Some mock these as “Frankenpastries,” a term with echoes of “Frankenfood,” coined in 1992 by an English professor at Boston College expressing dismay over genetically engineered crops. That label is tongue-in-cheek, though just as Mary Shelley’s fevered novel hints at societal fears of miscegenation and “impurity,” the notion that these baked goods represent unholy unions suggests that there are clear borders in the culinary world that one ought not cross. Two centuries ago, the French led a shift from free-form cooking to codified techniques and built a system for achieving and recognizing mastery that still defines the professional kitchen, pastry or otherwise. So inevitably it’s the croissant that’s seen as being in danger of degradation: the noble, labor-intensive French pastry sullied by its union with the crude, arriviste American doughnut or muffin. (Another iteration was unveiled in January by Vive la Tarte in San Francisco: the tacro, a savory pork- or chicken-stuffed taco with a croissant shell.)
YET THE CROISSANT itself was born of crossed borders. The butter-laden layered dough has roots in medieval Arab practice, and the pastry’s shape comes from the Viennese kipferl, said to have been modeled after the Islamic crescent borne on the banners of 17th-century Ottoman invaders. (Although this back story is likely apocryphal, in 2013 a rebel stronghold in Syria banned croissants as symbols of colonialism.) Few dishes, let alone desserts, have remained static over time: Blancmange, a molded milk pudding, was once a chicken casserole; craggy coconut Italian-Jewish macaroons share ancestry (going back to early Sicilian pasta) with the polished round French macarons that have ruffled hems, which languished as solitary disks until someone sandwiched them around ganache a little over a century ago.
If anything, today’s nouvelle pastries mark a return to the spirit championed by Marie-Antoine Carême, the early 19th-century forefather of French cooking, inventor of the soufflé and the croquembouche and architect of monumental confectionery centerpieces that rose up to three feet — nearly as high as the sculptured hairstyles of his late namesake, Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess whose own love for viennoiserie may have inspired the myth of her declaring, “Let them eat cake.” Carême has disciples in Paris today, including Christophe Adam, known for éclairs ornamented with edible silver, popcorn and Mona Lisa eyes; Jonathan Blot, conjurer of macarons that taste like bubble gum; and, of course, Pierre Hermé, who daubs raspberry-lychee pâté inside croissants and showers them with candied rose petals. Like the original viennoiserie, which were painstakingly elegant pastries designed for the Hapsburg court in imperial Vienna that eventually became indispensable to the city’s sidewalks, their decadence is matched by the virtuosity of their construction and their element of surprise: They are, then as now, as much for beholding as for eating.
Their contemporary allure is aided by the diminishment of desserts at midrange restaurants, which after the recession of 2008 began to shed pastry chefs, unable to justify the expense for a course that yields little profit. As restaurant desserts have become simpler and homier — olive-oil cake, anything with chocolate — once plainspoken baked goods have turned rococo, offering an aura of luxury, enhanced by how difficult they are to procure before selling out each morning. At $4 to $8 each, these small but elaborate edifices seem worthier than the run-of-the-mill pastries available at every urban corner deli and curbside coffee cart, enabling their artisans to cover the ever-increasing cost of basic ingredients, particularly butter, whose price hit a historic high last year.
Indeed, French butter, which has a higher percentage of fat and a pronounced tang from cultured cream, is so desirable across the globe, it’s starting to disappear from grocery shelves in France. This is partly because more people are making pastries than ever before; as a French professor explained to The Economist in November, “China has discovered croissants.” But if the trend continues, the croissant as we know it — a straightforward compact of butter, flour, milk, sugar, yeast and salt — may be no more. And in its place? These overgrown crescents too big to fit in the palm of the hand, spangled and swagged, glutted with fillings, arrayed like objets d’art in austere concrete-walled patisseries where the bakers fuss like apothecaries. They’re absurd until you try them: salty and sweet and shattering everywhere, leaving behind smears of cream and telltale butter fingerprints. The croissant is dead; long live the croissant.