Amy Thomas, Paris’ sweets goddess, recently organized a croissant tasting for a blessed few. To our great dismay, we were out of town and unable to partake in the buttery festivities. To make up for it, we’re sharing her write-up here so you can live vicariously through the smackdown with us.
One of the first things many tourists do upon arrival in Paris is go to the nearest café and order a café au lait and croissant. We expats like to whisper conspiratorially, “Only tourists order café au lait, it’s really un crème…” If we’re nice about it, we even advise our visiting friends of this nuance so they can be more local than tourist.
But when it comes to the croissant part of the equation, there don’t seem to be many insider tricks or tips. As omnipresent as croissants are in Paris, they don’t inspire the same loyalty and rivalry as macarons, the same adoring squeals of delight as petit gateaux, or the same declarations of the very, very best like baguettes or cocoa.
So on a recent Saturday morning, I gathered a group of bloggers and friends from all pockets of the world to at least begin making comparisons and declarations—it was the third edition of an American Smackdown in Paris. What did it reveal?
To begin, it wasn’t even easy selecting who should be in the Smackdown. A few years ago, David Lebovitz shared his love for the “buttery beauties” from Au Levain du Marais (28 boulevard Beaumarchais, 11eme, 01 48 05 17 14). This, in turn, gave the boulangerie’s croissants a solid following in the blogosphere. It seemed like a good place to start.
And among Le Figaro’s contenders from several years back, many of the big and renowned boulangeries were, as expected, on the list. Having personally heard hearty praise for Gérard Mulot (6, rue du Pas de la Mule, 3eme, 01 42 78 52 17), number four on the list (behind Pierre Hermé (what can’t this man bake to perfection?), Triomphe and Laurent Duchêne), we had our Smackdown competitor.
But it seemed a shame not to include a third specimen. From somewhere off the radar. A mystery contender. Just to shake things up and keep it interesting. So, for the first time, the Smackdown had three challengers.
Per usual, we were a motley crew of Smackdown tasters: One Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef (Rachel Khoo); one visiting blogger (Carol G) and two local bloggers (Kasia and Cynthia); plus friends hailing from London, Australia, New Jersey and one homegrown Parisian.
What makes a great croissant, great? A crisp shell that sends giant pastry flakes all down your sweater, for one. Then an inside that is light, airy and spongy; not too dense, tough or chewy.
Then there’s the flavor. Rachel explained that with so few, and such basic, ingredients—flour, water, egg, yeast, butter, and a little salt and sugar—quality is essential. Including the butter, bien sur. Patissiers use butter with a higher fat content than what we get at the grocery store, yielding that unmistakable buttery croissant flavor.
While there was no runaway winner, the results of the Croissant Smackdown were très surprising and controversial.
For starters, Au Levain du Marais fared the poorest. While its “perfect form” was extolled, the flavor was considered “flat”, “not buttery” and simply “lacking”. It underperformed.
It was the exact opposite with Gérard Mulot. The non-traditional tubular shape disgruntled some tasters, but the flavor was favored. “Rich”, “yummy”, “super buttery”, “nice saltiness”—it was “what I expect from a croissant”. Happy bellies all around.
The real surprise came with the mystery contender, which was so neck and neck with Gérard Mulot’s top ratings, it nearly pulled an upset. On the positive side, it was considered “quite fluffy”, “puffy” and it “looked great”. But biting into it? “Flat”, “flavorless” and “blech”. Still, it really divided the room—four out of the nine tasters wanted to award this specimen with the Smackdown title.
Where did this second best croissant come from? None other than your local Monoprix.