Some may think that croissant dough is like puff pastry because it has slabs of butter incorporated into the basic mixture and the dough is rolled, folded and rolled. Others subscribe to the theory that croissant dough actually belongs to the family of buttery, yeasted doughs, like brioche.
But there is one woman who subscribes to the absolute fact that croissant dough stands alone, not confused with or theorized to be like anything else. Fourth-generation French pastry chef and acclaimed culinary talent, Chef Nadège Nourian says while other children were chewing on cookies, she had the tiny, hallmark greasy fingers of a croissant eater. Pain du chocolat to be exact. “It was my treat after school,” she says.
“I’m French, croissant and macaroon are part of our tradition, our heritage,” she says of her passion. To celebrate her beloved croissant, Nadège started CroisSunday the day dedicated to the celebration of France’s gift to the world.
I’ve travelled through France in search of the best croissants. They are getting more and more difficult to find. I look to fill my palate with the richest, softest, billowy butter-rich insides while my teeth are tickled with the crumbling shards of tissue thin, crispy outsides. Plain, almond or chocolate, my mood dictates but it has to be good; freshly made with high quality ingredients.
A good croissant is light but not airy, buttery but not sugary, it takes practice to perfect. Oh, I am swooning at the mere thought of one right now.
Even in Paris it is becoming difficult to indulge in something as delightful as a really good croissant. I remember one special time. My little apartment was in the 12th Arrondisement in the east end of Paris. It was out of the touristy area and in a fine residential neighbourhood where the really great croissants seemed to be living well and in abundance.
The day I was to fly home, I ran to my favourite bakery (a mere two seconds walk) and bought six croissants. In an unusual fashion, I stuffed my face in the hopes the abundance of buttery pastry would stay with me longer. Unfortunately I was only successful in adding inches to my backside.
So when I heard of CroisSunday, I headed off for what I was hoping would be a really good croissant. Anything, I thought, just please, don’t disappoint me! One bite and I knew Nadège had nailed it! The main bakery of Nadège Patisserie is at trendy 780 Queen St., West. Walk in and the little pink and white bakery reads like an upscale coffee shop with seductive Parisian treasures under a long glass case.
There are canelle’s (caramel outsides, custardy innards), little choux pastry filled with lusciousness, playful macaroons and wow, over a dozen different croissants in all manner of unconventional colours, ingredients, flavours and styles – all lined up for the celebratory day. There were even scrumptious croissant sandwiches. The air was filled with aromas of butter and sugar while large trays of croissants poured out of the kitchens continually stocking the glass case for the hundreds who came. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one in Toronto who appreciates a really great croissant. Inhaling the aromas of fresh croissant baking is like awakening from a dream that’s good enough to eat.
I’ve never attempted to make croissants at home because it just seems to be very difficult for a home cook. But it appears it’s no easier in a professional kitchen either. “(It’s) very hard to find people who can do the work,” explains Nadège alluding to the number of romanticized pastry chefs who have come to her kitchen only to go when they can’t handle the physical challenges. “We have different stations and the croissant station is the most difficult.”
At the bakery the dough is carefully worked so it’s smooth and elastic, almost the consistency of soft butter. Then it’s left alone to give the gluten a chance to relax before it goes into the refrigerator. Next is folding the butter into the dough. For this, the dough must be chilled and the butter pliable. They both need to be perfect or it just won’t work. Beyond the technical difficulties, the volume of croissants the bakery goes through in a single day is mind boggling. That means giant bowls of dough need to be lifted, when the butter is added it doubles the weight meaning it takes more than one person to manage it. “It’s hard work making croissants,” says Nadège.
There aren’t always over a dozen different flavours of croissant in the bakery, but on this day, CroisSunday, there were lots to choose from. “We like to take the tradition of a great croissant and mix up modern flavours,” says Nadège. I scanned the case, shall I try a Matcha Green Tea croissant or Black Squid Ink? There was a Pink Praline and Praline and Lemon. I could go traditional with a butter croissant or classic with almond. There was Cassis and Violet, Apple Strudel, Pecan Pie, Carrot Cake, Rocky Road and a Maple Bacon and Egg croissant. Whoa!
But my heart was longing for the comfort of a good croissant so I went traditional. I pull apart my butter croissant and it spirally unravels from the inside out. The billowy soft insides are kept moist and pillowy-like by the crisp exterior that was made up of millions of layers of tissue-thin dough separated only by melted butter. The first bite captured my attention, the second sent my eyes rolling to the back of my head, an involuntary swoon came with the third and by the fourth bite I found myself stamping my feet in anger because I never understand why this quality of food that evokes so much pleasure is so rare. I push the soft croissant up to the roof of my mouth with my tongue and press firmly. I never knew if you did this you could almost suck out the butter – yum!
Chef Nadège prides herself in the ingredients she uses. Only good quality flour, a bit of honey and since sugar is now bad for you, she uses a good quality sugar that is better. The most important ingredient, the butter, is a special Ontario high fat butter. “My butter has a high fat content (for flavour), but I use less of it.” She’s right, I looked down at my fingers and they were not covered in buttery oil like other croissants.
Unless you’ve had a homemade croissant handcrafted by a patient, gifted, strong baker, you may not recognize the real thing from the overblown confection you’re accustomed to. The difference is that dramatic. Most croissant from commercial bakeries and restaurants are more like cake than bread, more sweet than buttery, more shapely than flavourful. Making them right produces croissants of a quality rarely found in the world and rapidly disappearing in France. Savour a real croissant and you’ll know why they have been celebrated for more than three hundred years.
780 Queen St. West – 8:00 am to 9:00 pm
1099 Yonge St. – 9:00 am to 7:30 pm
PATH 120 Adelaide St. West – 7:30 am to 6:30 pm
Holt Renfrew Yorkdale – 10:00 am to 9:00 pm
Holt Renfrew Bloor – 10:00 am to 9:00 pm
Pricing: $2.30 each, 12 for $27.50, 16 for $38, 25 for $55
Visit nadege-patisserie.com for more information.
Written by Lynn Ogryzlo | Photos by Jon Ogryzlo