A few weeks ago, I received an email message from Olivier Dessyn, the owner of Mille-Feuille, a bakery I've written about where I believe you can find New York's best croissant. Mr. Dessyn was contacting me with what he described as "fresh news."
"My wife went to Dominique Ansel's place to get a cronut," he reported. "Needless to say she hadn't one." (Mr. Dessyn's English is imperfect, but still a lot better than my French.) "Then she came back to me and she said: darling, why are we making exquisite croissants and delicious mille feuille and not a cronut? Please make one for me! Which I eventually did, the Millenut."
I was concerned by the note. The word "bogus" popped into my head. "Olivier Dessyn is better than that," I thought. "He makes the best croissant in New York. He doesn't need to piggyback off Dominique Ansel's fame."
The cronut, which was introduced in May, has become to breakfast pastry what the Beatles were to '60s music. Described as half croissant, half doughnut, it's made of croissant dough, or something similar, that's fried in grapeseed oil and then injected with cream or jam and topped with icing.
Customers line up in front of Mr. Ansel's store starting at 6 a.m., if not earlier, to get their two-per-person limit. People are said to bescalping them online, and I recently read of an offer of sex in exchange for a cronut. Or maybe it was a cronut for sex.
My feelings about pretty much any fad such as cronuts were perhaps best summed up by my father. To paraphrase the old man: "I'll make it easier for everybody else by staying home."
I take a back seat to no one when it comes to consuming pastry. Nonetheless, in my learned opinion, you've got to be nuts, and not just cronuts, to wait hours on line for pretty much anything except an exit visa from a war zone.
It took a couple more emails from Mr. Dessyn to goad me into a visit. At that point, it wasn't because I was so eager to try his Millenut, whose name in the meantime had changed to French Donut, but to explore the human heart, to see how he could copy Mr. Ansel's invention in good conscience.
On the other hand, I'm fully aware that imitation is the sincerest form of capitalism. He's not the only baker trying to cash in on the cronut fad. However, when I dropped by Mille-Feuille to try the French Donut and analyze Mr. Dessyn's personality, he painted the French Donut as the result of popular demand. "The people were asking for the cronut, and some wholesale customers," he explained. "'Have you heard about that? Are you interested in that stuff?'"
Mr. Dessyn said he resisted, telling himself, "No, no, no—it's Dominique's stuff.
"Little by little I was wondering myself," he went on, his curiosity piqued by the cronut's explosive popularity, a professional desire to understand the baking process behind it and his wife's hunger for one.
He attributes Mr. Ansel's stroke of culinary genius to an appreciation for American culture. Mr. Dessyn admitted that he'd never have been able to come up with the cronut himself. Unlike Dominique Ansel, who was the pastry chef at Daniel for six years, he hasn't been in the U.S. long enough. He arrived here only two years ago. "In France, the only doughnuts I can remember is at the beach." He was referring to beignets. "It's not in our habits. I don't understand why doughnuts are so important for you."
But after a little bit of research—looking at images of the cronut and reading interviews with Mr. Ansel—Mr. Dessyn was ready to attempt a knock-off. "It looked simple," he said. "Take regular croissant dough," and fry it. The trick was getting the right temperature, but he achieved that on his second attempt. "I believe I understood why people are so crazy about that," he said. "When you get a doughnut, it's very good just now."
And it was very good. Mr. Dessyn made several of them on the spot for me—rolled in sugar and injected with vanilla or chocolate cream, or raspberry jam. I'd go so far as to call it orgiastic. It's a caloric time bomb; a dopamine delivery system; several bites of flaky divinity.
But how does it compare to an authentic cronut? I wasn't about to stand on line several hours in the tropical heat at the crack of dawn to find out. However, Mr. Ansel, who I'd been introduced to a couple of years ago by chef and cookbook author Tracey Zabar, generously offered to hide one for me from the cronut-seeking hordes.
Before performing a taste test, I sat down with Mr. Ansel to see how he's holding up under cronutmania. Quite well, it turns out. Indeed, he seems more charmed by the social dynamics of the early morning line outside his door—"The second day, we had 50 people waiting outside and sold out in 20 minutes," he said. "The third day I couldn't see the end of the line"—than to have any desire to capitalize on his cronut fame by licensing mugs, posters, perfume or men's wear, even though he has trademarked the name.
For example, there was the man who wanted to present his fiancée an engagement ring inside a cronut. Unfortunately, they'd sold out by the time he reached the front of the line. "He came back the next day," Mr. Ansel marveled. "He was first in line. He delayed his proposal because he wanted to get a cronut."
Then there was the 89-year-old man who celebrated his 60-year-old son's birthday with his son while waiting on line. "He said he didn't remember having such a good time with his son for the last 55 years of his life," Mr. Ansel reported. "He reconnected with him. They were much closer after the cronut."
It took Mr. Ansel two months to perfect the pastry, which isn't made from croissant dough, though something similar he described as "laminated."
"You incorporate the butter inside the dough and fold it many different times," he explained.
The flavor changes every month; the one I sampled was blackberry. It's not really fair to compare it to Mr. Dessyn's French Donut, since I had Mille-Feuille's hot out of the fryer, while Mr. Ansel's cronut was several hours old. And a doughnut, of whatever nationality, is best eaten warm.
However, while Mr. Dessyn's creation was an overloaded delight, Mr. Ansel's cronut was an exercise in restrained excess, a tone poem to Franco-American amity: uniting the rarefied instincts of French cuisine with the democratic inclusiveness of American sidewalk cooking.
Mr. Ansel said he holds no grudge against his imitators. "There is a lot of people out there trying to make something similar," he acknowledged. "I feel very flattered to be a source of inspiration."