Even more than the Eiffel Tower, site of infinite selfies and cheesy proposals, the croissant is a universally recognized symbol of France. Many Americans might not be able to pick the French flag out of a lineup, but the pastry serves as a kind of hieroglyph — or in 2018 parlance, an emoji — to represent the European nation. Case in point: On one track from his 2013 album Yeezus, Kanye West raps, “In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants.”
Thought to have originated in Austria, the crescent-shaped baked good was embraced by the French in the early 19th century. The pastries are made with laminated dough, which contains many thin, alternating layers of wheat flour-based dough and butter created by a lengthy process of repeated folding and rolling. When the pastries bake, moisture in the butter creates steam, which, along with a small amount of yeast, helps them puff up in the oven. While the dough can be shaped into any form, a croissant refers to a cut and rolled triangle of dough that’s curved into a crescent shape.
Twists on the croissant, such as the pain au chocolat and croissants aux amandes, have existed for decades. The almond croissant was created out of necessity: Croissant dough is expensive, thanks to its labor-intensive process and all the butter that gives the end product its signature flakiness. In lieu of throwing out croissants that went unsold, French patissiers devised an ingenious recycling method: They would dip the leftover pastries in syrup, fill them with frangipane, and re-bake them to produce almond croissants.
But the iconic viennoiserie has strayed far from its roots. Now, it’s omnipresent in mundane continental breakfasts and sad airport sandwiches across the globe: Taco Bell turned it into breakfast tacos; Hot Pockets, the microwavable staple food of middle schoolers and stoners alike, sells a variety wrapped in a “croissant crust.”
In more recent developments, it’s become a star of Instagram users’ feeds — albeit in incarnations that 19th-century patissiers would hardly recognize. The “Instagram food” plague has had many poster children in its relatively short lifespan thus far, from rainbow bagels to crazy milkshakes, and croissants are just one of the latest pastries to go viral. For many pastry professionals (and pastry lovers), the beauty of the croissant lies in its relatively unadorned simplicity — and some feel the constant riffing on the pastry may be getting out of hand.
“The magic of the croissant is that it’s simple and it’s decadent,” says LA-based baker Roxana Jullapat. “It’s buttery and crunchy and someone with a lot of skill prepared it, so it’s a beautiful thing when it comes out of the oven.”
But one can hardly blame enterprising pastry chefs for seeing that simple croissant as a blank canvas on which to experiment. “Croissants... aren’t the peacocks of the pastry case,” Susan Hochbaum wrote in her 2011 photography book Pastry Paris. “Their rich, buttery, often sweet, sometimes flaky natures are hidden behind simple, mostly geometric exteriors, primarily variations on beige.”
Most famously, Dominique Ansel’s Cronut changed how the croissant was perceived, moving it away from the familiar crescent shape and beige exterior. The Cronut, a mania-inducing croissant-doughnut hybrid — round in shape and often topped with colorful icing — launched in 2013, ushering in a new era of desserts marked by greater technical innovation, creativity, and just plain fun. It also created a sort of “white whale” syndrome in the pastry world.
“It should have been a once in a lifetime situation,” Jullapat says. “[Ansel] is a really clever guy who did something great — but now everyone is wondering, what’s the next Cronut?”
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Recent Instagram thirst-trap variations on the croissant include a lemon meringue pie croissant, a churro-inspired iteration filled with dulce de leche cream, and one dubbed “Just Try It” that includes pastrami and pickled oranges, among other ingredients, at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, which has locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. At Viva La Tarte in San Francisco, the pastry case is filled with versions like strawberry shortcake and red velvet. Then there’s Supermoon Bakehouse in NYC, opened in 2017 by a co-founder of Mr. Holmes, which promotes each new flavor — such as a garishly-colored piña colada version — on Instagram as though it’s dropping a new album.
Meanwhile, the often-Instagrammed Funfetti croissant, bursting with rainbow sprinkles and Barbie-pink cream filling, hails from Manhattan bakery-cafe Union Fare, and behind its success is an unexpected mastermind: an NYC-based marketing agency that specializes in creating social media content for restaurants, with the ultimate goal of propelling them to viral stardom. Union Fare launched the birthday cake croissant in the summer of 2016, and it was quickly declared “the latest must-have pastry in NYC.”
Jullapat’s certainly not against innovation when it comes to the classic French pastry: She serves a halvah croissant at her LA bakery-cafe Friends & Family, turning the sweet sesame paste candy into a frangipane-like filling. She’s also a fan of the variations at San Francisco’s B. Patisserie, where pastry wizard Belinda Leong has served banana-chocolate and blueberry-almond croissants, among other flavors.
Though she notes that in some instances “people have gone a little crazy,” for the most part, “[Americans] are really open to crossing lines and breaking the rules — and because that’s so great in other ways, you also have to put up with the bad,” Jullapat says, referencing a smoked salmon and nori croissant she saw recently. “You don’t want to dampen people’s creativity.”
From the perspective of expert croissant makers, mastering the craft of the iconic pastry before trying to experiment with wacky variations is essential. “Making a croissant is very simple, but it’s [highly] technical,” says NYC chef Gabriel Kreuther, who recently served as head judge for American French-language publication French Morning’s annual Best Croissant competition. “When it’s done classically and perfectly, it’s amazing.”
The capabilities of the bakers behind some of these over-the-top croissant mashups aren’t necessarily in question: “[Places like] Mr. Holmes or Supermoon — they’re definitely playing to the Instagram crowd, but their technique is good,” says Marguerite Preston, kitchen editor at Wirecutter (and former Eater NY editor). Cookbook author and American-in-Paris David Lebovitz has called Supermoon owner Ry Stephen “the real deal,” writing that he “has the chops to prove that he’s more than just a piled high photo of a pastry with a gazillion of likes.”
Rather, some pastry gurus take issue with what’s seemingly an insatiable urge to gild the lily in the quest for those likes.
“The fillings or additions should not hide the quality of the croissant,” says Yann Ledoux, executive master baker at NYC patisserie Maison Kayser. “When you make a beautiful, flaky croissant, you don’t want to destroy it by putting cream inside. It’s a shame.”
“There’s nothing wrong with innovating in the world of viennoiserie,” Preston says. She references the chocolate-raspberry croissants made by pastry chef Francois Brunet at Epicerie Boulud as an example of a creative twist on a croissant that keeps the integrity of the classic pastry intact. But, she says, “There’s a fine line between a gimmicky pastry and an innovative pastry.”
Of course, the French aren’t complete purists when it comes to their beloved national pastry — though they do seem to have a slightly more delicate touch when riffing on it. “It seemed revolutionary when Pierre Hermé made an Ispahan croissant,” says Dorie Greenspan, author of Short Stack Editions’ new book Butter and the forthcoming Everyday Dorie. Introduced by the legendary French patissier in the early 2000s, the rose icing-glazed pastry is filled with rose-flavored frangipane and raspberry-lychee gelee and sprinkled with bits of dried raspberry. “[It] was a departure from tradition, but an elegant one. But these seem tame compared to a birthday cake croissant.”
At the heart of the argument seems to be the question of motivation. When it comes to riffing on such an iconic pastry and whether a new creation qualifies as an homage or a travesty, Kreuther says, “I think the question to ask is, what’s the purpose? Does it bring something to the conversation? Does it elevate the croissant? Or is it just for a picture for people to talk about and shock people?”
The symbiotic relationship between bakeries that produce ostentatious stunt desserts and social media influencers is a fascinating one: Desserts that are created solely with social media in mind “often are kind of gross,” Preston says. While the photos may look enticing, “You wouldn’t want to actually eat an entire birthday cake croissant.”
A snap of a Funfetti or red velvet croissant on Union Fare’s Instagram, where it’s amassed nearly 30,000 followers, can rack up more than 1,200 likes, with a flood of comments like “omg need this!!!” followed by heart eyes emojis. Top food Instagrammer @new_fork_city drew more than 20,000 likes on a photo of the birthday cake croissant posted in March 2017.
Brooklyn bakery Bien Cuit, frequently shouted out as having one of New York City’s top croissants, has around 14,000 followers, and is lucky to get 250 likes when it posts a photo of a classic croissant or pain au chocolat. The relatively austere-looking pastries simply don’t get the kind of play that a garishly colored specimen oozing candy-colored cream does.
Greenspan, who splits her time between Paris and New York, is hesitant to dismiss the colorful croissants from places like Supermoon as wacky, and says she’s intrigued to go try them. She has “absolutely no interest in a red velvet croissant,” however. “The color alone sends me running in the opposite direction,” she says.
“At the end of the day, anyone can try new things out,” says Kreuther. “But your purpose should be to try to do it better.”
“When something becomes a classic, it’s for a reason,” he adds. “A croissant became a classic and it stands the test of time because it’s just great.” Influencers and Instagram trend chasers will eventually tire of red velvet croissants and pastries oozing Funfetti filling, but the original, as Kreuther says, “is here to stay.”
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior associate editor.
Editor: Daniela Galarza