Bakers Give Classic Pastry Recipes a Refresh

Gabriella Gershenson

The advent of all-day cafés doesn’t just mean there are more dining options from morning onward. It also means that baked goods matter again. Think of the iconic toast at Sqirl in Los Angeles, the much Instagrammed cruller at Daily Provisions in New York City or the myriad kouign-amanns from all over the country that have paved the way for a rethink of the pastry case. Real estate that was once dominated by cookies, muffins, scones and cupcakes is now evolving in establishments where pastry is offered throughout the day. Now, you’re more likely to see lesser-known regional French pastry, a larger variety of yeasted baked goods, pastries made with alternative flours and hints of adventurous global flavors that are hard to resist. 

French Revolution

When you think pastry, you may think French. From croissants to éclairs, the Gallic influence on the American pastry case runs deep. At Isabelle et Vincent, a bakery in Fairfield, Conn., Strasbourg-native Vincent Koenig oversees the creation of a repertoire that’s strictly French. The seventh-generation baker, who owns the business with his wife, Isabelle, prides himself on his French identity. “You won’t see any muffins or cupcakes,” he says. “We want to share our identity with our customers.” However, Koenig tailors his pastries to his customers’ tastes. “I know they like the pistachio, and I thought, 'Oh, I need to come up with something with pistachio,’” he says of the reason he created his chocolate chip and pistachio croissant. He makes it in a shape called a “chinois,” a pastry coil, with chocolate chips and a pistachio frangipane filling distributed throughout. 

Chocolate pistachio croissant, Vincent Koenig, Isabelle et Vincent, Fairfield, Conn. Photo:

When it comes to making laminated pastry dough, Koenig says the temperature of the butter is key. “The butter needs to be not hard but not soft,” he notes. “Around 15 degrees C, and the same consistency as the dough. When it’s too soft, it’s going to blend into the dough, and when it’s too hard, it’s going to crack.” Time is also critical. To get the layering that makes a great croissant, you need plenty of time to fold the dough around the butter, chill and repeat. “Each time, you fold it in three,” says Koenig. “A book you need to fold in two, and dough you need to fold in three. You need to do it three or four times to see different levels of feuilleté inside.”

A departure from the monoculture of Isabelle et Vincent is The Purple House in North Yarmouth, Me. The bakery’s owner, Krista Kern Desjarlais, a veteran pastry chef who worked for Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and Paris, mixes disparate baking traditions in her wood-burning oven. The day starts off with Montréal-style bagels in flavors such as black sesame and za’atar. After the oven temperature falls, Desjarlais bakes pastry, such as brioche, kouign-amann and financiers. Closer to lunch, into the oven go the Roman-style pizzas. “Everyone is really organized, and I get into a system of what’s going to go in when and I just get it ready,” says Desjarlais. “The afternoon is for making batters and doughs, and everything is meant to rise overnight.”

Desjarlais stays organized by preparing her beurrage, the slabs of butter that are folded into the détrempe (the dough portion of laminated pastry), in advance. That’s important when you consider the many laminated doughs she makes, including puff pastry for made-to-order mille-feuille, croissants, kouign-amann and her orange blossom cardamom brioche, which also has feuilletage. “It’s a croissant-brioche hybrid,” says Desjarlais. “It’s pretty much the same way you would tackle a croissant dough. Once you’ve made all the folds, you roll it out and fill it.” She bakes the brioche in a muffin tin, filling it with cardamom sugar swirls, and sells them as individual buns ($5.95, recipe).

Flour Power

Other pastry chefs are putting twists on classics by using unconventional flours. At Seattle’s London Plane, pastry chefs Kendra Grieco and Alana Gidycz bake canelés made with buckwheat flour, which they say is challenging but rewarding. “Buckwheat is heavy and has a tendency to settle at the bottom of the batter very quickly,” Grieco cautions. “You have to whisk the buckwheat back up into the mixture, which adds air and makes the canelé rise more. After you whisk it, take a spatula and beat out the air bubbles. It’s a trick of learning how to get buckwheat that’s settled in the bottom to get back up into the mixture.” The nutty flavor and custardy texture that result make the finesse that’s required worthwhile ($3, recipe). 

I try to make delicious things that are wholesome and still a treat.
Richard Bourdon, Berkshire Mountain Bakery

Alternative flours have gained more traction in recent years, but Richard Bourdon of Berkshire Mountain Bakery, with locations in Pittsfield and Housatonic, Mass., has been using them since he got started more than 30 years ago. In addition to specializing in a variety of sourdough breads, Bourdon makes his own sprouted spelt flour for his ginger and oatmeal raisin cookies. “What’s important is that the food you eat be nutritious and digestible,” says Bourdon, citing one of the main benefits of sprouted grain flours. “I try to make delicious things that are wholesome and still a treat.” 

Perhaps his most famous baked good is the bread and chocolate, a white-flour loaf loaded with high-quality Belgian dark chocolate chunks ($5.75, recipe). “We talk about fermentation, but what’s more important is that bread be cooked properly,” Bourdon notes. He holds back 12 percent of the water when making this dough, to ensure a wet dough whose starch has gelled. Why does this matter? Because gelled starch is 13 times more digestible for humans, which means you’re getting more nutrients from your food. “People are coming around,” says Bourdon. “They’re understanding more, making softer doughs, fermenting bread properly. There is a movement toward making freshly milled flours. Business is going strong, and I’m still making the same stuff I was making 30 years ago.”

Gabriella Gershenson could eat anything crunchy all day long.

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