Here’s what I know about croissants,” my friend Emily, a former Seattleite who now lives in Paris, recently wrote me, providing ground rules for enjoying that most French of pastries. “Never, ever use them as bread for a sandwich. The French have a love/hate relationship with the sandwich to begin with . . . and the idea of letting a perfectly good croissant get soggy from tomato and mayonnaise . . . no way! Which, I guess,” she continues, “is the most important thing to remember about croissants: They are only for breakfast! Or for a mid-afternoon snack. But since mid-afternoon snacks are only really acceptable for those under the age of 10, while you may see a kid eating pain au chocolat on the playground, you won’t see an adult eating a croissant at 4:00.”
But what about the actual eating? Sylvie Nogaki, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and runs the French-focused catering company Sylvie Cooks, says eating a croissant is an act of appreciation. “I never saw anyone eat a croissant walking down the street. Even when people only had a minute, they savored what they were eating. Usually people pull off a bite with their fingers, letting the croissant break along its own lines and eat that, rather than biting into them. People dipped that bite into their coffee or added jam if they liked.”
Oops, I thought. I usually bite into my croissants—and get buttery flakes all over my shirt. I’ve eaten croissant sandwiches, and I’ve eaten late-afternoon croissant snacks. I’ve spent hours crisscrossing Seattle, from Honoré and Cafe Besalu in Ballard to Bakery Nouveau in West Seattle (and now Capitol Hill) to Café de Leon in Queen Anne, sampling the city’s best croissants. But the proper, polite, or best way to enjoy them is something I’d never considered. That isn’t the case for the many Seattle bakers I spoke with.
Nohra Belaid of Inès Patisserie in Madison Valley was born in northern France. “A croissant is best appreciated just like a baguette,” she says, “a couple of hours after it is made. Customers come in after 5 p.m. and are surprised that croissants are no longer available. After 5 p.m., a croissant is no longer fresh.”
Though I think of croissants as quintessentially French, Belaid explained that they’re actually a type of viennoiserie—a category of pastry made of enriched yeast-leavened dough from Vienna. The croissant was originally based on a less-seductively named, crescent-shaped Viennese pastry called kipfel. This bread roll was supposedly created in 1683 to celebrate the lifting of the siege of Vienna, which had been started 150 years earlier by Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire.
In one popular variation on this origin story (which historians believe first appeared in the French encyclopedia of cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, from 1938), bakers in Vienna heard attacking Turks tunneling under their city as they worked into the night. Like Paul Revere, those bakers set off an alarm. To celebrate the victory, they shaped their rolls into the crescent moon that symbolizes Islam, and then devoured them.
From Vienna the kipfel came to Paris. Some say Marie Antoinette was responsible, others say it arrived via the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. But these early croissants were not what we think of as croissants at all. They were simply made of enriched yeast-leavened dough—like brioche—without the rich, buttery flakes.
By the 1920s, Parisian bakers had begun to experiment with laminating: creating those multiple layers by interlacing butter into the dough. Laminating makes croissant dough delicate and difficult to work with. The paper-thin layers of dough and butter require a gentle hand and a cool environment. If the butter melts, the layers collapse. Bakers must work in a cool kitchen—a practical explanation for why croissants are baked and eaten in the morning.
Croissants are the essence of the French breakfast,” wrote chef and author Jacques Pépin in his classic Le Technique. “They are never eaten at other meals.”
They are also the essence and standard of pastry technique. “Pépin would always ask chefs to prepare an omelet to test their skill in the kitchen,” Belaid says. “Croissants are the same. They are so complicated because they are so simple. Croissants are the most intricate pastry to make. They require technique and they require time. But what are the ingredients? Butter, flour, yeast, milk, and salt.”
Notice Belaid did not list shortening. Traditionally, it is not an ingredient. However, in the 1970s industrial innovations allowed for machine-made croissant dough, which partially or completely replaced butter with shortening. Shortening is less expensive and less delicate, but also less flavorful.
Croissants—or what had once been croissants—no longer required hours of highly skilled labor. They became widely available, an industrial convenience food served to-go. You could buy croissants at Starbucks day or night. Stale leftover croissants were recycled in sandwiches.
In France, bakers signal their allegiance to butter with shape: True croissants, Pépin says, are no longer crescent-shaped, but “small and straight.” That is how you know they are made “only with butter.”
These, Belaid says, “are best appreciated with coffee, in the morning, when they are fresh. Eat them without jam, if you are a purist, so that you can enjoy the good flavor of the butter.”
Jojo Corväiá, chef, owner, and curator of Arabica Lounge, serves traditional croissants as well as his personal innovations, including chocolate with almond and honey; bacon and maple; and my favorite, shallot and Gruyère. Along with croissants themselves, Corväiá specializes in creating a space for his customers to relax and take a few minutes to enjoy them. “I come from a culture,” he says, “where ‘to-go’ doesn’t exist. At Arabica we don’t do takeout. And we don’t offer sandwiches.”
When you look around Arabica Lounge, it feels almost like Paris. Even those who only have five minutes to spare are sitting and enjoying them with friends and food. This is all by design. Recently Corväiá introduced the French bol, a foamy, cinnamon-spiced latte that pairs perfectly with a croissant—and which also is not available to-go.
“We are a culture that is in a rush. I learned to cook and feel with my hands,” says Corväiá, whom you can see working in the kitchen hours before Arabica opens. “The bol forces customers to sit down and pick up the croissant, to experience it with their hands as they dip it in their coffee. I really get excited when someone comes here and uses all of their senses to enjoy food like that.”