Response to Seattle Times "best croissant" article on April 23
Straight off, let me say that after comparing plain croissants in over a hundred highly regarded bakeries in Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, I consider Cafe Besalu the best in Seattle and among the best anywhere. Now, let’s move on from personal preference to factual statements in the article that I disagree with.
I have to agree with johnnyblegs' comment that the author of this article has a bizarre idea of how croissants are made. While there are variations on the method he describes, none of those come close to the method described in the article.
Similarly, the statement that "[f]lour in France has less protein . . . which means less gluten and more fluff" is just silly. The amount of gluten depends on the flour you choose. Both France and the US have low to high gluten flours. Also silly is the statement that all French bakers use the same brand of butter for croissants. The good ones all use butter that is low moisture and high butterfat, and cultured for flavor. But that leaves room for many choices. There are fewer choices in the US, but still some good ones.
I also disagree with the claim that rolling and rerolling the butter and dough is "too labor intensive to make croissants at home." While it's true that making commercial quantities without a pastry sheeter (rolling machine) is difficult and perhaps too labor intensive to be cost efficient, it is certainly possible. My croissant teachers in a Parisian pastry school both rolled croissant dough by hand for the purpose of demonstration. Their results were superb, easily as good or better than the best in Seattle.
With good training one can learn to hand roll croissants at home. I have done it many times myself. Sometimes my croissants have been excellent, other times just good. The real art is having croissants come out excellent every day. The daily variations in flour, humidity, etc., make consistency it so difficult. Here I bow to the very few bakers who have that skill. So far I have only found that consistency and excellence at Cafe Besalu and, albeit after only a few visits to test them, Fuji Bakery.
Finally, the idea that "croissants must be two things and two things only: flaky and buttery" may be the reason so many bakeries are satisfied to offer less than excellent croissants. I suggest the real test of a great croissant can be seen in a definition I translated from an article in le Figaro, a newspaper that frequently tastes and rates food in Paris:
A croissant is good if:
- It is shaped like a quarter moon.
- It is plump, has a crust is golden brown and a beautiful blonde color.
- When you stretch the horns to explore the interior, the crumb seems to have airy holes, convoluted, beige, supple, almost brilliant, and hidden under a very crisp pastry exterior.
- In the mouth it has a little malty/yeasty taste, a mild acidity, and a good balance between taste of butter and the aroma of the wheat, which lingers on the palate; it is both crisp and mouth-melting.
- The triangular point section is up well on the front, ready to pull off.
- Well done, a croissant is certainly drier but still good the next day.
It is bad if:
- It is flat, featureless and bloated, pasty, and compacts in your mouth.
- It is perfectly identical to all the croissants presented in store. It is therefore a strong probability that it has been thawed.
- It's dry outside, chewy or rubbery inside.
- It breaks into crumbs too much and it shows large holes in the pastry exterior layers because it was poorly "tourée,” (after rolling out, folded in three or four folds to be chilled before rolling out again).
- It is uniformly soft, indicating that it was cooked in a pulsed-air convection oven or an oven too cold. [Note: A standard convection with steady air is fine. -randy]
- It does not have that light smell of butter and the taste of sugar too evident.
- If it is fat and greasy, the butter used was poor and it ran during the cooking.
- If it is too yellow, the baker may have added butter flavored with vanillin.
- Pasty white or cream color, it has not cooked properly.
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