“You know why the French hate us so much? Thay gave us the croissant. And you know what we did with it? We turned it into the croissandwich, thank you very much.”Dennis Leary
In my youth in the Midwest croissants were regarded as somewhat of a luxury item, trotted out occasionally for the impressive brunch, “Would you care for a…croissant?” You could actually hear the italics. For a long time they were the province of fancy restaurants, the rare (rare) bakery, but eventually…Pillsbury. Pop open that can, swat the doughboy away, roll up your pre-perforated triangles, and voila! ‘Crescent’ rolls for the masses. And to be honest, I liked them. Sort of flakey, and a buttery flavor that was probably ‘butter-flavored’ vegetable shortening. As an adult the relationship continued, picking up the (slightly) improved versions from the grocery store deli, and raving about this coffee house or that who had amazing croissants – I learned to speak in italics. I used them to impress at brunches. I tried Croissan’wiches and convinced myself they were healthier than McMuffins.
Un vrai croissant is a thing of beauty, its loveliness increasing with each passing-into-nothingness flakey bite. Practically an international symbol for France, they’re made in almost every one of the country’s 35,000 boulangeries – that’s roughly one boulangerie for every 1800 people – translating to almost 3.5 billion croissants per year. After the baguette, of which the French consume a staggering 10 billion per year, or roughly 320 per second, it’s the most popular casse–croûte (literally, ‘crust-breaker’, or snack). US consumption, while it pales in comparison to the motherland, is on the rise – in 2011 Americans ate 106 million of them, up to 145 million last year (2019).
The croissant as we know it has only been around since 1920 or so. There have been crescent-shaped breads going back several centuries, but the layered, flakey, buttery explosion of crumbs and goodness we know today is only about 100 years old. And what defines the croissant as we know it? I mean, we all know what a croissant is, but…what is it? Well, it falls into the appetizingly named category of ‘laminated breads’, along with puff-pastries, phyllos, and strudels, or pastries made up of layers of moistened flour (dough) separated by layers of fat, generally, ideally, butter. A firm but malleable dough is rolled thin, spread with a layer of butter, folded in thirds, allowed to chill, rolled thin again, spread again, folded, chilled, etc.
In the case of puff-pastry, if prepared with the traditional number of rolls/spreads/folds, it works out as 729 layers of dough separated by 728 layers of fat, each layer about a thousandeth of an inch, or a hundredth of a millimeter thick – so a millefeuille, that glorious concoction of two layers of puff-pastry sandwiching a layer of cream, and which I had always assumed was hyperbolically named (c’mon, it doesn’t really have a thousand layers) actually has 1458 feuilles or ‘leaves’ of pastry.
A croissant is not so ambitious, typically involving only 4 turns/folds of the dough, so depending on how many times you roll up the final product your center-sweet spot bite will contain anywhere from 487 – 649 layers (nifty explanation here).
But puff-pastry and croissants are two different beasts. Puff-pastry is meant to be crisp and flakey from top to bottom; a croissant has a shiny outer layer of flakey, puff-pastry like sheets, the inside an exquisitely delicate strata of bread, moist, translucent, and pebbled with tiny bubbles (cavitation from when steam forces those 649 layers apart). There’s a magic that occurs, and which can’t quite be explained by any chemistry or physics, that allow them to be both crackly-crisp and drenched in butter at the same time.
At least it’s somewhat hard to think straight enough to explain how they exist in both states as they melt against your hard palate, dissolving in crunches and puffs. And while we’re on the subject, some words about that butter:
A croissant that’s shaped like a croissant isn’t really a croissant; or rather it is if it isn’t.
A croissant that’s shaped like a croissant isn’t really a croissant, or rather, it is if it isn’t. More of an accepted convention than actual law (which is amazing in France, as they love to regulate pretty much everything) Croissants aux buerre, those made with pure butter, are not curved but rolled and baked straight, whereas those made with other shortenings (margarine, vegetable shortenings) are formed into the iconic ‘crescent’ shape.I will not say which is better. But it’s the butter.
Back in 2017 there was a butter shortage in France. The “Pastry Panic”, also known as the “croissant crisis” ensued. Store shelves were empty, hoarding led to rationing. In the latter half of the year, one third to half of France’s demand for butter went unmet.
This is a serious thing in a country where the annual per capita consumption stands at 18 lbs (about the weight of 3.5 chihuahuas) – in the US per capita butter consumption is around 5.5 lbs (about 10 hamsters). And despite rumors to the contrary, French butter-frenzy had nothing to do with the shortfall – turns out butter’s not as bad for us as we thought (at least for now), the whole world’s consumption had risen, markets reacted, prices increased, other markets offered more, and supply lines shifted until the French adjusted to the new playing field. Butter is back.
And really, croissants never left. It was during that ‘crisis’ that US consumption of croissants increased by 35 million or so. That’s as if every single resident of California suddenly decided to eat a pastry. Marketing is partly to blame (thank?). There’s been a strong push to market the croissant globally. Lesaffre, the world’s largest producer of yeast, and the Association International du Pain Français (AIPF) has even put out a helpful and entirely earnest booklet, “Le Croissant in Words: A Glossary of Sensory Terms to Describe Croissant and Other Yeasted and Laminated Products”. It is, in the words of the introduction, “a booklet devoted to the organoleptic properties of the croissant and, by extension, to other products made with leavened and laminated doughs.” It continues, “The technical sophistication of the croissant, and its eventful history…make it a product of extraordinarily rich organoleptic properties.” And before you run off and start googling, ‘Organoleptic properties’ are the aspects of food, water or other substances that create an individual experience via the senses—including taste, sight, smell, and touch. It’s honestly quite fascinating reading, breaking down the qualities of a croissant into ‘Expert’ and ‘Consumer’ vocabulary used to evaluate and describe a croissant by taste, sight, touch, smell, and additionally, hearing (the crispiness of the crust/flake). It starts with a pretty basic walk-through:
The aromas released in the mouth when eating a croissant develop and travel to the nose via the back of the throat, a route descried by specialists as the retronasel route. Such aromas are not to be confused with those perceived when smelling the product (scent and smell). The simultaneous perception of tastes, smells and mouth-feel sensations experienced during tasting is collectively known as “flavours”.
And whereas a trained expert might indicate something like, “Product B is characterized by stronger ripe wheat and malty/toasty smells…”, the average consumer might chime in with, “Buttery, mmmm…”.
We like the croissant so much these days that we’ve created new variations, hybrids, franken-pastries. In addition to aforementioned “Croissan’wich”, there’s the “Cragel” (Croissant and Bagel fusion), the “Crup-cake”, the “Cruffin”, the “Croiffle” (more of a croissant sandwich crisped up further in a waffle iron and an idea I am entirely open to trying), and the infamous, “Cronut”, which led to the following headline in the Business Insider: “People are Now Exchanging Cronuts for Sex on Craigslist”. So there’s that.
It took us a while to notice, but the boulangerie in town, the big one just off the main Place, has several different boulangers working on different days. It’s where we first found our ‘favorite’ baguette, although that has changed with the discovery of our new, puts-them-to-shame regular fournil in the warren of back streets. The bigger one is still the place to go for pastries and viennoiseries, but the baguettes in our little shop are vastly superior, which is saying something. In any case, croissant-wise there is a marked difference from day to day.
And it’s actually a good thing that the quality of our local croissants varies on a daily basis. It’s strong evidence that they’re baked fresh. There has been a lot of press and accompanying national angst recently about croissants that are baked from pre-made and frozen doughs, by some estimates as high as 50 – 75% of all those produced in France.
To counter this, and differentiate artisanal (those made on-site from scratch) from the industrial frozen croissants, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Patisserie Française has created a new label this year: ‘Boulanger de France’ . To qualify for the new designation, a boulanger must:
- produce bread fresh on site;
- make from scratch: croissants, pains au chocolat, pains aux raisins, brioches, pains au lait, galettes des rois, éclairs, religieuses, millefeuilles, Paris-Brest, opéras, tartes aux fruits, flans, chaussons aux pommes, quiches, pizzas et sandwiches;
- respect a salt level of less than or equal to 18 g per kg of flour for all breads;
- make bread using a light kneading and a slow fermentation to preserve the aromas and increase the conservation;
- favour short supply chains and seasonal products.
And so, in the spirit of making the world a better place for morning coffee, I decide to spend a week undercover, probing the seamy underbelly of laminated dough-slingers. Or just buying and eating a lot of croissants…
Monday 9:00am – High expectations for the experiment, this is the kind of in-depth research I can get behind. Unsure if I’m approaching this objectively, as I have a miraculously perfect pastry in mind, and I don’t know that I should be aiming for a target so much as open to possibility. Who am I kidding, I want perfection. This croissant is good, not terribly flakey, fairly rich with butter flavor, a bit soft. Fine. But that’s not what I’m after. I did note that it’s characterized by strong ripe wheat overtones…
Tuesday 9:30am – a little late I think, this batch isn’t fresh out of the oven, at least an hour on the rack. Flakey, a bit on the dry side. Not particularly impressive. There’s a suggestion of butter, but nothing remarkable. Improved slightly with some confiture de framboise, which basically improves everything.
Wednesday 9:30am – still not the guy. Which is how we’ve come to regularly comment on the situation…take a bite, turn to one another, “Not the guy.” Because we know there’s a guy (or gal, though men pretty much rule the oven in French bakeries) who really understands the mysteries of butter. We need to meet him, or at least know when he’s running the show so we can get our fix and make a crumbly mess of our shirtfronts. A tad better, more of a balance between flakey and moist, but not…The Guy. Back to the jam pot. Realized I might have to go back later in the day to account for possible shift changes.
Thursday 9:00am – a little earlier, closer to the when it came out of the oven perhaps, but we think this might be The Guy. Jess mentioned it right as she reached for hers, and noted that her fingers were immediately saturated with butter. There’s a tactile difference as well, a different ‘give’ to the shiny flake as you grasp it, a crackle that defies the logic of saturation. You can feel the outer shell collapse like a barn roof, almost shattering with the slightest tooth, sending flakes across your tongue (and on your lap, and in your coffee).
There’s the sweetness of butter doing its job, allowing flavors to flow slowly across your taste buds, lingering, and a pleasant crumb as you press your tongue against the palate, melting, melting, going….not gone. It calls out for coffee, but it’s almost a shame to interrupt the flood of changing tastes. I wait just a bit longer.
I might have to go back in a couple hours and buy another batch. Purely for research purposes.
Friday 8:40am – This might be the guy’s apprentice. Good, but not as good as yesterday. There’s butter and flake, and a sustaining sweetness, but a bit heavy on the fluff to flake ratio. Less crackle. Not disappointing, just not transcendent. Also realized that I don’t normally eat croissants every day for a week. Whatever they are, croissants do not really fit into any diet. An average flake-bomb comes in at about 270 calories, 31 grams of carbs, and 14 grams of fat. On the upside, there’s also 1.5 grams of dietary fiber, 5 grams of protein, and a sprinkling of iron, calcium, and potassium. The rigors of research.
Saturday 9:15am – probably a little late to be partaking, but it had to wait until after the weekly market (avocados on sale, and a dozen oysters practically demanded that I bring them home with me). Very flakey, to the point of a tad dry. I get a bit of butter on the back-end – which sounds kinda risqué now that I’ve typed it – but the flavors don’t evolve in a tumble. Thinking fondly back to Thursday.
Sunday 8:20am – On the mouthfeel, crackle and crumble scale these are exceptional. A satisfying ‘crunch’, a palpable collapse of outer layers, sharding against the tongue and palate. Center isn’t as velvety as I would like, but my fingers are coated with a sheen of butter as I type, which is not a bad thing. Mostly. I get toast, sweet malt, and a touch of caramel. Or at least I think I do. Maybe I’ve been reading too much. I think this may be another guy, worthy of his own fan club.
And so…Thursday is the winner, yes, this week. I’m tempted to go another round. There are all kinds of variables I haven’t explored – do the shifts rotate? Is it a by-product of the boulanger’s mood? What if I’m there as they slide out of the oven? I kind of feel this is a long-term project.
It’s summer though, and hot. Not sure I can manage a croissant-a-day habit. Maybe just weekends.
Weekends and Thursdays.