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Reinventing The Croissant

By Ligaya Mishan

Patricia Heal

The croissants of Baker Doe — a delivery-only pastry service in San Francisco, run by a husband and wife who decline to reveal their identities — appear like a new species startled in the wild. One is striped blue, with a coif of cotton candy in hydrangea hues and a lode of chile-enflamed orange curd waiting to be unleashed; another, ringed in deep purple, flaunts a lavender shard of ube (purple yam) like a lone, useless wing. They are originals, yet they don’t exist in isolation: Others of their kin — that is, pastries in thrillingly deviant forms with classical French lineage but non-canonical ingredients (often drawn from Asian cuisines), as likely to be savoury as sweet — can be spotted at Sugarbloom Bakery in Los Angeles, confettied in nori; at Bake Code in Toronto, blackened by charcoal under a rosy crust of mentaiko (cod roe); and at Supermoon Bakehouse in New York, piped with rum crème pâtissière and pineapple jelly in a mirage of a piña colada.

Is this blasphemy or natural evolution? It’s not the first time pastries have undergone mutations in recent history. Nearly five years ago, the French-trained pastry chef Dominique Ansel trademarked the cronut, that cannily named croissant-doughnut hybrid sold from his storefront in SoHo, New York. Hoards lined up before dawn for limited-batch runs that vanished within the hour, to be resold on the black market by scalpers at a 1,900-percent markup (as much as US$100 each). The cronut was fetishised, then scorned for being fetishised, then imperfectly and ubiquitously reproduced. Dunkin’ Donuts sold millions (of a version that a corporate spokesman insisted had been in development for decades). Within a year, the oracular science-fiction writer William Gibson had published a novel forecasting a future in which cronuts were churned out by 3-D printers.

And still people line up for Ansel’s cronuts today, at his outposts in Tokyo, London and Los Angeles, where seasonal flavours like pineapple- chocolate-basil and eggnog-caramel are introduced monthly, for we are not yet immune to the novelty of pastry portmanteaus. The cruffin, made of croissant dough fastidiously draped in muffin tins to achieve a bouffant’s rise, was invented the same year as the cronut by the pastry chef Kate Reid of Lune Croissanterie in Melbourne, Australia. When another Melbourne native, Ry Stephen (currently of New York’s Supermoon), started making the puffy hybrids at San Francisco’s Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in 2014, his curd-filled cruffins proved so popular that a burglar broke in one night and ignored the cash register and equipment, grabbing only a binder of recipes.

Like the cronut, these latter-day pastries — rustic kouign-amanns at Sugarbloom laminated with white miso; éclairs at patisserie Chanson entombed under Day-Glo plaques of painted chocolate — draw skepticism in part because they’re so swiftly and widely worshipped. In a culture beholden to images, it’s easy to simultaneously embrace and dismiss them as idle provocations. But for all the black garlic in the dough, the kimchi-spiked filling, the blood orange slices mashed on top, they are still viennoiserie, made in accordance with French tradition, precision- engineered with high-grade butter. (Stephen, for instance, is faithful to the revered Beurre d’Isigny, imported from Normandy.) In the croissants and their variations, the layers are as distinct as ribs, from slabs of cold butter immured in fold after fold of dough; the interior resembles a honeycomb of air, due to steam released during baking as the butter slowly melts.

Patricia Heal

Some mock these as ‘‘Frankenpastries,’’ a term with echoes of ‘‘Frankenfood,’’ coined in 1992 by an English professor at Boston College expressing dismay over genetically engineered crops. That label is tongue-in-cheek, though just as Mary Shelley’s fevered novel hints at societal fears of miscegenation and ‘‘impurity,’’ the notion that these baked goods represent unholy unions suggests that there are clear borders in the culinary world that one ought not cross. Two centuries ago, the French led a shift from free-form cooking to codified techniques and built a system for achieving and recognising mastery that still defines the professional kitchen, pastry or otherwise. So inevitably it’s the croissant that’s seen as being in danger of degradation: the noble, labor-intensive French pastry sullied by its union with the crude, arriviste American doughnut or muffin. (Another iteration was unveiled in January by Vive la Tarte in San Francisco: the tacro, a savoury pork- or chicken-stuffed taco with a croissant shell.)

Yet the croissant itself was born of crossed borders. The butter-laden layered dough has roots in medieval Arab practice, and the pastry’s shape comes from the Viennese kipferl, said to have been modelled after the Islamic crescent borne on the banners of 17th-century Ottoman invaders. (Although this back story is likely apocryphal, in 2013 a rebel stronghold in Syria banned croissants as symbols of colonialism.) Few dishes, let alone desserts, have remained static over time: Blancmange, a moulded milk pudding, was once a chicken casserole; craggy coconut Italian-Jewish macaroons share ancestry (going back to early Sicilian pasta) with the polished round French macarons that have ruffled hems, which languished as solitary disks until someone sandwiched them around ganache a little over a century ago.

If anything, today’s nouvelle pastries mark a return to the spirit championed by Marie-Antoine Carême, the early 19th-century forefather of French cooking, inventor of the soufflé and the croquembouche and architect of monumental confectionery centrepieces that rose up to three feet — nearly as high as the sculptured hairstyles of his late namesake, Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess whose own love for viennoiserie may have inspired the myth of her declaring, ‘‘Let them eat cake.’’ Carême has disciples in Paris today, including Christophe Adam, known for éclairs ornamented with edible silver, popcorn and Mona Lisa eyes; Jonathan Blot, conjurer of macarons that taste like bubblegum; and, of course, Pierre Hermé, who daubs raspberry-lychee pâté inside croissants and showers them with candied rose petals. Like the original viennoiserie, which were painstakingly elegant pastries designed for the Hapsburg court in imperial Vienna that eventually became indispensable to the city’s sidewalks, their decadence is matched by the virtuosity of their construction and their element of surprise: They are, then as now, as much for beholding as for eating.

Their contemporary allure is aided by the diminishment of desserts at midrange restaurants, which after the recession of 2008 began to shed pastry chefs, unable to justify the expense for a course that yields little profit. As restaurant desserts have become simpler and homier — olive- oil cake, anything with chocolate — once plainspoken baked goods have turned rococo, offering an aura of luxury, enhanced by how difficult they are to procure before selling out each morning. At US$4 to US$8 each, these small but elaborate edifices seem worthier than the run-of-the-mill pastries available at every urban corner deli and curbside coffee cart, enabling their artisans to cover the ever- increasing cost of basic ingredients, particularly butter, whose price hit a historic high last year.

Indeed, French butter, which has a higher percentage of fat and a pronounced tang from cultured cream, is so desirable across the globe, it’s starting to disappear from grocery shelves in France. This is partly because more people are making pastries than ever before; as a French professor explained to The Economist in November, ‘‘China has discovered croissants.’’ But if the trend continues, the croissant as we know it — a straightforward compact of butter, flour, milk, sugar, yeast and salt — may be no more. And in its place? These overgrown crescents too big to fit in the palm of the hand, spangled and swagged, glutted with fillings, arrayed like objets d’art in austere concrete- walled patisseries where the bakers fuss like apothecaries. They’re absurd until you try them: salty and sweet and shattering everywhere, leaving behind smears of cream and telltale butter fingerprints. The croissant is dead; long live the croissant.