On a trip to Paris a few years ago with my cousin, I was overwhelmed by its elegance, sophistication, and atmosphere of whimsical romance. A magical city; even more so, a seduction of richness and indulgence at every turn. I'm talking about meticulously perfect pastries and exquisitely decorated desserts beyond anything I could have imagined!
My cousin and I started each morning with un pain au chocolat (a chocolate croissant) and un cafe au lait (a coffee with milk). Then to ensure I took in all that Paris had to offer, I decided I should have a supplemental pastry every morning in addition to my daily pain au chocolat. I wanted to explore my options, but was too in love with the croissant to risk not having it. So I did it, I had an affair. I dabbled in more than one pastry each morning and enjoyed every last bit of every last one. In the end, the croissant won out as my favorite. I can still smell the burst of buttery lightness warm from the oven, I can still hear the crispy outside break and flake, and I can still taste the richness of the dark chocolate hiding in the flakey layers. C'est délicieux!
Since that trip years ago, I have been searching for the perfect croissant on American soil. Not an easy undertaking, believe me. I’ve had ones that are dry, ones with cheap excuses for butter, ones that are dense and weighed down, and ones that are elasticy and just plain bad - a complete mess and bastardization of such a divine delicacy! One day about a year ago, I mentioned my quest for the perfect croissant to a coworker. She immediately suggested a small patisserie on Columbus Avenue not far from our office in Boston. When I checked it out one morning, I knew. The moment I walked in, I felt my heart skip. Then, came a flood of my many Parisian croissant memories and I'm pretty sure there was a symphony of angels playing flutes and harps. I found it. I found the perfect French croissant.
Café Madeleine opened just over three years ago. It's devoted to providing baked goods which are simple, high quality, and French. I recently sat down with Chef Hana Quon for a chat on making (and enjoying!) the handheld bundle of decadence that is the French croissant.
Me: What makes a good croissant?
Chef Hana: French food is simple. It focuses on the best ingredients and lets them shine. The most important factors in a croissant are flavor, crispness, and butter. Croissants should be rich and buttery with a hint of saltiness and acidity. Acidity is for balance and gives them a well-rounded flavor that makes you want to continue eating. The outside should be crisp, not crunchy, and the inside should be light and airy. The layers, called leaves, should be visible and look like a honeycomb when the croissant is cut in half. They are created because the butter releases steam when baking which makes them poof.
Me: What’s important in the dough?
Chef Hana: When you're making the dough, it needs to be elastic, but not hard, and it's important to let it rest. Making a croissant properly takes three days, so here at Café Madeleine we're continuously in overlapping stages of the process.
Me: What's the most important ingredient?
Chef Hana: Traditional French croissants use butter. By measure, a third by weight of the dough should be butter. It's the most expensive ingredient and American croissants try to cut costs by cutting the butter. For a good croissant, you need the butter.
Me: What’s your favorite croissant?
Chef Hana: Ham and cheese – it’s the perfect savory snack. We use 16 year aged gruyere and black forest ham. The cheese oozes out of the ends while baking and creates "angel wings" – those pieces of crunchy cheese on the ends that are so good.
Thanks Chef Hana!
At Chef Hana's suggestion, I tried the ham and cheese croissant after our conversation. The combination of sweet and salty was intoxicating. In the spirit of my Parisian travels, I also had un pain au chocolat – you love what you love after all. It was light, airy, and decedent. Check out Café Madeleine for a truly Parisan experience. And lastly, remember, if it's not making a mess it's not a good croissant.