To many, the croissant is just something you buy in bulk from the grocery store, one crescent shaped pastry amongst five (or eleven, depending on your habits) identical twins. They simply inhabit their space, uninspired, content to just get by.
And if we're on a quest to find the city's best croissant, your typical grocery store croissant serves its necessary function as the worst croissant. Here's the baseline for our ongoing comparison: a stale IGA croissant, dry, crusty, dense and joyless. For just a bit over a dollar, this travesty provides a solid control for the experiments to come.
Part of the grocery store croissant's problem is that, as far as the IGA cashier knew (the baker was off on errands), the croissants already come partly made and finished off on site. Then they sit in their plexiglass jail, drying out as though in a desert, all of it made worse because there's just not enough butter to preserve the faintest notion of moisture. If grading the IGA croissant on our three criteria of butteriness, flakiness and lightness and on a scale of 5, the IGA croissant provides a benchmark for what a 1 would be in all three categories (a 0 is near impossible because, as we all know, a bad croissant is still better than no croissant at all).
But that's not to say pre-made is, in and of itself, a horrible thing. Croissants are notoriously difficult to make. The Julia Child recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking is pages long. There are ludicrous amounts of rolling, cutting, folding, refrigerating...the process, though rewarding, is arduous. For that reason alone, it's not surprising that over a third of croissants sold in France are made from pre-made frozen dough. Let it be known: using frozen dough is not a crime against humanity. Most dough freezes well, and without much detriment. Using frozen dough allows one to bake only what is necessary, which is in keeping with the cardinal rule of all things baked: they taste best when fresh out of the oven.
Our first two croissants are cases in point. Each is a venue of limited space, with a lack of kitchen space to handle baking in bulk.
Acme Cafe ($1.85)
51 W. Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC (604) 569 1022
Those that have waited in line for brunch at Acme Cafe already know that space is limited. Though the desserts are made in house, there isn't the required space to bake the amount of bread that Acme serves on a daily basis, and as such they fly in their croissant dough from France, baking them on site.
- Butteriness: 3.5 out of 5. The Acme Cafe croissant has a solid dalliance with butter, but not quite as rich as other bakery croissants might be. This works largely to their advantage: Acme serves breakfast sandwiches on their croissant, and an overly buttery croissant wouldn't quite work. Long story short: it's functionally buttery.
- Flakiness: 4 out of 5. As its richer colour might imply, layers of crisp flakes break off with each bite, and a true croissant fan shouldn't be afraid of licking every crumb off the plate.
- Lightness: 3.5, maybe 3.75 out of 5. It's a light puff of dough, though for its size, a wee bit denser than one would expect.
|PanDa Fresh Bakery|
PanDa Fresh Bakery ($3.00)
Corner of Pacific Blvd and Drake Street
Vancouver, BC twitter.com/pandabakery
Two young kids are hunched over in an old mini school bus, parked at the northwest corner of the David Lam Park. One is presumably on Twitter - the new street vendors all seem adept at it - while the other presumably entertains, all while an electric oven warms the small metal container they've arrived in. It's an extremely tiny space, and one can only be mercifully sympathetic when the weather is hot. When the odd customer arrives, both jump to serve.
Croissants are the raison d'etre at PanDa Fresh. There are multiple versions to be had, with the plain butter croissant drowning in a sea of stuffed options (they are explained as being more like sandwiches than being truly stuffed with filling): savory, with seasonal versions such as turkey and mashed potato; and sweet, with ice cream being a recent option. Each starts with the frozen dough that is custom ordered - the two were hesitant to say from where - and then baked in the bus. In keeping with our challenge, we got the plain.
- Butteriness: 3 out of 5. At its price point, one would expect the croissant to be deliriously rich. Not so with this croissant.
- Flakiness: 3.75 out of 5. It's flaky, alright, and when you're eating the croissant while walking down the street, it's downright unruly. With that said, I'm guessing the croissants sit in the oven until they're ordered, as the outer crust of the croissant can be overly dry (which is why I'm docking them 0.25 relative to Acme's).
- Lightness: 3.5 out of 5. It's light, though the ends tended to be overbaked every time we visited.