The Croissants in Our Lives
France has ruined me from all other croissants. Alright, so the same can be said about so many other treats and dishes. Baguettes. Macarons. Any kind of steak. However, a good croissant is particularly hard to find when you live outside of la belle France. Oddly enough, the origins of the croissant are believed to actually be Austrian, based on a nearly identical crescent-shaped pastry called kipfel. The inspiration for the croissant began during the eighteenth and nineteenth century- a period during which pastry was reserved exclusively for the wealthy due to its costly ingredients. In fact, most attribute the beginnings of the croissant in France to none other than Marie Antoinette when she married Louis XVI. While the validity of this tale is uncertain, rumors convey that Marie Antoinette actually insisted on dining alone to enjoy the comfort of her native kipfel in solitude.
History and gossip aside, one cannot argue that the French are currently the reigning masters of croissants. Even in the worst viennoiseries, your croissant will still be delicious. You see, croissants are not just an average pastry. They’re alchemy. This breakfast delight is made of puff pastry, or pâte feuillettée, which involves a mixture of salt, flour, yeast, butter, and milk. Attendez! It’s not that simple. The quality lies within the process of creating the perfect puff pastry dough. The better the dough, the better the croissant. Such involves a seemingly tedious process called ‘Laminated dough’, which in short involves wrapping a block of butter in the dough, all the while keeping the mixture as chilled as possible. The wrapping creates layers when the dough is rolled around and over itself. Then while baking, steam is released from the butter, which creates puffy, flaky ‘sacs’. A good croissant should not have dense dough.
As a side note, and strictly for your mesmerizing entertainment, a video of the laminated dough process:
Voila! With all the aforementioned information at hand, this returns me to my original sentiment: France has ruined me from all other croissants. Well, I’m going to revise that statement slightly. France has ruined me from most croissants. Hidden within these New England neighborhood nooks, nestled between the giant supermarket bakeries and coffee chains are some really, really, really good authentic croissants. Did I mention really? The easy part- you can always spot a decent croissant just by looking at it. That’s exactly what we’re going to do today. There are many varieties of croissants out there, and you won’t ever be fooled into a lousy one again!
This primer in croissant craftsmanship is best when you can view a spectrum of croissant varieties together:
Is there one that distinctly looks better than the others? The answer is: YES! Croissant #4 is textbook perfection. I’ll tell you where it’s from in a bit, but for now, let’s take a look at what makes this a great croissant from the exterior:
- Shape: Crescent-shaped. This is a MUST. After all, ‘croissant’ in French means ‘crescent’ in English. This is non-debatable.
- Volume: The croissant should look VERY puffy and pillowy, but contained. It’s not a popover!
- Texture: The outer layer of the croissant should have neatly symmetrical layering and striations, with some sparse bubbling and flaking. This is indicative of quality dough.
- Coloring: An alternating pattern of gold and golden-brown, which demonstrates that it was baked appropriately.
Now we’ll examine another important aspect of the croissant- the interior.
Looking at the photo above, we immediately see two interiors that are not ideal. Croissants #1 and #2 are not from quality dough. We know this for the following reasons:
- Density: Croissant dough should be light and airy.
- Dough Sacs: Remember those steamy butter pockets I mentioned? They make the croissant light, puffy, and pillowy. They should be fairly large and evenly distributed.
In croissant #4, the sacs are concentrated toward the center of the croissant, with just a thin layer of denser dough towards the exterior of croissant. This is a better structure for the croissant. That’s how the croissant gets its beautiful shape. Notice in croissant #3, the exterior slightly collapses due to the many sacs that are more concentrated toward the surface. The denser dough is in the center. Croissant #3 is quite the opposite from #4, which proves a noticeable difference in structure, as shown below.
Onto the most important part: Taste. None of what I’ve explained so far matters if the taste isn’t right… well mostly. Here are my thoughts on each of the four croissants, which will also reveal where each was purchased:
#1 Market Basket (New England Supermarket Chain): Sure, it’s more for my dollar, but certainly not my taste buds! I had low expectations. They weren’t low enough. These croissants have an overwhelming ‘butter’ taste, almost like an artificial microwave popcorn butter that spoiled three years ago. Also, the dough was too dense, which only magnified the rank flavor. Blech.
#2 Dunkin’ Donuts: America runs on it, right? Maybe for coffee, but certainly not for croissants. This croissant had no authentic taste. It absorbed the not-so-flavorful myriad of surrounding donuts and muffins. This was more a mass blueberry-chocolate-apple-donut-bread with faint notes of burnt toast and scorched coffee. Plus, it looks and feels like a hockey puck.
#3 Paul Bakery: If you follow this blog even remotely, you know I have a fondness for Paul, which is a small chain of authentic French bakeries based on a larger chain in France. They have a wide array of delicious treats and specialties, but I’m afraid to say I am just slightly disappointed in their croissant. Slightly. The taste was buttery, but underwhelming. There was nothing distinctly notable about this croissant. Going forward, I will just stick to their wonderful palmiers and macarons!
#4 Caramel Pâtisserie: I love Caramel. This is a fact. For one, when you step into this little Salem bakery, you are immediately transported to France. I can’t explain why. It just happens. Far be it for me to dissect the science behind this phenomena. This place is the real deal, and whenever I need a fix I will drive an hour from my house for a box of six macarons. No joke. Their croissants taste just as perfect as they look- buttery, but not overpowering. This croissant gets my vote for best croissant in the area. The dough is light and scrumptiously flaky. Sheer, golden excellence!
In short, don’t deprive yourself of the magical experience that follows this delectable pastry. You are now equipped with the knowledge to find and enjoy a darn good croissant. Whether you dip it in your coffee or stuff it with jams, Nutella, or meats- never settle for less than perfect. Your taste buds will be extra grateful!
À la prochaine!