The many exciting (and unlikely) origins of croissants
My kids love croissants. It’s probably because we’ve trained their expectations about what snacks they can get when we visit coffee shops, but hearing that the buttery pastry might be connected to royalty and foiled sieges seemed entirely appropriate to them. Sadly, croissants probably don’t actually have such high drama in their past, but the number of apocryphal origins for something like curved bread might be considered an achievement in itself.
Bakers win a battle
The really tasty story of croissants was set in Budapest, 1686. Turks were attacking the city, and bakers noticed strange noises from underground, to which they alerted the authorities. Turkish soldiers were then discovered tunneling under the city, and quickly defeated. The vigilant bakers were then granted licence to bake moon-shaped bread, so that the crescent would remind everyone of the Ottoman flag and the bakers’ heroism.
The second possible origin describes when Turkish soldiers were attacking Vienna in 1683. A brave baker was working at night when he heard strange sounds from underground. The authorities then found tunnels and, well, you know the rest.
There’s very little evidence connecting these two stories to croissants, especially since the bread being baked at that time would almost certainly have been an Austrian kipfel. While kipfel share the crescent shape of a croissant, they lack the flaky, fluffy texture, which is accepted to have been a French innovation on the concept. How did the kipfel make it to France though?
Pastries in Paris
The exciting explanation is that no less than Marie Antoinette herself brought kipfel, and subsequently croissants to France. The story is that she missed the moon-shaped bread she grew up with and requested they be recreated for her, although none of the meticulous records of her comings and goings actually document such a request. While she definitely had the cultural influence to kick off a croissant craze, there isn’t much to suggest she ever tried.
The more mundane answer to kipfels’ transformation probably lies with an Austrian entrepreneur named August Zang. Zang opened a Viennese bakery in Paris, which sparked interest in Austrian bread, kaiser rolls and kipfel. After this first exposure, French bakers took the crescent shape and began chilling the rolled-out dough overnight before baking it. This helped give the finished product the signature flakiness associated with croissants today.
Fame vs. flakes
Most croissants that is. In 1981, Sara Lee started selling frozen croissants to Americans, which has made the pastries widely known but possibly at the cost of their flakiness. In telling this story to my croissant-loving kids, I realized that the pastries they enjoy arrive at coffee shops in sealed plastic bags, and that flakiness is only a small part of what they think a croissant is. Aside from the critical crescent shape, many consumers only have a chance to enjoy croissants as soft bread. And maybe a source of butter flavor.
Source: Is the Croissant Really French? by Amanda Fiegel, Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly