Oh! The croissants of France. When you bite into one, it shatters wonderfully buttery crumbs all over you, which is the first sign that you’ve got something fabulous in your hand. If it doesn’t shatter, take another bite but beware – even in the City of Light there are less than fabulous croissants. And because the croissant is such a penultimate experience, you want the one you’re about to dip into your big bowl of coffee to be the very best.
It I said that the croissant came to France via Austria, where it was created in the 17th century, according to legend, as a result of the Turkish siege of Vienna. At the moment the siege was about to begin, an Austrian baker named Adam Spiel was awake rolling out his pastry dough and he heard the Turkish army on its way. He alerted the Viennese authorities who mobilized their troops, and the invaders were routed. In celebration, M. Spiel and his colleagues throughout the city were authorized to create a pastry modeled after the crescent symbol on the Ottoman flag. This may be true, though another legend has it that the croissant is at least 1,000 years old, and that it was made in convents and inspired by the shape of the moon, and yet another that says a crescent-shaped pastry was part of an offering at a banquet intended to forge an alliance with the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century.
Merci, Marie Antoinette
The strongest part of the croissant legend has it coming to France with Marie Antoinette in the 18th century where it gradually evolved into the buttery delicacy we know today. In honor of this story, croissants and its cousins the pain au chocolate, the pain aux raisin, the chausson aux pommes ,and more are referred to as “viennoiseries”.
Two Pounds of Flour; One Pound of Butter
The croissant is made with a lightly sweetened yeast dough rolled with chilled butter, in much the same method as puff pastry. For two pounds of flour, a good croissant dough will contain one pound of unsalted butter. There are many tricks to making a good croissant, and aside from making sure that the dough is treated gently and the butter thoroughly rolled into it, baking is the key. A croissant must be baked so it is shattery on the outside, and mouth-melting inside.
I adore a good croissant and I’m always looking for the best. I decided to include you in a recent tasting of croissants from several of the bakeries in my neighborhood. Alright, I cheated a little because I’ve already identified my favorite, but I wanted to take you along on my journey, and tell you a bit about how I made my choice.
Puffed and Golden Outside, Mouth-Melting Inside
When I’m looking for a good croissant I look for one that is puffed and deep golden. If it has got a little pool of crumbs around it, that’s a good sign for it means it is so flaky, every movement makes it shatter. I ignore flat, dull looking croissants because they don’t inspire (and they won’t taste good). The next test is to bite into it. It should crackle and shatter, then you should meet the interior, a tender mouthful of buttery dough. I like a slight sweetness in a croissant, and enough but not so much butter that it oozes out and leaves a slick on my fingers. If that is the case, but the flavor is good and golden, I will finish it but I’ll take it off my list of favorites. If it is crisp on the outside but underbaked inside, that comes off the list too. What I want is a croissant that is baked all the way through, satisfying to the last bite, perfect for dunking in coffee.
Secco, 54 rue de Sèvres
For now, the croissant I return to time and again comes from Boulangerie Secco. It has a pure and simple buttery flavor, a golden and slightly sweet dough, and it is always so crisp on the outside that you can almost here is explode into crumbs. My Secco bakery is on the rue de Sevres, in the 7th arrondissement, but there are several Secco boulangeries scattered throughout the Left Bank. I’ve never asked them their secret to croissants but I think I know: great flour sourced locally, wonderful butter, a hint of a sugar and a very light sugar glaze applied right before they are baked. A hot oven and enough but not too much time in it completes the process.
Now, what to do with the croissants left on the shelf at the end of the day? They cannot be sold as fresh the next day so the clever Parisian baker uses them as a base for croissants aux amandes. For this, day-old croissants are topped with almond crème, showered with sliced almonds and re-baked. They’ve become a vaunted pastry in their own right, right alongside the rest of the family of viennoiseries!