Could anything be more French than the humble but iconic croissant. Well actually yes as it’s not really French at all.
WHAT IS A CROISSANT?
It’s actually a type of Viennoiserie pastry, a general term which includes croissants, brioche, pain au chocolate and others. These are typically made with a layered, yeast leavened dough. Added ingredients such as butter, milk, cream or sugar give them a sweeter character more like a pastry.
A freshly baked croissant bought from the local boulangerie is great way to start your day and couldn’t be more French. It’s not something everyone does or indeed everyday. People eat breakfast cereals and sliced bread in France too. Croissants have also been adapted as a convenience food to make sandwiches in some countries but it’s as a breakfast food it’s best known.
THE ORIGIN OF THE CROISSANT
The ancestor of the croissant is thought to be the Austrian kipferl which is a crescent shaped bread roll which is known to be have been around since the 14th century. The big debate is when and how did it become the flaky delight we enjoy now.
LET THEM EAT CAKE
There are a number of theories and stories. Some say it was Marie Antoinette who we have to thank in part for the croissant. Missing her favorite Austrian food – french boulangers made her a French version of the kipferl she knew from her childhood.
Cooking historians are divided about the accuracy of that story.
Another suggestion is that they were created to celebrate a victory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the Ottoman Empire, the crescent moon being a symbol of Islam.
What is known is that in 1839 an Austrian artillery officer August Zang opened a Viennese bakery in Paris called Boulangerie Viennoise. He introduced France to the crescent shape kipferl and other Viennese breads. These became very popular and much imitated in France but they weren’t the croissants we know today.
It is said that it was following the World’s Fair in 1889 where France fell in love with Viennese pastries in general and the croissant in particular. Viennoise style breads became very popular in Paris. The croissant in particular was very popular and became a daily staple. But even then they weren’t the classic croissant we know now having a more doughy bread texture and taste.
So what changed? Exact dates are hard to come by but it seems that by the 1920s the dough used to make the french croissant changed again. A more layered buttery dough, leavened with yeast gave us the light flakey croissant we know and love today
Crescent shaped breakfast rolls were nothing new having been made in Europe for many years
The birthplace of the modern croissant and baguette? Arguable but August Zang was certainly influential.
Breakfast croissants – the classic croissant au beurre
HOW ARE CROISSANTS MADE?
Croissant are not the simplest of items to bake. It’s certainly something we’re happy to leave to the experts with their years of experience and just as importantly their specialist ovens like August Zang’s deck oven. The adoption of these changed how the baguette was made and also influenced the changes that brought about the croissant as we know it today. We’ve talked more about August Zang and the baguette here.
The traditional method of making croissants looks like hard work and must have kept boulangers very busy in the days before modern commercial baking equipment. Croissants are now mass produced as well, frozen and shipped out ready for baking. These tend to be straighter than the conventional crescent shaped handmade croissants. You can get more in the oven if they’re straight !
Preparing the Pre-Dough
A modern croissant dough includes flour, water, fat, yeast, salt and sugar. Once mixing is complete the pre-dough is ready for the next stage of the process .
Lamination is the most essential part of the dough preparation and gives the modern croissant it’s distinctive flaky texture. Bakers take one layer of pre-dough and cover the center with a layer of fat. This is then folded to give two layers of pre-dough to one layer of fat. This is then folded again and again and can result in up to 50 fat layers within the final dough. Hard work eh ?
To get the distinctive shape the laminated dough is cut into triangles. This is then rolled up and the end shaped to make the distinctive curved crescent shape
Although it’s a type of puff pastry, the dough contain yeast to increase the dough volume so needs time for the proofing process. They can increase in size by 2.5x during this process.
Also known as pastry lift, the baking process produces steam which separates the dough layers and gives the croissant it’s light and flaky texture.
The final stage of making a croissant ready for baking
“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken”
CROISSANTS AND THEIR DELICIOUS COUSINS
Oh yes. If you’d like something different from the humble butter croissant you have some other choices.
PAIN AU CHOCOLAT
Uncooked croissant dough is wrapped around chocolate before baking. Usually more of a rectangular shape these are loved the world over and known as chocolate croissants in the US and a chocolatine in Canada in parts of France
CROISSANT AU AMANDES
Croissant dough but with a rich sweet almond paste in the center and dusted with fine sugar. Rumour has it boulangers use the left over croissants to make them, adding the almond paste before re-baking them. My favorites if I’m honest. Love the almond taste and the more crunchy texture.
PAIN AU RAISIN
Also known as an escargot for it’s characteristic spiral shape this Vienoisserie is made from a flaky pastry with raisins mixed in.
One Pain au Chocolate or chocolate croissant is rarely enough
Inspired by France is a small family run business/blog . We have lived and worked in France at various times in our life and hope to spend a lot more time there in the future.
We love all things French ranging from film, music and literature to the simple pleasures of French cooking and the odd glass of wine. We want to share our love of France with other France fanatics !