Doughnuts vs. Croissants

The debate rages every morning as denizens of the city pry open their eyes with coffee and . . . what? Yogurt and granola? Too hard to carry around. Besides, have you seen the price of granola at WF lately? You’d think OPEC had cornered the market on rolled oats. Bacon and eggs? Too brunchee. Waffle sticks dipped in faux maple syrup? Too 90s. Time to move on, people. Here in Chicago two food revolutions are taking place, each of which has the strength to transform the question of what to eat with morning coffee. Dunkin Donuts has now opened several kiosks in our renovated elevated train stations, supplying its fare to thousands of commuters every day. Their doughnuts are among the best commercially produced cakes available in the U.S today. (Tim Hortons, stay on your side of the border, please.) A dozen French-style backeries have opened in several Northside neighborhoods, raising the quality of breads and rolls to new heights. Not since Chicago was home to highest level of German baking craft (100 years ago) has the city enjoyed such magnificent croissants. The battle between the fried and the baked has commenced.
I know doughnuts. I started frying them when I was fourteen years old. I have eaten every form of fried dough imaginable. My colleague, Paul R. Mullins, has found a doughnut recipe in an 1803 English cookbook clearly identified as an American food, although fried dough has been know in several European traditions since the Renaissance. In 1809, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) described “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks” in his History of New York. Some might argue that the cake doughnut is a substantial calorie bomb perfectly suited to the body’s first meal of the day. Others will point out that the raised doughnut with its web of air pockets is a fried version of the croissant, and a tasty one at that. From the doughnut makers point of view, no one ever kept the shop open selling plain crullers and unfilled puffs. Sugar must be added. That’s what people order: honey-dipped, frosted, jelly filled, and candy-covered. Sugar makes a nice breakfast. It’s kept the cereal industry profitable for years. There is nothing more to it: sugar supported by a cakey or puffy dough. Not for me, though. I’m just not impressed with plain old ‘sweet’ anymore.
With a croissant baked by a skilled craftsman, all of the senses are engaged. The shape and name refers to a crescent. The crescent roll from PIllsbury’s can is a (very) distant cousin. The Viennese, who claim to have originated the roll (Good luck with that claim!), say that the first ones were baked in 1688 to celebrate the breaking of the Siege of Vienna by the Turks. “I eat the emblem of your state religion to show my disdain for your military impotence.” Interesting strategy that. I doubt the Turks have ever recovered from the insult. The surface of the roll reflects a spectrum from sunflower to burnt amber. The layers of pastry peek out from under a blanket of egg-glazed armor. The smell of the butter has been transformed from milk to caramel. Grip the roll, firm, but light. Crack it open at the shoulder. Hear the shower of crumbs hit the plate, like rain on a warm summer evening. The moist release brings scents of baked bread, hay and earth to the nose. The interior is vacant. All of the substance has been glued to the exoskeleton. Still, strands of soft webbing stretch across the gaps, offering a net to catch a knife tip of (totally optional) raspberry jam. You bite in. The browned butter merges with the flakes of crust and gossamer strands of dough on the tough. No chewing is necessary as the treasure melts away. Through the back of your mouth, the smell of sweetness suggests itself. You hesitate to swallow hoping the moment will last.
Seriously now, which would you rather wake up to, a doughnut or a criossant.

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