The pastry chef's art lies not in cloying icings or sugary fillings, but in the alchemy of bringing to life the humble family of butter, flour, yeast and salt.
WHENEVER I visit Paris, I head straight to a local bakery for a plain croissant. No almond paste for me. No chocolate. Not that I don’t love these things; I do. But to me, the quintessential French pastry is the simple croissant. The pastry chef’s art lies not in cloying icings or sugary fillings, but in the alchemy of bringing to life the humble family of butter, flour, yeast and salt.
And so I thought I’d put Seattle to the test. Where can you find the best croissant in the city’s thicket of bakeries?
To help me with this quest, I recruited three judges for a taste test. Gathered at my home one Saturday afternoon was a trio with serious Francophile chops: Karen Burns, author of “The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl,” in which she includes stories about her string of jobs in Paris; Kathleen Flinn, whose trials at the Cordon Bleu, the renowned cooking school in Paris, are recounted in her book, “The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry,” and Jennifer Gouge, a guide for Rick Steves’ tours in Europe and a graduate of La Varenne, another famed Parisian culinary school.
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These women clearly knew their way around a croissant.
The panel sampled from eight Seattle artisanal bakeries — Café Besalu, Le Fournil, La Boulangerie, Honoré Artisan Bakery, North Hill Bakery, Essential Bakery, Le Panier and Bakery Nouveau — as well as Belle Pastry and the French Bakery in Bellevue. (We would have loved to sample more had time allowed; as it was, we scattered to these 10 on the same morning, then sped to my home to taste the croissants while they were still fresh.) Testers surrendered their bags in my kitchen, where I arranged the samples into a blind taste-test.
As any good facilitator will advise you, you need to establish some ground rules. For us, the first step was to agree that objectivity was out. In the spirit of the croissant’s motherland, where opinions flow more steadily than the Seine, ours was a 100 percent biased and subjective survey. (I sampled liberally but withheld commentary.) Second, we were to taste the croissants sans accoutrements. No jam, no butter, nothing to tart things up.
As the judges tasted the first round, Gouge made clear she liked croissants that were crispy on the outside and light and spongy on the inside. This combination of traits — crusty/chewy — became the group’s leitmotif during the entire tasting. And all three agreed that croissants must be soothingly buttery without crossing the line into greasy.
Are croissants hard to make? In a word, yes. The panel schooled me about lamination, the process where the chef rolls out a layer of dough at a specific consistency, then pounds a layer of butter over it. If the butter falls outside a narrow temperature range, it becomes unworkable. The chef must work quickly and precisely as he adds and rolls more layers of dough and butter. The whole affair requires a Zen master’s presence of mind to achieve the ideal separation of layers — what we civilians call flakiness.
Then consider the ingredients. “The French use Vaches d’Or butter (“Golden Cows”), which contains less moisture and is more fatty and fermented,” says Flinn, who took an entire course in croissants at the Cordon Bleu. So even if you perfect a croissant in the homeland, your mastery might not translate across the pond. “Flour in France has less protein,” adds Burns, “which means less gluten and more fluff.”
And the winner? Citing caution as the better part of valor, the testers invoked Ground Rule No. 3: There can be two.
First up? Honoré Artisan Bakery. The judges loved how the croissant’s toasted, crispy cloak gave way to a moist, pillowy dough inside. Its yeasty sweetness balanced by a slight nuttiness recalled a countryside hearth, leading the group to declare it as “the most rustic and artisanal.”
Named after France’s patron saint of baking (you gotta love this country), Honoré likes to bake croissants longer for a darker, caramelized effect. Owner Franz Gilbertson, pensive as a British Romantic poet, says that years of experimentation finally produced a recipe to his liking, though “it’s always a work in progress.”
If Honoré’s croissant was the hippy chick, Belle Pastry’s version — the panel’s other favorite — would be the Southern belle. “It’s feminine and beautiful,” Burns admired. The judges loved the buttery softness and the alluring curved shape.
Frenchman Jean-Claude Ferré, Belle Pastry’s chef and owner, comes straight from central casting with a résumé to match. Ebullient and animated, Ferré graduated from Ecole Ferrandi in Paris in 1969, where he was feted as the best croissant baker out of 600 students. Ferré believes croissants must be two things and two things only: flaky and buttery.
Among today’s outré creations like cupcakes with bacon-flavored frosting, the plain croissant stands out as the comforting classic. “A croissant is simple on the surface, but they are really very complex,” says Honoré’s Gilbertson. “Rolling and rerolling the butter and dough is an age-old craft. It’s too labor intensive to make croissants at home,” he says.
All the more reason to treat yourself at your favorite bakery.
Eve M. Tai is a Seattle freelance writer and yoga instructor. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.