Cronuts, croiffles and cragels: the many forms of experimentation with the croissant

Strictly speaking, the croissant itself is fusion food, a French take on the Austrian kipferl, or crescent roll, using laminated pastry rather than the traditional bread dough. 

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“An abomination,” snaps a Parisian friend when I mention the croiffle, the latest croissant hybrid to hit our Instagram feeds courtesy, if that’s the right word, of Belgian chocolatier Godiva – filled with everything from chocolate to tuna and now available in its shop at St Pancras station. According to her, the only acceptable spin on the plain croissant is the almond version made from leftovers, drenched in sugar syrup, sandwiched with almond cream and rebaked. “Why gild the lily? Sounds British to me.”

In fact, Dominique Ansel, creator of the cronut, the pastry that started all this nonsense, was born in Beauvais, a city barely 75km from her apartment. The idea came to him in New York though, where, at the height of their popularity, these croissant-doughnut mash-ups were selling on the black market for $40 apiece. So long were the queues outside his Soho bakery that one infamous Craig’s List ad even offered fresh cronuts in exchange for sex.

No wonder it spawned a thousand imitators, including the cragel, the crownie, the croll, the tacro and perhaps most horrifically, the California croissant, whose San Francisco creators didn’t let the lack of a good portmanteau stop them from adding a salmon sushi roll with wasabi and pickled ginger in an “embracing of eccentricity”. I don’t know how the Parisienne would describe it – I don’t dare tell her.

Significantly, while Ansel has subsequently opened in London, LA and Tokyo, he’s yet to do more than dip his toe in the Paris patisserie scene. A recent three-day pop-up at his friend Yann Couvreur’s place in the 4th arrondissement focused on newer creations, though 15 cronuts a day were given away at random.

Strictly speaking, the croissant itself is fusion food, a French take on the Austrian kipferl, or crescent roll, using laminated pastry rather than the traditional bread dough. Despite rumours, there’s no evidence that they were popularised by the Viennese-born Marie Antoinette, or that their curved shape is a tribute to the city’s liberation from Turkish forces in 1683: the kipferl existed well before then, and France’s notorious queen seems to have preferred cake.

Kipferls were, however, being sold in 1839 at the Viennese Bakery in Paris’s Rue Richelieu by August Zang, another Vienna native, who later impressed a visiting Charles Dickens with his croissants’ daintiness. At this point, however, it still seems to have been a bread roll; a recipe for the flaky pastry we know doesn’t appear in print until 1906.

These days you can find a croissant au beurre in every boulangerie in France – and, having cycled round the country writing a book on the subject, I can confirm they’ve just about perfected them, which is not to say there’s no room for a bit of lily-gilding, as New Zealand-born Londoner Miles Kirby knows all too well. And while the chef-director of the Caravan group enjoys an almond croissant, he’s “bored” by their ubiquity – “I love to mess with a classic.”

Caravan’s current charity croissant collaboration features combinations you’re unlikely to find in Paris, including a spicy ‘Nduja sausage and honey number and a sparkly blueberry and lemon verbena version to raise money for Pride.

What’s the bestselling pastry on Caravan To Go’s bakery counter? Their gloriously buttery plain croissant. Perhaps there’s hope for Anglo-French relations yet. 

“One More Croissant for the Road” by Felicity Cloake is published by Mudlark

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer