For the following two weeks, while I am in France, I am going to try a new pastry. Every. Single. Day.
In case you haven’t memorized your multiplication tables yet (don’t worry, I haven’t either), that’s fourteen pastries. Is that a lot? Honestly, I would be eating that many pastries—or more—anyway, so I might as well get something out of it besides an empty wallet and a gourmet French dessert baby kicking at my stomach.
So what is culturally significant about fourteen variations of dark, rich, chocolate, flaky dough, and vanilla beans? I plan on finding out, one bite at a time.
Read the entire series here.
Today, I was feeling hungry yet unadventurous, so I went with a classic favorite: the pain au chocolat, or, literally, chocolate bread. What could possibly ever be bad about that combination?
The pain au chocolat is a staple across France. Some of mes amis even get them every morning in a tightly sealed plastic package, fresh from the factory and sold at your local Monoprix. A derivation of the stereotypical croissant, the pain au chocolat is a flaky, cuboid shaped (truly, it is cuboid shaped) piece of dough, similar to puff pastry, with one or two sticks of dark chocolate baked in the center. Here’s a photo of one, for your viewing pleasure (again, like the millefeuille, I would’ve used a photo of mine but I ate it too quickly):
Though the croissant and the pain au chocolat seem as old as France itself, they are actually relatively modern baking innovations. The word “croissant” only made its way into the French dictionary in 1863.
This type of pastry is called viennoiserie, and was introduced in the nineteenth century by August Zang, an Austrian officer, and Ernest Schwarzer, an Austrian aristocrat. Viennoiseries are baked goods made from yeast-leavened dough with added ingredients that separate them from puff pastry. The unlikely Austrian pair, even more unexpectedly, opened a Viennese bakery in Paris, which popularized croissants and pains aux chocolat.
But I refuse to accept those very normal beginnings as the origin story of what is quickly becoming my preferred snack. So I dug further.
And I found a couple of significantly more interesting stories, though I must admit they are basically myths at this point and their validity is widely disputed. Oh, whatever, they’re still fun!
The earliest mentions of croissants dates to 1683, when the Ottoman Turks were sieging Vienna. According to the tale, a baker working late at night heard the Turks secretly entering the city and immediately alerted the military. The military was therefore able to collapse the tunnel the Turks were entering the city through, effectively saving Vienna. The baker then invented a crescent-moon shaped pastry, which was the Turks’ Islamic emblem, so that when Austrians bit into the pastry they would symbolically be destroying the Turks. Not terribly believable, but I like to suspend my disbelief when it comes to desserts.
Another story cites Marie Antoinette, the Austrian Queen of France who famously never said, “Let them eat cake,” as the indirect creator of the croissant. The young Marie Antoinette was homesick for Austria, and therefore requested the royal bakers to replicate her favorite pastry from home. That favorite pastry is called the kripfel, and it is the same dessert that the Austrian pair spread from their Paris bakery.
So, no one really knows where the croissant or the pain au chocolat came from, but no one really cares, either.