The Almost Certainly True History of the Croissant

If you’ve looked over the instructions for this week’s recipe at all, you know that like puff pastry, croissant is a layered (also called laminated) dough. It consists of either 36 or 81 alternating layers of butter and dough, depending on the folding technique you employ. I know that sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t when you consider that you’re only folding (“turning” in bakery speak) the dough three or four times to get those kinds of numbers. Puff pastry is “turned” either six or seven times to get 729 or 2,187 individual layers, respectively.

Thinly-layered pastries have a long history in Europe, and even longer in the Middle East where dishes based on layers of stretched dough are said to go back to the ancient Egyptians. Actual laminated doughs (precursors to modern puff pastry) date back to the Renaissance. Yet croissant dough differs from puff pastry dough in one important respect: it contains yeast. That gives the croissant both extra puff and extra lightness, as well as a moister, breadier crumb. It’s a strange combination of two very different leavening techniques, either of which could raise a roll all by itself.

So how did the two come together? For that we need to look back to the Parisian World’s Fair of 1889, where among the many exotic breads made by bakers from the eastern baking and pastry mecca of Vienna were some very rich, yeast-raised, crescent-shaped rolls. A popular fair item, the design apparently kicked around the bakeries of Paris for a few years before some clever baker thought to fashion the crescents out of a laminated dough — and not just any laminated dough, a yeast-and-butter hybrid. The recipe for the innovation first appears in a French cookbook (Nouvelle Encyclopédie culinaire) in 1905.

And the rest as they say is history. Today the croissant is practically the national bread of France (after the baguette of course), where it is eaten almost exclusively for breakfast, a good strong cup of coffee on the side. And though you would’t think it, the most popular varieties aren’t made with real butter at all. Instead they’re made from margarine, which yields a crispier, tougher product (though one that’s much better than the original for dunking). When in France, know a margarine-based croissant by it’s straight shape (I guess that goes for Japan as well). The original butter-based croissant is known as the croissant au beurre and is still made in the classic crescent.

And yes, I know what you’re going to say: the original Paris World’s Fair crescent roll came from Vienna! Isn’t it possible that the original idea was inspired by the Battle of Vienna in 1683?


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