The word croissant comes from the french word accroissement which means to increase, a verb that I began to worry was also going to refer to my waistline as I ran into my 5th bakery Sunday morning for a croissant, plain, please. My S.O. was once again waiting patiently (though illegally parked) while I was inside purchasing.
I started a quest for the ultimate Chicagoland version of one of mankinds ultimate expressions of butter and flour - the flaky French croissant (see link below), and continued the search this weekend. A caveat first - Im a pastry snob. I dont want to spend my calories on something that isnt real, for one (no fake flavorings or colors, please). Many bakeries consider homemade dough theyve purchased frozen but baked on the premises. If Im going to eat a croissant, I want it to be a pure expression of flour, butter and sugar (ok, and yeast and salt): a flaky, crispy outside, a tender, webbed inside, all of it suffused with the lactose perfume of a high-butterfat-content butter.
Ive continued the search based on the many suggestions from this board that I just couldnt get to in one long bike ride in August. And so, early Sunday morning, off we went, having nourished ourselves first on cappuccini.
9:10 a.m. House of Fine Chocolates, 3109 N. Broadway. Though Im in this area frequently (Intelligentsia Coffee is a few feet away), I never realized that they had so many pastries here, and none of them overly made-up with fake colors. Must investigate this more. The croissant ($0.97) is European-sized (4" or so), but overly sweet for me, tough, not tender, a soft inside, but not webbed, about an 8 on the croissant-to-brioche scale (1=croissant) and salty. This also has that unmistakable but hard-to-define fake bakery smell, making me think that they might bake these from frozen, purchased dough.
A sideline: the more the butter is worked into the flour, the less flaky it will be. Croissants are turned usually 3 times, turned meaning a cold layer of butter is folded into layers of cold, yeasted dough. If the dough or butter is too warm, less flakiness results, if its turned too many times, a similar result. Brioche is bread enriched with eggs and butter, but just worked into the dough, not turned. Thus, brioche is not a derogatory term. Its just not a croissant.
9:20 a.m. Treasure Island, Wells St. Location. Someone recommeded this, and they do make them in house (or at least bake them there). This one is saltier, more tender than the H.O.F.C.s, slightly larger, and only $1 including tax. This one lacks a buttery aroma, and still does not have a crispy, caramelized crust and many-layered, slightly hollow middle. A little bland overall, but less harshly pre-packaged tasting.
9:25 a.m. Alberts Café, 52 W. Elm. How can this charming little cafe/patisserie be right here yet Ive never heard of it? Maybe 15 tables, some already taken with what looks like locals breaking their fast, a warmly lit, cozy room, a pastry case full of tempting treats. Again, a chowhound recommendation. Croissants are $1 and some change, and have by far the best buttery aroma of the morning so far. Much more tender, though not all that flaky. Butter flavor and aroma enhanced by a pleasant (not cloying) sweetness. I notice the corners sort of melted together, rather than holding their own puffy shape, a sign that perhaps they were proofed too warm, or turned while too warm, or cooked too slowly, all of which could result in a less flaky exterior. Still, these have the taste and interior texture of a baker who cares. I will return here.
9:30 a.m. (would be 9:28 if I had better sense of direction) Pierrot Gourmet, Penninsula Hotel, 108 E. Superior (west of Michigan NOT east, oops). Very excited when someone recommended these since the hotel is supposed to have their own pastry staff (story can probably be found by searching chowhoud with keywords croissant, Penninsula, chauffeur and limo). Croissant still Euro-sized, but this time a staggering River-North-sized $3.02. Now I understand the if-you-can-have-your-chauffeur-pick-them-up crack in the chowhounds post.
Still, the flakiest yet! These are the correct texture - crisp on the outside, yet layered and somewhat hollow inside. But just not as buttery as Alberts. I keep smelling each bag as we drive off to the final destination, overwhelmed by the dairy nose on the Alberts Café croissant compared to the more dull bouquet of Pierrot Gourmet. If only I could combine the two pastries!
But the final destination left no doubt as to (so far) who has the best croissant in the greater metro area - (drum roll) - none other than Vanille Patisserie (2229 Clybourn), who I already lauded in part 1 of my hunt. His croissant (Euro-sized, and worth every penny of its $2.60 price) has all the buttery flavor and aroma, the crispy, caramelized, flake-all-over-your-cappuccino-saucer crust and a hollow, delicately webbed, tender inside. This is a capital C croissant, the kind that makes you want to wear a beret or, if female, perhaps wear high heels and sashay seductively down a rainy sidewalk with a small dog on a leash.
The chef says his wifes wedding cake decorating part of the business has been picking up recently, which is helping to support the patisserie, but its still just him, his wife, and one other helper. He also has chocolates, pate de fruit and an assortment of pastries such as tart au citron, tart au vanille, et al. Ive not tried the other pastries, but the pate and chocolates are as top notch as the croissants (almond, chocolate, plain).
Still to try (or retry earlier in the morning): Ambrosia Bakery in Barrington, Bittersweet, Red Hen, Tags in Evanston, Bennisons in Evanston (Ive had the last 4, and these are larger, American sized), Bonjour Café in Hyde Park and Swedish Bakery in Andersonville. Any others?