I can remember with almost down-to-the-minute accuracy when my love affair with croissants began. Much less certain is why those heavenly pastries decided to wage a war against me.
On my first trip to Paris during the pre-Euro, pre-Google Maps era, a morning amble took me past a boulangerie somewhere along Rue Cambronne. A teenager with a meager budget and mammoth appetite, I looked for the biggest, cheapest item on the shelves. The most appealing candidate clocked in at just five francs (roughly 80 cents back in the day). It was a glistening, voluptuous crescent exhaling the essence of butter and spring meadows.
One bite was all it took. Soft steam escaped the cave-like interiors and scaly crumbs drizzled down my scarf. With my fingers coated in grease, I knew I could never contemplate frozen supermarket croissant dough again.
Fast forward a decade: I had become a prolific home baker, undaunted by wedding cakes for 120 guests. Yet there was a baked good I was too afraid to attempt: puff pastry. A flash of inspiration one day spurred me to confront this phobia. Naturally, the croissant, which develops its fluffiness through fermentation and derives its flakiness from alternating layers of butter trapped in pastry, seemed the ideal challenge.
I pored over a dozen recipes, internalizing the optimal temperatures of water and air vital to help yeast grow. I watched online videos to mimic the art of sealing butter in dough and pounding them with a rolling pin.
I thought I was ready.
Day 1: I killed the yeast, and the dough never did rise; they turned out flat like pancakes with the dense consistency of bagels.
Day 2: The butter leaked out of my flimsy borders, resulting in dried-out bricks.
Day 3: I kneaded the dough so vigorously that the 27 layers merged into one, resulting in buns in the shape of Dungeness crabs.
Over the course of a week, I produced five batches, none successful, the least awful of which was consumed by the most desperate of my co-workers at dinnertime.
The trials proved a bitter truth. My ardor for croissants was unrequited. Dreams of their blooming in my oven each weekend, brimming with chocolate and sprinkled with almonds, shattered in the same spectacular manner my crusts could not.
Last winter, I gleefully turned a Paris layover into a personal pastry safari. I hunted down every boulangerie of renown, with special emphasis on winners of the coveted Concours du Meilleur Croissant au Beurre AOC Charentes-Poitou, an annual competition honoring croissant perfection.
As I tore off one of its curved legs on this carb-y expedition, I realized I may never have the patience or finesse to execute croissants like the French masters. But my love is unwavering. If it means trudging across Paris in buttery humiliation, this is one war where I am willing to admit defeat.
Gerald Tan’s book Tok Tok Mee: A Portrait of Penang Street Food is out now; boulangerry.com.