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Bonjour, croissant

Buttery, flaky, and light as air — the perfect croissant is a morning treasure

Hiroko Sakan of Japonaise Bakery & Cafe holding a tray of almond, apple, and plain croissants and maple pecan rolls. Hiroko Sakan of Japonaise Bakery & Cafe holding a tray of almond, apple, and plain croissants and maple pecan rolls. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Ike DeLorenzo
Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2010

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A great croissant is golden brown, even singed near-black in places. The surface has a thin, fragile crispness that flakes apart when you tear it and an airy interior in which butter is layered in a complex web of soft pastry. Like the memory of a dream, the freshness of a croissant doesn’t last. It means you have to get up early. In every city where they’re made, including Boston, croissants emerge from the oven before the morning commute.

For years, Francophiles have been lamenting the alleged decline of food in France, and (loudly, of late) French coffee. But the morning croissant — at least the ones not made with margarine — accompanied by a cafe au lait, is still an object of national obsession there, and outside the country, jealous admiration. The quality of croissants in Boston varies wildly from catastrophic (doughy or otherwise) to pretender, to pleasant, to the rare exceptional one.

We set out to taste the famous flaky crescents. It turns out that many experienced bakers avoid making croissants, and a disappointing number of cafes that make everything on the premises do not offer them. In this area two bakeries, not a couple of miles from each another, produce the best around. Japonaise Bakery & Cafe, where Daisuke Matsuzaka is said to be a frequent customer, and Clear Flour Bread, where long lines mean you may not find croissants if you arrive too late, make excellent but different pastries. If a croissant at Japonaise is a sexy, slightly out-of-control Angelina Jolie, the version at Clear Flour is a classy, beautiful Catherine Deneuve.

Croissants, a kind of puff pastry with yeast, are very hard to make. As any pastry chef will tell you, skill and experience go hand in hand. The dough needs resting, deflating, rolling out, buttering, and folding, a process that can take nearly two days. The slightest error (momentary inattention, too-high humidity, too-cold butter, too-warm butter, the fickle whim of fate) can introduce elements that won’t be exposed as disaster until the tray of croissants emerges from the oven some 48 hours later.

Some bakeries buy inferior, ready-to-bake frozen croissants and slide them into the ovens every morning. Others buy sheets of frozen croissant dough and roll it themselves. In either case, if the product is poor, you can pretty much taste the preservatives. Even bakers in France use frozen dough, and there the quality also varies.

Japonaise, which uses pure ingredients, was founded by Hiroko Sakan in 1985. Her croissant has been perfected over the past 25 years as she raised three children on her own. She now has three Japonaise cafes as well (Cambridge, Brookline, Porter Square). Her son, Takeo, 30, who grew up in the bakery, runs day-to-day operations. He modestly says that he’s not a “real professional baker,’’ which is hard to believe.

The plain butter croissants here are the favorite of the many I tasted. The execution demonstrates a real boldness and confidence. Each batch varies a bit, and all are baked to a range of deep golden brown, the edges often delectably scorched. Points border on crisp. As you bite, amid glistening flakes falling everywhere, you notice the perfect texture (slightly firm, airy, and yielding), and that distinctive taste. It’s light but rich, and suggests butter, vanilla (there is none), and faintly caramel. The filled croissants are amazingly light. Apple is the one that Matsuzaka favors, says Sakan.

At Clear Flour, the croissants are the uptown cousins of those at Japonaise, more refined, more consistent, but no less delicious. They’re light in color and texture, and more forthrightly buttery. The baking staff consists of five women, most of whom are left-handed. Something magical is going on here. The crew, led by pastry chef Heather Schmidt, begins the night before at 8 p.m. The dough is made in a temperature-controlled 70-degree room, left there to “bulk’’ (rise) for one hour, then moved to a walk-in cooler to “proof’’ (rise more) overnight. Very early the next morning, back in the temperature-controlled room, the bakers divide the dough several times, finally cutting it into exact 74-ounce squares.

Bakers roll and spread the dough with French high-fat “plus gras’’ butter, fold it, roll it again, and reshape it for the next buttering and rolling. Repeating the process many times (for five hours) produces an 18-inch square with hundreds of layers. “It’s a half-inch thick, and it’s like a piece of fabric in the way it feels, and how it lies on the table,’’ explains Schmidt. The final square is cut into triangles, and rolled carefully to produce the familiar crescent shape.

There is no tidy temperature-controlled room at Japonaise, where baker Thomas Lytje and his crew cut and roll the final triangles with lightning speed. When I ask Lytje how they can make croissants on hot days when butter starts to melt, he responds with a smile and a heavy Danish accent. “Fast,’’ he says. Japonaise freezes the final squares for use the next day, a technique gaining popularity in France.

Some smaller-production bakeries also excel while innovating with interesting spices (Sofra, in Watertown), or all-local ingredients (Canto 6, in Jamaica Plain). A large proportion of the croissants in Hub coffeehouses are made by Iggy’s Bread of the World in Cambridge. Even working bakery-cafes such as the South End Buttery choose Iggy’s for consistency and predictability (though I think the croissants are inferior). Iggy’s is set up to produce croissants on an almost industrial scale. Built to travel, and to last on the shelf up to a full day, they are more bready, less complex, and with a markedly softer, and much less flaky, exterior than the artisanal achievements at Japonaise and Clear Flour.

Danish Pastry House in Watertown, another popular supplier, produces a similar croissant: bready, consistent, and available at many Hub cafes. Its memorable mustachioed envoy at the SOWA Market (Sundays) and Harvard’s Farmers’ Market (Tuesdays) is, unfortunately, more interesting than his croissants. Six other bakeries make croissants locally on a smaller scale, with fair to good results (see sidebar).

For those who want to bake croissants on their own, the best route may be FedEx. French vendors will overnight dough to the United States. It’s expensive, but the experience of making genuine croissants at home is priceless. And it doesn’t take 50 hours.

Defrost, roll, and shape. While they bake, put on the cafe au lait.

Ike DeLorenzo can be reached at ike@theideassection.com.