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February 10, 2005

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Ode to a Croissant


It was perfect. Warm actually. Steaming in the center. Still too hot to eat. It was four inches thick...yet weighed so little you would swear there was nothing in the paper bag given to you by the counter girl. Mottled crispy dark brown ......just close to being burned, it was ighter brown towards the edges. It flaked with every bite...shards of crispy puff pastry, called mille feuille by the French, shooting and falling about me like shards of chaff from a well-baked smart bomb. Each of those shards left small grease stains wherever they fell, my jeans, sweater or even the sidewalk.

My big bite had been too eager, too early, beginning before I'd left the patisserie. But it was early and cold and January in Paris and I was alone and starving. The barely baked layers in the center were condensed, and chewy and had just started separating into the thousand layers (really more like a hundred)...that mille feuille is famous for. Outward from the thick, steaming center the dough fanned itself in a perfect crescent shape. And as it radiated outward the layers became progressively crispier and flakier, but never dry. Pure genius, I invent a dough that breaks to the bite while coating your mouth with the silky warmth of good butter. Nothing more was needed. Not jam or honey or, god forbid, more butter. With bite after bite, this aristocrat of pastries claimed its throne and needed to share it with no one. I was most certainly making a fool of myself on the streets of Paris as I analyzed and savoured every bite, every crumb and morsel of just about the most perfect thing I'd ever eaten. It was the apotheosis of culinary art, grandeur achieved from plainness . Humble ingredients, nothing more than flour, butter, milk, water and yeast, transformed into something rich yet feather light, crispy yet chewy....and by turns complex then commonplace.

Later that day, I returned to Germany. A stylish cafe in the center of town caught my the bar was a young woman sipping coffee. I heard her ask for the same item that had sent me into rapture 6 hours earlier. What arrived a few minutes later looked like it came from a bisquick can. Apparently forgetting where she was, she had ordered a croissant, but instead received a crescent roll in all its dense, doughy plebian glory. I sighed and smiled to myself. .... The spell had been broken. I was in France no longer.

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