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Wednesday, March 7, 2007 12:32 pm

World-class pastry in Springfield

How the best-ever croissants came to be made in the capital city

Untitled Document I’ve had them in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. I’ve had them in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. But I’ve never, ever had better croissants than those I’ve eaten at Incredibly Delicious, right here in Springfield. As I tell my cooking students: “If you want a truly religious eating experience, go to Incredibly Delicious early in the morning and have a croissant. They’re always wonderful, but when they’re still warm from the oven they touch the sublime.”
Springfield is incredibly lucky to have Patrick Groth, the owner, chef, and master baker of Incredibly Delicious. When Groth, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and later in France, first opened his bakery café in the beautifully restored Weber mansion, local food enthusiasts were delighted but skeptical of his chances of success. A chef friend said to me at the time, “He’s making great stuff. I just don’t think he’s going to be able to make a living doing it here.”
Thirteen years later, Groth has proved the naysayers wrong with a combination of talent, business savvy, integrity, and sheer hard work. When I recently told him what my friend had said years before, he laughed: “Whoever it was obviously didn’t know me. If we’d played racquetball, he’d have known I always play to win.”
The success of Incredibly Delicious rests in no small part on the quality of the products. The artisanal breads are outstanding. Coffeecakes and pastries are beautiful, and many showcase seasonal ingredients. Lunches are simple and well executed, featuring quiches, soups, and sandwiches based on that exceptional bread. Jams and preserves are housemade, sweet without being cloying, and sing with fruit flavor. Then there are those croissants. They haven’t always been the sublime creation they are today. Those first Incredibly Delicious croissants I ate years ago were good but a bit heavy and “bready.”
The croissant, along with a few other bakery specialties such as brioche and true “Danish” pastry, treads a fine line between bread and pastry, combining yeast dough with pastry techniques. Though largely associated with France, the croissant (the French word for “crescent”) was actually created in Austria in 1686 to celebrate the turning back of the Ottoman Turks, whose flag bore a crescent. It’s worth noting that in Denmark, the pastries we refer to as Danish are called Wienerbrød, Viennese bread, suggesting that they, too, have Austrian origins. Certainly they require similar techniques: A rich yeast dough is precisely rolled out, layered with butter, folded, rolled out again and then folded and rolled out again and again so that the end product rises into flaky, puffy, buttery layers. I had no quarrel with Incredibly Delicious’ first croissants. They might not have been world-class, but they were certainly head and shoulders above anything else available locally. Groth obviously wasn’t satisfied, however, because his croissants just kept getting better and better. By early 2001, when I first watched him work, they’d become the stellar creations they remain today — ethereally light, yet rich, the crispy corners of rich brown crunch contrasting with the tender layered interiors that inevitably leave me dithering over which part to save for that last bite. It wasn’t an easy or quick process. For five years Groth tinkered with his croissant formula and techniques, evaluating them monthly and making adjustments until they finally met his exacting standards. “There are three main components to making a good croissant: The formula, taking enough time to let the dough develop flavor, and the know-how that comes from experience,” Groth told me recently.
Baking is a much more exact science than any other type of food preparation, and croissants are one of its most sophisticated expressions. On Monday Groth starts preparing for the croissants that will be served on Saturday. The ingredients are precisely measured by weight and mixed with the use of a special dough hook for a specific time. Then the dough is refrigerated for 24 to 48 hours to develop flavor and strength. The next step is called laminating: The dough is rolled into a precise rectangle that is precisely 6 millimeters thick. Then the dough is topped with butter that must be malleable enough to spread but cool enough that it won’t melt into the dough, because keeping the butter and dough separate is what forms the layers and is crucial to the final outcome. The dough is folded into thirds, much like a business letter, then rolled out to that same precise 6 millimeters; the process is repeated until the desired number of layers has been achieved. The dough then goes back in the refrigerator to rest for another day before being detailed (shaped and filled). Incredibly Delicious has grown to the point that Groth now has assistants who help prepare the croissant dough, as well as breads and other items. Groth alone, however, details all the croissants, because it’s such a specialized technique. Except, that is, for his two best assistants: his cherubic sons Samuel, 6, and Isaac, almost 4. (The family lives on the top floor of the mansion.) “I guess they’ve watched me make them so many times, they just knew what to do,” said Groth. “Their hands are too small to make regular croissants, but they do a great job on the chocolate ones. (Chocolate croissants, called pain au chocolat in France, are square.) After detailing, the formed croissants go back in the refrigerator for another day of rest before they’re brought out to rise and finally baked. Though Groth speaks of three elements needed for exceptional croissants, I’d add a fourth, one that for him is a given: quality ingredients. Groth uses a combination of unbleached bread and pastry flours with a specific (11 percent) protein content, yeast formulated especially for sweet doughs, and powdered whole milk imported from France that, unlike the skanky stuff typically available here, smells enticingly of butter. Plugrá butter, considered the gold standard by many top chefs, isn’t good enough for Groth; he gets his butter from a small specialty dairy in Wisconsin. Fillings are top-grade, too: traditional chocolate sticks from France and seedless raspberry filling from Switzerland that’s been specially formulated to hold up during baking. Typically, Groth isn’t content to sit still. He’s now developing different kinds of savory croissants, such as ham and cheese. “They’re coming along, but I can make them better,” he said, “and they won’t go on the menu until I’m satisfied.” Of course.
Incredibly Delicious is located at 925 S. Seventh St. (217-528-8548). Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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