The History of the Croissant

More complicated than just butter and flour.

A freshly baked, quality croissant is a marvel. It is part architecture and part alchemy; a miracle rendered in butter, flour, and sugar that is simultaneously crisp and pillow-tender, ethereally buttery yet light enough to eat at the start of the day.

The modern croissant is made up of water, milk, flour, yeast, sugar, and fat—usually butter, sometimes margarine. The crescent-shaped pastries are fashioned from laminated dough, usually with a ratio of three parts butter to ten parts flour. Pastry chef François Payard (a third-generation baker and the chef of FP Patisserie in New York) says that when the pastries bake the butter makes little pockets of steam in the dough, which creates the layers that give a croissant its unmistakable flakiness. You know you have a perfect croissant when you cut it in half and see “alveoli”—Payard adopts the word for the sacs in our lungs—in the middle.

But how did buttery little crescent moons with lung sacs in them make their way to our table? By following the history of those ingredients and the people who put them together, the story of the croissant tells the story of Europe as a whole. Rising and falling empires, wars, and marriages all contributed to the croissant as we know it today.

Fifteenth to Sixteenth Century

The tale of the croissant begins in Austria in the 1400s, with the kipfel, a crescent-shaped morning pastry. Made with brioche-like dough, it was denser and less flaky than the croissant we know today. The exact history of the kipfel is hazy: the word was used in Austrian cuisine as far back as the thirteenth century, referring to crescent-shaped sweets, but it does not refer specifically to the Viennese breakfast pastry until the fifteenth century, according to Jim Chevallier’s August Zang and the French Croissant. (A dessert called gateaux en croissants appeared at a Parisian banquet for Catherine de’ Medici in 1549; however, that word likely referred to crescent-shaped cakes and confections, not the pastry we know today.)

In the sixteenth century, the royal court of Vienna appointed its first court confectioner, an official recognition of the baking and confectionary innovation going on in Vienna at the time. By 1568, Vienna was home to a few confectioners’ shops, thanks to the trickle-down influence of the royal court and the increased availability of sugar, though sugar was still an expensive luxury and its consumption was limited to the wealthiest segment of society.

The History of the Croissant

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