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Cupcakes Versus Croissants

May 12, 2010

I have heard it said that the Capital Region is about ten years behind in food trends.  Officially the cupcake craze began in the fall of 1996 with the West Village’s Magnolia Bakery.  Locally Spa City Cupcakes opened in 2008, and as far as I can tell that was the first sign of the trend up in these parts.  But recently we have had some more cupcake bakeries open in the area, and I’ve found myself thinking about the three-dollar cupcake.

And I’ve found myself getting more and more agitated.

I can get behind cupcakes.  I can.  I can get behind spending a bit more money on something special versus something ordinary.  I have no problem paying $3 for a tasty and delicious white flour and butter snack.  Most importantly, I actually like the little buggers.

So why do fancy cupcakes upset me so much?  The answer has to do with croissants.

To me, croissants live in that same space as fancy cupcakes: They cost a few dollars, are very tasty when made well, and are an occasional treat.

Except have you ever tried to make a croissant?  It’s hard as hell.  Making puff pastry dough takes time and expertise.  It also takes a lot of butter.  I’ve read all about it, and have wisely decided to leave that task to those dedicated to the art and science of French pastry.

A great croissant is a high-wire balancing act of tastes and textures.  From the nutty browned butter and flour crust that shatters when you bite into it to the soft and sweet buttery interior that collapses under your teeth only to spring back up in an instant.  Creating such a delight, like they do at Mrs. London’s, is a remarkable feat.

I very much doubt I could ever make that myself.

Any fool with a good recipe can make a great cupcake.  Home cooks have been doing it for decades, if not centuries.  Not being a food historian, I really have no idea.  But if you make sure not to overwork the batter, use good ingredients, and keep an eye on the cooking times, you’ll do fine.

It is hard for me to look at a $3 cupcake without seeing the $3 croissant.  And when I put it in those terms, the cupcake always looks like an overpriced marketing ploy.  For it to pay out, the cupcake would have to be at least twice as good as the comparable croissant, which is an almost impossible feat.

And all of this is without even bringing donuts into the picture.

I’m not making donuts at home either, given all the time needed for rising, much less all the deep fat frying.  Which even if I were comfortable doing at home, I wouldn’t really want to see.  And donuts, with all their labor, can be had for a bit more than fifty cents apiece when bought by the dozen from The Cookie Factory or Bella Napoli.

So I haven’t rushed out to the cupcake bakeries.  Surely one of these days I will, for the sake of science.  But it is going to kill me to pay those prices for something that is comparatively easy to make at home.  And most likely I’ll be wishing that I had picked up a croissant from Mrs. London’s instead.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    May 12, 2010 11:32 am

    Apart from difficulty in baking, I think taste is a big factor for me. A Mrs. London’s croissant vs some variant of “crescent roll” are two different beasts. In all but rare cases, a fancy cupcake tastes like a box cupcake, but probably has more shit on the top or in the center. Cupcakes from high-end bakeries like Crumbs (NYC/LA) have almost impossible heft and density, as well as an incredibly overwhelming flavor (if that’s your thing). I ate one from the Bettie’s Cakes bus in Saratoga last summer that seemed to be a dry Funfetti with ground-up lollipop grit on top.

  2. Jenny on the Block permalink
    May 12, 2010 12:01 pm

    Your post made me wax nostalgic for the Magnolia Bakery of 1996 and think a little about the irony of it spawning the fancy cupcake craze. I had the good luck to live on the same block as the Magnolia when it opened in 1996, and the beauty of it was that it was not a fancy cupcake bakery. I have not been to the Magnolia in many years, but in1996-1997, the Magnolia Bakery made traditional, regular baked goods that your mother might have made if your mother (a) used real butter in her baking, and (b) made cupcakes from scratch (my mother did neither of those things). It was a revelation in 90’s NYC to be able to get a devil’s food cupcake, or a peanut butter cookie, made in a way (and in a normal serving size) that my grandmother would have approved of. Their cupcakes and cookies were not fancy, and my recollection is that they didn’t cost anywhere near $3.00 (even adjusting for inflation). I, like most of my neighbors, lived in a tiny little studio with a little kitchen and no access to either a stand or hand mixer. I loved to be able to indulge in childhood treats without making the effort.

    Fast forward 14 years. I have a stand mixer. I have kids. I go to a lot of birthday parties. I make and eat a lot of cupcakes. I even have a Magnolia Bakery cookbook. So, I agree with you — if I’m going to spend $3 at the bakery, I would rather have the croissant.

  3. Elyse permalink
    May 12, 2010 1:04 pm

    Let’s face it- croissants aren’t trendy and they don’t have the kitsch factor that “peanut butter and jelly” or “Key lime pie” flavor cupcakes do.
    You know what is currently trendy? Macarons- and, oh boy is that a trend I could get behind. They are expensive though! I accidentally found out that they sell them at that french bakery in Troy- so look! We aren’t that behind the times here!

  4. May 12, 2010 4:20 pm

    cupcake rant:
    bakeries that make cupcakes are ok. “cupcake bakeries” are ridiculous. cupcakes ARE easy, and i have jumped on the train after i got some awesome, extra large cupcake pans and liners. i started cupcaking the crap out of everything – (faves so far: chocolate with ganache/chambord frosting, chocolate with raspberry filling, carrot with cream cheese frosting… borinf but good results) – i did tarts in the pans, meatloaf – whatever i could to use them for because i was in love with them. – but really – cupcakes, even semi fancy ones, are not difficult. and bakeries that do cakes should be able to have a coupla cuppycakes on hand. but to CENTER YOUR BUSINESS around cupcakes makes no sense to me. and what i have noticed is – sometimes the cupcakes aren’t even very big! i have to say – for 3 bucks or more, i better get a frickin’ honkin’ sized cupcake.

    the bread basket in saratoga has by far the BEST cupcakes i have ever had. better than i can ever make myself, and better than dedicated cupcakeries or whatever we are calling them.

    and all in all, i agree. cupcakes are not in the least comparable to crossaints. i watched jacques pepin make croissants and i wanted to DIE when i saw the butter and fold, butter and fold, butter and fold until your arms fall off process. people that make croissants should be sainted.

  5. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 12, 2010 4:36 pm

    Cupcakes are basically children’s food, and I think this current craze is a spin-off from the nostalgia-comfort food craze, both a kind of infantilization of the American adult.

  6. enoughalready! permalink
    May 12, 2010 8:19 pm

    sorry to disagree, mr sunshine, but cupcakes are for plenty of adults i know. what fun to have your personal cake!

    nicole, i too had goodies (layer cake by the slice!) from magnolia around the time you lived there, as my daughter lived there then also.

    some of the cupcakes i’ve seen in local bakeries are all jazzed up with toppings that don’t look very appealing as food and they are way too expensive for their size. i wouldn’t even try one as they seemed too artificial.

    personally my feeling is you cannot choose between cupcakes and croissants – they fulfill totally different food cravings.

  7. Margie C permalink
    May 12, 2010 8:20 pm

    Mrs. London’s makes an excellent croissant, however, I find that none compare to Crisan’s on Lark Street. If you haven’t tried them, you haven’t had a real croissant!

  8. May 13, 2010 6:04 am

    funny how food cultures differ…

    in the uk ‘cupcakes’ is what we mean by the dry little doughballs thinly scraped over with damp sugar that can be found in their horrific thousands at any cheap celebration buffet. the very word conjures up queasy nightmares for british folk, i can assure you.

    cupcakes like the ones you describe can be found (but rarely, too rarely!), and are best eaten with afternoon tea. i doubt many people over here would know they can be got let alone what they go with though.

    croissants are only for breakfast – more properly they’re the second course of a full morning meal. but i’ve never had a croissant in the uk that was anything beyond ‘supermarket’ quality; not from restaurants, hotels, bakeries, nada.

  9. enoughalready! permalink
    May 13, 2010 8:59 pm

    in france a croissant is what you get for breakfast (avec confiture et buerre) -that’s it, or some delicious baguette. odd how the croissant was ‘added’ to an english breakfast (who could eat one of those artery-clogging full breakfasts in the uk, anyway ?)

    mrs. london’s are indeed delicious and am anxious to try crisan’s.

  10. enoughalready! permalink
    May 13, 2010 9:00 pm

    elyse: where is that french bakery in troy!

  11. May 17, 2010 1:59 pm

    My beef with most cupcakes, is that they are crap.

    I have yet to eat a cupcake made by someone other than myself that is delectable (I am the counter girl at Crisan, so I’m leaving them out of this–I do love our cupcakes, but they don’t happen often, and we don’t specialize in them). Most of the time they are simultaneously heavy as though wet, and dry as a pound cake (pound cake is not for cupcakes). Often buttercream is way, way to heavy and–this is the most horrifying part–grainy. It might just be me, but I want buttercream to be airy and buttery instead of sickeningly sweet and crunchy. It should be the lightest little cake, soft and fluffy with no crunchies or weight unless it’s from the teeniest bit of glittery sanding sugar or other pretty topping– like so.

    I didn’t even like Magnolia bakery’s when we visited a few months ago, but maybe I just got one from a bad batch. I’m really picky about my cupcakes. I admit that they are trendy and I’m from that obnoxious corner of the room that insists they have *always* loved cupcakes, and always will, but it’s true. I think cupcakes are tricker than they get credit for, probably because most of them are depressingly not-awesome. I get the idea that everyone in the world thinks they can make a delicious cupcake, but no, it is not so.

    Croissants are a huge pain. I have very little to do with them besides eating them, and occasionally getting to apply an egg wash. If you like Mrs. London’s, ours at Crisan are also excellent, but slightly different (besides the price difference). Originally they were less of a French croissant and more of a Romanian version, but for the past year and a half or so they’ve been closer to the French, but are still not quite as flaky as those at London’s. They are really a totally different creature, especially when you get into the fillings.

    • May 17, 2010 2:47 pm

      Very pretty cupcakes. And also very interesting news about the switch over in croissant style at Crisan. I tried the Romanian version, and it wasn’t my thing. But I am looking forward to having another reason to come into the shop.

      Any tips for the people here about times to come to Crisan when it’s empty? The bakery is lovely, but it’s a real bummer when all three tables are full. (Yes I know the outside tables are now set up, but summer only lasts for a few months and will be gone before we know it.)

  12. May 18, 2010 8:13 pm

    We haven’t really worked out a solution to the table problem (part of the reason there is no restroom is because our size doesn’t allow for one) with the space we’ve got. We do keep some extra chairs in the back–small fold-out ones with backs– but table space is still a problem. The worst time to come, during the week, is between 12:30 and 1:3o and then again around 3-330. I haven’t worked nights since last summer so I’m not sure exactly when it picks up again these days, but usually after 730 (we close at 930 on weekends–yelp has yet to fix our hours though I’ve re-submitted them several times) it gets busy in the summer months.

    I also have to mention that after your cappuccino post a few weeks/months back, I started paying much greater attention to my preparation :) The owners trained us, but they can only be out front so much, and mine were a bit crappy for a while there. I’m not a coffee drinker so the post on real cappuccinos was so helpful!

  13. May 23, 2011 10:14 am

    You can get real, handmade croissants (made with rBGH-free butter from The Country Creamery in Canestota and organic flour from central NY) from us at All Good Bakers as well. Nick is familiar with that “butter and fold till your arms fall off” routine. We sell them for $2 – no flavors for now (he may start drizzling the top of a few with chocolate soon, customers are asking for it). He only prepares them once a week on Sundays because they are such a pain in the ass, but man are they good (speaking as the person who doesn’t have to watch over them for at least 24 hours; our daughter and I search out two that are “too small to sell” every week, and eat them almost right out of the oven. This is one of the awesome benefits of being the baker’s wife & daughter!). Ours are more dense than other ultra-flaky croissants I’ve had in the past. Come try them 10-2 on Sundays (although we’re taking a rare overnight camping/Phish trip for my 40th birthday, this Sat & Sun and will be closed).

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