(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
It’s our little croissant shop,” says acclaimed pastry chef Dominique Ansel, referring with characteristic modesty to the dazzling viennoiserie on display at the spiffy new Dominique Ansel Workshop that opened this summer in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Ansel’s homage to the croissant celebrates an iconic morning indulgence that has blossomed as an all-day treat – unadorned to psychedelic, cruffin to cube, and stuffed with sweet or savory fillings ranging from apple to rosemary to moringa to za’atar.
Long-established croissanteries like Australia’s Lune are expanding operations, and intrepid pastry chefs are succeeding with novel enterprises: Chefs Wendy Schay and Jill McDonald bring their croissant foodmobile in Little Rock, Arkansas to pop up locations; Carolina Molea’s vegan French bakery L’Artisane won top honors for Miami’s Best Croissant; illustrious chef Ghaya Oliveira is piling eleven layers of ham and cheese on a toasted croissant at her eponymous café in Queens, New York; and the tantalizingly anonymous Baker Doe delivers knockout signature designs to customers in San Francisco.
“The croissant is undergoing somewhat of a revolution,” according to award-winning pastry chef James (Jimmy) Griffin, author of The Art of Lamination (self-published, 2020). Griffin cites two global trends: the strong presence of the original croissant, and the new and exciting locally-sourced fillings, toppings and splashes of all types of color. “The croissant,” he observes, “is competing with patisserie and doughnuts as a filled, decorated product that enables bakers and pastry chefs to create many visually appealing varieties for consumers globally, growing sales.”
At the Workshop, Ansel focuses on the original. “A place,” he notes, “where we could return to the roots of French classics…but with a bit of a modern twist. We’ve also been fortunate enough to source amazing ingredients from France – like Beurre d’Isigny from Normandy and Les Grands Moulins de Paris flour. They truly do make a difference in the flavors and textures of our croissants.” The building also houses the company headquarters, commissary, and a state-of-the-art kitchen where customers can catch a glimpse of Ansel and his team at work through a large window.
As Ansel affirms, “My foundations have always been around French pastry and the building blocks of baking, so in all the things we do it’s still so important to stay grounded and base yourself on those foundations. Once you’ve got that down, then it’s all about how you can reinterpret and think about those building blocks differently – that’s the fun part, where you’re able to use a combination of creativity, art, and science to reimagine what pastry can be.” Ansel’s fun part began with the breakthrough Cronut, the result of over two months of experiments to create something new for Mother’s Day in 2013. But there are no Cronuts at the Workshop (they are sold at the chef’s Soho bakery), to compete with more traditional viennoiserie and croissants, including olive oil-rosemary-garlic and coarse sea salt, Black Forrest ham and Gruyere, and a bicolor pain au chocolat.
It was the ‘Bicolour’, invented by avant-garde French master baker David Bedu in 2010, that led to the reimagining of croissants. Morphing from bi- to multi-color, artisans like pastry chef Jake Bonzer at Towners in Marquette, Michigan are rolling out over-the-rainbow hues. In a video for the current Pastry Arts Summit, Bonzer demonstrates using red, green and black Chef Rubber emulsion gels to color laminated dough.
Playful shapes and over-the-top fillings have also altered the croissant. Lunar themed foods actually date back to the Middle Ages; Croissant historians dismiss the legend that Austrian bakers adapted the crescent design on the Ottoman flag to make breads celebrating the defeat of the Turks in 1683, likewise the myth that Marie Antoinette brought the pastry to France. The credit, apparently, belongs to Austrian entrepreneur August Zang, who opened the famous Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris in 1838. Zang introduced enthusiastic Parisians to Viennese favorites like the kipferl (German for ‘crescent’), a pastry that evolved as the enduring classic French croissant, refined with puff pastry, laminated and updated using new techniques.
Today that gold-standard classic co-exists with a cornucopia of cutting-edge hybrids.
One of the pioneers of the reconsidered croissant, former aerospace engineer Kate Reid, founded Lune Croissanterie in Melbourne, Australia in 2012 after an apprenticeship at the revered Parisian patisserie Du Pain et des Idées. Reid soon came up with her own ideas; just two months after the debut of Ansel’s Cronut, she unveiled the cruffin, while her ethereal traditional croissants garnered global acclaim, praised by The New York Times as possibly the world’s best. Joined by Reid’s brother Cameron, Lune has expanded to three locations where both classic and push-the-boundary monthly specials are handmade in outer space themed production facilities and promoted on the company’s stylish website. Often inspired by international favorites, recent flavors have featured riffs on Mexican tres leches, Italian cacio e pepe, and an American Reuben.
The Reids experiment with new formats at their galactic Lune Lab, where customers vie for tickets to three-course degustations and an opportunity to interact with the kitchen crew.
Another Australian, Paris-trained pastry chef Ry Stephen, took the cruffin to San Francisco, partnering with entrepreneur Aaron Caddel to open the phenomenally popular Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in 2014. When the team split, Stephen headed to Manhattan’s Lower East Side where he presides over Supermoon Bakehouse, dreaming up eye-popping cruffins and croissants each weekend along with brioche-based doughnuts, eclairs and baguettes.
Although Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in San Francisco has closed, that city continues to be a mecca for croissant devotees. At B. Patisserie, award-winning pastry chef Belinda Leong features a chocolate-almond-banana trio; Vive La Tarte’s Tacro has been a media sensation; and the elusive Baker Doe is generating buzz for virtuoso designs and vibrant flavors. Baker Doe (as in ‘John Doe’) is, in reality, a duo, a pastry chef originally from Hong Kong, and her French business partner who worked in hospitality and started laminating for fun before turning pro and setting up shop. The team’s products are as provocative as their no-profile approach: “To me croissants are like a blank canvas,” the freewheeling laminator explains. “I developed my own style and proprietary coloring techniques, and I rarely do the same thing twice. My partner, far more talented than me, tackles the creams, chocolate, and sugarwork, keeping the favors balanced.” Among the favorites: white chocolate-kombu, hazelnut-miso, and black garlic.
Working in a commissary kitchen, the couple prepare six items a week, about 700-900 pieces. Photos are posted on Instagram a few days ahead and orders are placed on Facebook Friday afternoons (quickly selling out), for Sunday morning delivery. “I trimmed all the fat from a regular business,” the entrepreneurial partner recalls, “and only kept what’s necessary (licenses, permits, insurance, commercial kitchen rental, food cost) – almost no investment risk with maximum return. I use just a few social media, which gives me access to analytics to better know and interact with my customers. And,” he concludes, “we don’t have any interest in fame; the best part is appreciation from our customers.”
Baker Doe’s notion of a blank canvas resonates with other innovative pastry artisans in myriad ways. Irish pastry chef Louise Lennox created the croffle, a croissant baked in a waffle maker, that has become a café favorite in South Korea, and now stars at Croffle House in Queens, New York. In Manhattan, Chanson Patisserie, highly praised for its classic croissants, also showcases the indulgent ‘Messy Croissant’ – a cocoa infused dough filled with Valrhona chocolate, coated with dark chocolate ganache, and finished with a dusting of cocoa powder. The recently opened Chestnut Bakery in swanky Belgravia, London, includes aubergine parm and pastrami mustard on the menu, and Asian flavors abound from the banh mi at Vietnamese bakery LaLa in Toronto to the Korean inspired corn cheese croissant at Sunday Bakeshop in Oakland, California.
There are packaged croissant toasts for sale at San Francisco’s La Boulangerie, Whole Foods stocks bags of croissant chips from French cookie company Michel et Augustin, and The Flying Star Café in Albuquerque, New Mexico ships Praline Toffee Croissant Bread Pudding on Goldbelly. Of course, there is a National Croissant Day, commemorated annually on January 30th – the perfect time for aficionados to celebrate, savor and post their favorite croissant photos.
Photos by Evan Sung and Dominique Ansel Workshop