In Pursuit of the Perfect Croissant: Part 2 | Our Journey Through NYC
by Max Hodge
Runner & stone
Getting a table at this hip eatery is no easy affair. We were greeted by a cheery waiter who was clearly in the weeds just from the dance he had to conduct to get to the door, that upon reaching us he casually dropped an hour wait at least, however assured us it would be worthwhile. We groan but know he speaks the truth of quality, so we put our names in. Luckily we were seated with Bloody Mary’s in hand within a half hour. Running Stone is a great little eatery, with fresh food, inventive pasties and a refreshingly brisk drink. The menu is centric to the various grains they mill in house and the baking team crafts the various doughs with simple ingredients and a slow, natural fermentation that creates an unparalleled complexity and structure to their product that simply cannot be replicated by any other method.
Our server was a young woman seemingly taken from a random sampling of Brooklyn’s populous; fitting a hipster stereotype of a long knit hat, tattoos and various piercings, however had a pleasant but unobtrusive demeanor that fit the vibe of the bakery. For being as busy as they were she appeared to have an effortless time filling our table with pastry case offerings including croissants, baguettes and butter, traditional caneles and buckwheat canele that we simply had to try.
The canele was something that stuck out, a pastry we lovingly produce at Ellie’s. This quirky little bite has a lineage tracing back to 17h century Bordeaux, where bakers known as canauliers spent years perfecting recipes of their canaule, in order to be recognized by the Parliament of Bordeaux to earn the distinguishing title of being worthy of producing these special pastries. The French Revolution greatly affected all pastry shops and while canaule were continued to be produced, the governing boards that held the monopoly over milk and eggs were abolished, leading to an influx of canele production of varying quality.
It is not known what happened to the pastry, but there is a period of time that it loses documentation, it could have been a turn in popularity to a different pastry, (food is fashion after all) or that the political climate within France made accessing ingredients difficult. Nonetheless, In the first twenty years of the 1900’s the canelé reappeared, this time introduced by a unknown chef who introduced rum and vanilla to the recipe, and since then it has spread slowly throughout the world and made its way into shops within the U.S. It is an unassuming looking pastry, petite in stature, yet stoically composed in design; confidently waiting in a pastry case for a curious individual to stumble upon it. To produce it correctly, a bakery must first carefully incorporate all ingredients, a wrong flick of the wrist while mixing may incorporate too much air and resulting in an pastry that will explode out of the copper mold that they are baked in. The batter must age for two days and be baked at a extremely high temperature initially before dropping the heat. A skilled baker must then flirt with the line of overcooking, as a perfect canele is a rich, dark caramel colored exterior that one must crack through to enjoy, similar to the experience of snapping into a creme brulee, which then leads way to a rich, custard-like interior that sings the same song of a souffle that has been meticulously pampered for hours. It is a rare treat that is short nothing of ambrosia, an experience that is best taken in the early hours of the day when they are fresh from the oven.
Runner & Stone had canele on the menu, both a classic interpretation as well as a unique buckwheat canele. Chef Melissa’s eyes lit up at the mentioning of buckwheat, a personal favorite in her flavor arsenal that holds a special place in her heart. The classic canele was well executed, a bit on the conservative side of browning, and for it being late in the afternoon, it had softened slightly. However the stage was taken by the buckwheat canele. While lacking a crisp exterior at all, the entire pastry has a rich nuttiness and almost creamy mouthfeel as it was savored that hit all of the notes that only a dedicated pastry team could execute.
The baguette we had was served simply with fresh cultured butter, having a decadent crumb texture and the complex flavors that are achieved their their meticulous fermentation. While we all savored our meals, plates circulated in a roundabout fashion,everyone sampling the pastries and inspired entries. All the while, it was difficult not to drift back in thought to the caneles we began with, with a longing to have more than a sliver of each one..
If I were to ever stumble back into this bohemian-chic neighborhood again one day, I would most definitely belly up to the bar, if only for another bloody mary a canele duo. We paid our tab and bid Au Revoir to Runner & Stone, hailing a Uber via smartphone and heading to our next stop, Devocion.
After braving the streets from a most memorable Uber ride, one in which traffic laws seemingly did not pertain to nor concern this driver in typical New York cab driver style, we made ourselves to the doorstep of Devocion coffee, the place I had been most excited about to explore on this trip. devocion is nestled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, finds home in a historic warehouse in the former waterfront district. With a thirty-foot wide skylight, live plant wall, wide leather couches and the overwhelming aroma of freshly roasted colombian coffee, the day dreaming of using it as an eventspace was unavoidable, but being next in line to order quickly shook this passing thought away and left me staring blankly at the menu. While their menu read in a fashion that was akin to that of almost any other speciality coffee shop, It was the different espresso and pour overs that were offered that caught our eyes. They only roast and brew Colombian coffees, and offer many different regional coffees at different roast points, each of which is carefully tested prior to making a debut on the menu.
Ordering and enjoying a coffee, similar to ordering a cocktail,is a rather intimate experience, whether it is taken alone in a moment of recess from the day in order to catalog your thoughts, or communally to taken in each others time. One by one we step up to the counter and put our enthusiasm and faith into these baristas, in confidence they will translate the work of the farmer and the roaster into something special, something that accurately conveys the terror of the bean, a snapshot of the life of the coffee plant and where it was grown and the upbringing it had. Here, I ordered their Honey coffee, as an espresso and opened up as a cortado, to really understand this coffee in two different mediums. The coffee bean itself is a cross between the Yellow and Red Bourbon varietals, of which was grown in Huila of Columbia, at an altitude of 1800-1950 meters above sea level.
Writing this article many months later, the espresso had such a memorable flavor and aroma that I can almost still taste it, that of something so rich, so well extracted, readily opening up to many flavors that were beautifully roasted and extracted, with a taste that lingered on my tongue as if I had a whisky in my glass and on my palate. The cortado further perpetuated this experience, with warm milk that opened up the espresso and created a most pleasant drink, the espresso shining through with confidence, supported by creamy, microfoam milk. While drinking espresso is a fleeting experience, it is always a welcomed passing time that can only be relished by putting everything else on pause, a second thought too long elsewhere and the moment is gone.
I come back into focus with the rest of the group, and I see my colleagues around me having their own experience. Apparently when a group of diehard culinarians gather around a table is becomes a religious experience that is somber and reflective. Breaking his silence, Jason looks up from his pour over coffee with a proclamation of it being the best coffee he has ever had. Sara points out that we still have yet to break into Devocion croissant, snapping us all back to what we were there to test. Slipping a contraband croissant of our own from under the table, we taste the two side by side.
Devoicion’s croissant is not of their own creation, however is carefully sourced from a local bakery. Their croissant was a butter rich, bready, flaky creation with a straightforward flavor, not to overshadow their coffee., By contrast, our croissant is nutty, with a sourdough undertone that cut into the richness from the Plugra butter, with a slightly chewy interior and crisp exterior. While we could not say whose croissant was better, a truce was drawn that they both served their role in their respected cafe/bakery, and was too unique to the establishment to rank.
We fishined our last sips, made a trip through their retail shelf to load up on coffee, we headed outside. The sun was high in the sky and we still had yet to explore manhattan. Having leveled out from our bloody mary’s with a blood caffee content that was rapidly rising, we laughed as we enjoyed our caffeine high while braving yet another Uber, this time headed into Manhattan.