History of the croissant
The tale of the croissant begins in Austria with the kipfel, a crescent-shaped morning pastry made with brioche-like dough. It became French the moment people began to make it with puffed pastry, which is a French innovation. Here’s how some think the story goes.
In the sixteenth century Vienna there was some baking and confectionery innovation going on which was recognized by the royal court of Vienna with the appointment of its first court confectioner. The trickle down effect of this, and an increased availability of sugar, was the establishment of confectioners shops in the city. Although sugar was still an expensive luxury enjoyed only by the wealthiest segment of society.
In 1653, the first documented recipe for pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), appeared in François Pierre de la Varenne’s Le Pâtissier François, the first book to catalogue French pastry arts.
It was about this time that a group of Viennese bakers discovered Ottoman Turks tunneling into the city. To mark their discovery, they created a crescent-shaped pastry modeled after Turkish flag. The problem with the story: crescent-shaped baked goods existed in Austria long before – the 1400s, and a similar myth exists for the Turkish siege of Budapest just three years later.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, falling sugar prices allowed wealthy non-royals in Paris to enjoy sweets that were once exclusive to the courts, similar to what had happened in Vienna in the previous century. When the French government moved from Paris to Versailles, Paris became a site of rebellion against the old regime, with people meeting to discuss new ideas over tea or coffee and pastries.
It was during the late 1830s that August Zang opened an upscale pastry shop in the heart of Paris specialising in treats from his native Vienna including the kipfel and pain viennois, a Viennese-style sandwich bread. He coined the term viennoiserie for the family of French breakfast pastries. His kipfel was made with noticeably flakier dough than traditional brioche-based versions, and people began to refer to it as the croissant because of its crescent shape.
Various recipes for a French pastry called a croissant appeared in the years after Zang’s bakery opened, but the first one to refer to a croissant based on puff pastry did not appear until the beginning of the 1900s. A French baker named Sylvain Claudius Goy wrote a recipe in 1915 that specifically mentions pâte feuilletée, calling to roll the dough and laminate it with butter just as one would for the puff pastry—though the croissant dough would include yeast, which a traditional puff pastry does not.
This technique remains at the core of the modern croissant.