Midweek Distractions 4/24/24: Sweet or Savory?

Sandwich with ham and cheese on croissant bun.

This week, we published a great guide to how to enjoy a traditional French breakfast from one of our writers, Angelika Pokovba. And while everyone’s morning ritual, breakfast included, is unique to them, there was one theme we kept coming back to: A French preference for light, sweet breakfast dishes over heavier, savory ones.

French viennoiseries, in particular, are generally sweet: pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins, croissant aux amandes… only the humble croissant, flavored only with butter and salt, refrains from sweetness. There is the occasional jambon-fromage croissant, one of my favorites, but aside from that you won’t find too many savory viennoiseries at a traditional boulangerie.

My hot take? Savory pastries are the way to go. Now, I’ve got a sweet tooth as much as the next person, but there is something about flaky pastry dough topped with vibrant spices, or a pile of shredded cheese, that makes getting up in the morning worth it. Years ago, when I lived in Williamsburg, I would drag myself out of bed early on the weekends to stop at Nick + Sons Bakery for a za’atar croissant before they sold out. With each bite, what looked like any ordinary croissant on the outside revealed sneaky layers of vibrant green seasoning and the citrusy punch of sumac.

When I go to visit my parents in Philly, I have to pick between two incredible bakeries housed in the Bok Building shopping complex. The first, Machine Shop, makes an “everything croissant” dusted with everything bagel seasoning, and filled with tangy goat cheese, evoking the flavors of an everything bagel with schmear. The other, Second Daughter, is famous for its brownies, but they also make a killer mushroom tart, with a tall crust protecting a filling of jammy caramelized onions.

Just the other day, I was delighted by the springtime flavors in a tiny pea and ginger tartlet from Benoit in Manhattan. And, at Hutong (also in Manhattan), I recently had my mind blown by a wagyu millefeuille. A bizarre concept, surely, but one which was so cleverly executed. Closer in shape to an Italian Sfogliatella than a classic millefeuille, its delicate, flaky pastry exterior literally melted in my mouth, revealing a rich, passionately spiced wagyu interior.

When I was putting together my guide to weird croissants (a particular pet obsession of mine), I found bakeries across the U.S. that had transformed croissants into tacos, bagels, and pretzels, filling them with everything from chicharron to cheddar cheese spiked with jalapeños. And all I can say is: Bring it on! I would love to see more traditional French flavors make their way into non-traditional viennoiseries. Give me a Bleu d’Auvergne croissant with walnuts and pear, or a fig and brie danish. We’re even starting to see more gluten-free and vegan pastries in France, as the land of bread and butter begins to open up its options to those with dietary restrictions.

Did I make you hungry with all this pastry talk? This fabulous recipe for French-style savory cakes with Bayonne ham, gruyère, and olives from Chef Aurélien Dufour is sure to tide you over. Pair them with a glass of rosé, and thank me later.

Les New Yorkais…

The African Film Festival at Lincoln Center will take place from May 8-14. The festival is made possible in part by the French Cultural Service, and a number of Francophone and France-produced films will be shown, including La Chapelle, DELA: The Making of El Anatsui, and MK: Mandela’s Secret Army. There will also be a screening of the short film Jeanne, about Charles Baudelaire’s muse and partner, the Haitian-born Jeanne Duval.

Catherine Rickman

Stay in touch! I’d love to hear from you: [email protected].

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