Another Croissant with rolled vegetables (commonly known as cigars) — celebrating the National Croissant Day / January 30th

There’s something mysterious– even alchemical— about the qualities that have to come together to yield the ideal croissant. It needs to be buttery and tender, but never mushy or overly moist. It requires a delicate flakiness-to-slight-chewiness ratio, and the layers of all-butter puff pastry should be well differentiated, without falling apart into a crumby mess when you bite into them. The bake should be golden, but not overly crisp. In short, it’s an art– one that the French in particular are very proud of.

Most food historians trace the origins of the croissant to Austria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where small pastries called kipferl had been made since at least the 13th century, according to numerous records.

While little is known about their original composition, kipferl were simple pastries that might be served plain or with nuts. They bore a resemblance to rugelach, consumed widely in Eastern Europe and a staple of Yiddish cuisine. Rugelach, however, were probably invented in the 17th century.

A book in German by author Barbara Van Melle traces the evolution of the croissant from the Eastern-European kipferl.
And unlike today’s croissants, which are made from puff pastry, kipferl are sweeter, denser, and less buttery than your emblematic French croissant au beurre. In Austria and Germany, they’re now often flavored with vanilla or other ingredients and enjoyed as Christmas cookies or sweet accompaniments to coffee.

Legend has it that a group of Vienna bakers invented the prototype for the croissant in 1863, during an Ottoman siege on the Austrian capital. Ottoman troops, who dug a tunnel to enter the then-walled city from underground, were supposedly reported to the authorities by one or more of the city’s bakers, who typically worked in cellars and thus heard the approaching attack.

The Ottomans were expelled from the city, the story goes, and to commemorate the victory and the heroic alert of one baker named Adam Spiel, he and others concocted a crescent-shaped pastry called Hörnchen (little horns).

These were similar to the traditional kipferl but shaped into the form of a crescent moon, which appeared on the flags of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century.

However, many have put this theory into strong doubt, noting for example that crescent moon-shaped breads and cakes, including kipferl, had been mentioned in poems and other texts for centuries prior to the Vienna attack.

The croissant was likely introduced to France at a Paris bakery called Boulangerie Viennoise in 1837. The story of how Austrian kipferl or Hörnchen arrived in France is, as you might guess, another disputed one. For years, it was casually asserted that Queen Marie Antoinette, a a native of Austria and daughter of the powerful Empress Maria Theresa, introduced it to the court at Versailles in 1770 after her marriage to King Louis XVI.

But historians generally say this account is incorrect, and that the baked good only became popular in France during the 19th century. They attribute the arrival of the kipferl to a bakery opened in Paris in 1837-1839 by Austrian-born bakers August Zang and Ernest Schwartzer.

Called La Boulangerie Viennoise (or simply “Zang’s”), it offered a variety of Austrian-style baked goods, including kipferl. Zang had a patented steam oven that yielded a characteristic sheen of the finished creations– a quality that’s still considered ideal to this day on a good croissant.

While the bakery at 92, Rue de Richelieu only operated for two years, the French craze for viennoiseries (literally, Vienna-style baked goods) was born. The term, of course, has stuck: any sort of pastry that has a bread-like base, from pain au chocolat to pain aux raisins and croissants, are (strictly speaking) not patisseries, but viennoiseries.

The word croissant began appearing in dictionaries and other texts from the mid-19th century in reference to butter and flour-based, crescent-shaped breads. And from 1840 or so, bakers in Paris– then around France– whipped up their own versions. By the 1870s, the term had crossed the channel, referenced by Charles Dickens and others in relation to French culinary delights.

However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century, as Chevallier notes in his book on the history of Zang’s contributions to French viennoiserie, that the butter croissant as we know it was born. Evidence strongly suggests that it was only in the first decade of the 20th century that bakers started using puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) to assemble their croissants.

In an innovative move, they added yeast to the puff pastry (something that hadn’t been done for its use in vol-au-vents, pastry shells, etc). This changed the texture and mouthfeel of the croissant significantly, yielding an airier, puffier, crispier specimen than the one introduced by Zang in the 1830s–this time with flaky, buttery, well-differentiated layers.

In this sense, purists of the French croissant au beurre could get away with arguing that it’s really a Gallic invention– one that draws heavily on its Austrian predecessor. “Today’s viennoiserie is far more French than Viennese”, Chevallier concludes in his book.

The “croissant ordinaire” (ordinary croissant) features a true crescent shape, unlike the generally superior croissant au beurre. By the beginning of the 20th century, the butter croissant made with puff pastry had all but completely eclipsed its Austrian predecessor, with scores of boulangeries around France expanding their repertoires beyond bread to include viennoiseries.

Excerpts from “The Curious History of the Croissant (& How It Became France’s Favorite Pastry) by Courtney Traub | November 9, 2021 / Source: Paris unlocked
Croissant with cigar (OpusX)

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