The flaky tale of the croissant

How the crescent-shaped croissant came about
The flaky tale of the croissant
Photo by Fatoumata Ceesay
A croissant from La Brioche

The croissant is a classic French pastry, but it didn’t originate in France. Its roots are in Austria, and the crescent-shaped roll called kipferl is full of butter, sugar and almonds. Legend has it that the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 inspired its distinctive curved configuration. To celebrate their victory over the Turks, Viennese chefs made their kipferl into crescents to mock the crescent moon on the vanquished country’s flag.

Another story suggests that Marie Antoinette – pining for her hometown, Vienna – introduced the kipferl to Paris. But evidence supports that the originator was actually Austrian baker August Zang, who opened his Parisian business in 1838. By 1850, renamed “croissant,” it was fashioned from a French invention, puff pastry – a dough containing layers of cold butter that gives it flakiness and crunch. Not until after World War I did it become a Gallic breakfast staple.

The croissant in one form or another eventually gained acceptance in Argentina, Italy, Poland and many other countries, including the United States. Even the Viennese have embraced the French-style, curvaceous flaky roll, and kipferl now is a type of sugar-covered cookie.

Oddly, in Great Britain, bakers have decided to improve upon the orthodox shape by making it straight – better to spread jam on, some say.

In the early 1970s, the Baker’s Rooms at Ovens of Brittany brought the delicacy to Madison. By the 1980s, the country was on a croissant binge, and the pastries started showing up everywhere. Commercial bakeries mass-produced them, and they even began to grace the shelves of small-town supermarkets. Burger King and other fast-food joints used them to make breakfast sandwiches. By 1984, Sara Lee frozen croissants were outselling the company’s previous favorite, pound cake.

Of course, it’s hard for some to leave well enough alone. First there were all sorts of filled croissants, both sweet and savory. In 2013, Dominique Ansel at her New York bake shop created the cronut (a hybrid croissant and donut). The pretzel croissant and baissant (bagel croissant) soon followed. However, the trend in Paris today is a return to the past with artisan croissants, handmade from locally sourced ingredients.

For better or worse this pastry is now part of American food culture and has largely supplanted coffeecake as a morning treat. The croissant crafting begun at the Baker’s Rooms 45 years ago lives on at La Brioche, founded by Ovens of Brittany alum David Yankovich. For many years, devotees of the downtown Farmers’ Market relished the croissants baked every Saturday by L’Etoile owner Odessa Piper. Her successor, Tory Miller, keeps the tradition alive at Graze, where croissants are prepared at brunch. Batch Bakehouse, Madison Sourdough and Manna Cafe all specialize in making authentic croissants.

For me, the experience of eating a croissant in Paris has no equal. Some would conclude that the reason it tastes better there is because of the European-style butter with its higher butterfat, or maybe the type of flour used. I suggest nothing is more delicious than a romantic memory.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.