of dough.  As the laminated dough bakes, the water in the butter evaporates pushing the stretching the gluten in dough, thereby separating the layers as well as creating pockets of air that result in the flaky, airy pasty.

The ideal croissant is served slightly warm.  When you break it open, you should see layers of dough interspersed with pockets of air.  When you bite down, it should have a slightly crunch exterior and a soft, though slightly chewy interior.  It has to be slightly sweet even if the filling is a savory one.  Yes, it has to be slightly everything to be perfect! 
The history of the croissant has many versions but all involve the kipferl, a crescent shaped pastry that originated in Austria.  Unlike the croissant, the kipferl was not made from leavened dough.

How the kipferl and therefore, ultimately, the croissant, was created are stories of legend.  One tale is that it was invented in Europe to celebrate the defeat of the Umayyad forces at the Battle of Tours by the Franks in 732 AD, with the shape representing the Islamic crescent.  Another, albeit similar, version is that it was created in 1683 in Vienna celebrate the defeat of the Ottomans by Christian forces in the siege of the city.  Again, the shape of the pastry was a reference to the crescents on the Ottoman flags.

The original Boulangerie Viennoise in 1909 when it was owned by Philibert Jacquet.
But how did the kipferl make it to France?  One story is that it was introduced by Austrian-born Marie Antoinette after she arrived, in France, to marry King Louis XVI.

A more well accepted story is that it was introduced by an Austrian artillery officer, August Zang, who founded a Viennese bakery ("Boulangerie Viennoise") at 92, rue de Richelieu in Paris in the 1830s. The bakery, which served Viennese specialties, including the kipferl, quickly became popular. In turn, it inspired French bakers who refined the kipferl by adding the butter and the lamination process.

My pain au chocolate from a patisserie in
Ifrane, Morocco.
The French version of the kipferl was named for its crescent (croissant) shape but there are French pastries that are made from the same laminated dough that are not crescent shaped.  For example, another of my favorites, pain au chocolate is rectangular shaped.  It's made from the same laminated dough but it has a dark chocolate filling inside.  On the savory side, I have a weakness for the ham and cheese filled croissant.  Yum!

Today, you can get croissants in many places around the world - especially wherever the French went.  I've had surprisingly good ones in Morocco and Senegal and passable ones in Puebla, Mexico, Mali and Madagascar.  Of course, you can pretty find them everywhere in the US but here, they've adulterated them by using them as bread for sandwiches.....soggy bread at that.

Recently, a French expat named Dominique Ansel has created a craze for his croissant inspired creation - the cronut which is essentially a donut made from croissant dough.  His creation is so popular that huge lines form outside his Brooklyn bakery every morning and if you are too far back in the line, you'll leave empty handed even though there is a 2 cronut limit for people buying them.  He's also trademarked the name.  The man is going to become a millionaire from making and frying croissant dough.  Why didn't the French think of this before? :-)

But I digress.  Back to the croissant.  In my humble and perhaps very biased opinion, there's something about the French ones that are really special.  They truly just taste better than any of those that you can get outside of France.

So it was hard to believe that, in 1970, the French started manufacturing croissant dough in factories and even today, it's estimated that 30-40% of the bakeries in Paris use the premade dough or perhaps even preformed croissants.  Thankfully though, there has been a resurgence of artisanal bakers who are willing to go through the laborious and time consuming process of making croissants. They are quickly gaining in popularity.  As I say, nothing beats hand made!

I can't be in Paris and not have at least one truly good croissant so I researched bakeries for Z and I to check out.  Surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal has an article on Where to Find the Best Croissants in Paris, France and Du Pain et des Idées, a boulangerie located in the Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood, is on the list.  The boulangerie is highly rated and thus, very popular.  I might have to roust Z out of bed early one morning to stand in line.  I want that warm, freshly baked croissant to remember Paris by!