The holiday season is upon us, which means some major food and forbidden treats are being laid out by the pound for the taking. Who doesn’t give into culinary temptation from time to time? The “holiday tapeworm” idea may sound appealing to some, but there are other ways to stay one step ahead of that not so cute “jingle bell bulge” that comes from seasonal over-noshing. I recently returned from a trip to Paris where I challenged myself to having my goodies without the guilt. The result? I pigged out in France and actually lost a couple of pounds. Qu’es-ce que c’est?
Weeks before all previous trips to France, I cut back on calories in preparation for what I genuinely hoped would be a non-stop breadfest of baguettes, kouignettes, and my Paris ritual of the must-have-daily-croissant. But somehow this time I forgot. Knowing I could not give up my daily croissant ritual, I came up with a self-imposed croissant challenge.
Croissant snobs are not born, they are created. My story started years ago – my apartment in the West Village was directly across the street from a charming French take-out shop, Bonsignour. They had sinful pastries baked fresh daily, including my favorite, pain au chocolat. For a while, I got into the habit of grabbing a croissant almost every day, which was okay because my primary source of transportation was riding my bike, so I burned off the calories easily. But once winter arrived and the snow made biking the streets treacherous, my jeans became noticeably tighter, so my daily croissant was quickly replaced with an apple.
There are croissants,…and then there are croissants Francaise! French croissants have been known to invade my dreams. A certain je ne sais quoi? Nope, it’s the butter, or beurre. If the idea of butter leaves you reaching for the Lipitor, it’s time to reboot on butter stats. Butter is a great source of omega-3 and omega-6 fats which play a key role in all cellular function and especially in the nervous system. It is also full of vitamins, minerals and a powerful antioxidant called selenium. Most interestingly, present only in raw butter and raw cream, is the content of Wulzen factor, which is also known as “anti-stiffness factor”, because it protects against arthritis. Convinced yet? Think about it, and while you’re at it do yourself a favor and throw out the margarine. Margarine is a trans fat chemical nightmare. Now, back to butter…
American “uncultured” butter contains approximately 80% butterfat. On the other hand, French beurre, and other European butter, is ‘cultured’. Which means it spends more time hanging out with yummy cream, absorbing more fat, thus making it insanely delicious, and upwards of 86% butterfat. In fact, the French will not even allow it to be called ‘beurre’ unless it contains at least 82% butterfat. More fat means less moisture, less moisture means flakier pastries. See, it really IS all about the butter!
French Croissant 411
~ Originally known as the Viennese pastry kipferl
~ Marie Antoinette tales suggest she loved herself some serious kipferl
~ A Viennese pastry chef officially introduced the croissant to France in 1839
~ Shaped like the Islamic crescent on the Turkish flag in honor of the Viennese defeating the Turk attempt to invade Vienna in 1683
~ Process of endlessly folding dough with butter – to produce those famous flakey layers, is called laminating
~ An average croissant contains approximately 400 calories, more if filled
Since my Bonsignour days, I’ve made my peace with pastries. We have an understanding; they know they are delicious and I know I need to have a back-up plan if I choose to indulge myself. I also know that if I’m going to indulge, it has to be totally worth it. That means only the worthiest of pastries will be considered. Sorry Sara Lee, you’re not even in the running.
Therefore, I constructed a blueprint plan on how to have my croissant and eat it too.
The Sydology Four Day Croissant Challenge:
1) locate best croissants in Paris
2) enjoy one worthy croissant per day, preferably pain au chocolat
3) bike or walk to burn off estimated croissant calories
4) record calorie and mileage data
5) ensure jeans still fit at the end of the last day of challenge
To take the guesswork out of the calculations: I mapped walking and biking routes on Google maps, used the iPhone stopwatch to track time, and at the end of each day I entered all that data into Calories Burned HQ. Perhaps it is not the most scientific plan, but detailed enough to qualify as a genuine experiment.
The Buttery Best
Where: Le Granier a Pain 38 Rue des Abbesses – Montmartre area
Size: huge, but airy
Estimated croissant calories: 500
Walked: 3 miles
Biked: 6 miles
Total calories burned: 505
It was a rough start to day one, secondary to a glitch between auto-correct and Google maps, I was sent miles out of my way in the wrong direction. Flip-side: I got a jump-start to my calorie burning before I even got to the croissant. BTW it’s always a good sign when there is a line out the door of the boulangerie. Jo, my Aussie bud and connoisseur of all things culinary, and I took turns sighing as we devoured the enormous croissants de Granier. They were magnifique and way worth the navigation troubles.
Where: Le Cuisine – Cooking Class 80 Quai de l’Hotel de ville – Marais area
Size: medium, with lots of chocolate – I know, cuz I put it there
Estimated croissant calories: 450
Walked: 6 miles
Biked: velib kiosk system broken, unable to ride
Total calories burned: 510
I intentionally booked a croissant baking class at Le Cuisine to satisfy my croissant curiosity. Hands-down, it is the best place in Paris to get hands-on knowledge to discover all there is to know about croissants. Chef Justin Ward led the class through making the classics – plain, almond and my beloved pain au chocolat.
Pounding frozen butter, precise dough folding and carefully rolling them out….who has that kind of time? C’est difficile! There is a reason that not all croissants are created equal. Beyond the loads of butter, the flakey layers and the patience of baking – croissant making is an art…..mine was more of a Dali than a Monet, but I ate it anyway.
After class, I hit the ground running covered in flour and on a butter-buzz. I swept through Saint-Germain, along the Seine and back to Montmarte. I kept thinking, “I made croissants in Paris! Who am I?” Then, as I laid down for a nap at the hotel, something smelled delicious – it was me!
Where: Au Petite Versailles Du Marais 27 Rue Francois Miron – Marias area
Size: Estimated croissant calories: 450
Walked: 2.1 miles
Biked: 4.4 miles….up-hill
Total calories burned: 506
A little bird suggested Chef Christian Vabret makes the best croissant in Paris – I totally agree. Oh là là! I stood alone in front of my rented bike on the empty street in Marias savoring every crumb. Perfection!
I think I heard my quads crying as I pedaled up a hill in the Latin Quarter that goes on forever. Who knew Marie Curie’s laboratory was on top of a huge hill? Once I reached the top, I parked my bike and stumbled into a deli for bottled water. I felt as tired and beat up as a character from Les Mis. With the better part of 500 croissant calories in the rear-view mirror, I casually strolled to Marie Curie’s lab and a couple of other medical museums to explore all things fascinating, according to the acquired taste of a science dork.
Where: Paul Boulangerie 25 Rue de l’Opera – Opera area
Estimated croissant calories: 425
Walked: 7 miles stop and go
Biked: walked with friends, as a courtesy I did not ride
Total calories burned: 450
Knowing the croissant from Day Three would be nearly impossible to beat – on the final day of the challenge, I ‘phoned’ it in. Expectations were low so I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Paul’s basic goodness. Nothing to write home about, but not shameful. Is that a compliment?
The last day of my trip was melancholy. The best and worst thing about Paris is – I can’t get enough of it. C’est la vie!
Back at the hotel, the moment of truth arrived. I pulled my jeans out of the drawer and stepped in….Voila! Not only did the jeans fit, they were loose! Hot buttered success! Looking at it more closely, loose jeans aside – the combination of calorie counting, cardiovascular activity and the benefits of beurre, all made my experiment a healthier endeavor than initially planned. The extra room in my pants…quelle surprise!
Studies suggest the average weight gain between Thanksgiving and Christmas for a regular person is 1 to 3 pounds. People who are already overweight tend to gain an extra 5 to 10 pounds. Yikes! However, I will not be passing up on my favorite seasonal delicacies this month. Although, I will set aside some time to unload the extra calories I inhale along the way.
Climbing one flight of stairs burns 9 calories. Walking 30 minutes burns 125 calories. Biking 30 minutes burns 357 calories…..it’s just a little math. When I break it down, it’s basically a barter system between me and my butt. Case in point: My Paris croissant challenge was a success and for now my croissant cravings are satisfied. Croissants sans consequences!
Croissants and Paris have a lot in common; both are works of art, rich in history and best with beurre.
If you’re afraid of butter, use cream. ~ Julia Child