3421 W. 44th St., Minneapolis
1 Financial Plaza, Minneapolis
The early bird gets the worm--but the second mouse gets the cheese. If you increase your rate of failure, you increase your rate of success--yet the perfect is the enemy of the good. Live every day as if it were your last--but in that case, will you ever get any laundry done?
As an American, I am on a perpetual quest for self-improvement, and consequently I have thought many, many, many things. About Turtle Bread's croissants. And perhaps only once have those thoughts been: Is that drool on my chin, or am I just happy to see you?
I don't know. I think a lot about the Turtle Bread croissants. I think about how they have gotten better and better for the four years or so that I've been tracking them. How about a year ago they reached a sort of apex of heavenliness that has left me pretty well convinced that these are the best croissants not just in town, but quite likely in the country and, as far as I could tell the last time I was in Paris, in France, too. And then I think: Well, there it goes, I've slipped my last gear. It's highly unlikely that the best croissants on earth are on a sidestreet in Linden Hills. So then I do a quick Internet search and try to find out where they put food writers who have slipped into the blessed insularity of the criminally insane. And then when I see how much a bed-and-breakfast in Stillwater costs these days, I stop pursuing those thoughts.
And yet, they return. Because, no kidding, there are some mornings when I think the Turtle Bread croissants hold all the secrets to the universe. The plain croissant, it takes my breath away. The outside is the most darling reddish brown, like a sparrow seen through rose-colored glasses, and once you tear it open, the heart is all golden and glowing. Little holes and pockets speckle the interior, and if you look at it long enough (and I have), you start to see the whorl of how it was rolled together, microscopically thin layers of pastry, curled up like any of nature's most perfect mysteries, a fingerprint, a whirlpool. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it loves a subtle spiral. Me too! Bite into one and the crust is concentrated and crisp, a bit of salt and rich toast. It reminds me of how the best wine comes from grapes grown in torturous conditions, because a lack of moisture focuses the flavor so finely. Contrast it with the biscuity, tender, bready interior, which is light with moisture and fresh with the ingredients that are more gently cooked, as they were shielded from the heat by that crust. Focused from the heat outside, or made more dilute and effervescent by the moisture within--this is one of those concepts of food that seems so intuitive and easily thought-of once you unpack it but remains entirely hidden till you take time to examine it. Examine those other clues of golden color and many tiny air pockets, and they reveal much as well.
Why the gorgeous gold color? Because the Turtle bakers use beautiful, sunshiny artisanal cultured butter from the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company. What's that? Aside from $5.99 a pound retail, cultured butter means that some little microbial doohickies were added in and let roam, doohickies akin to the doodads that make yogurt or cheese. This makes for a more complex, evocative butter with a whole bouquet of subtle and fleeting flavors--but it's not yogurty; it's still sweet butter. It's specially imported for Turtle from local gourmet provisioner Great Ciao! and is also on sale in Turtle's dairy case. I tried it against normal butter--it's much heavier and more complex in the mouth, sort of like the difference between fantastic coffee and good coffee. If you want to try it in your own baking this holiday season, get ready for fun and games: It's got about 86 percent butterfat (most conventional butter has between 68 and 72 percent)--which means you'll have to reduce the volume of butter you use, possibly adjust temperatures and other moisture content, and, oh, all sorts of food-math things.
So that's the why of the golden color--but why the little holes? For their dough, the Turtle folks use what bakers call a "poolish," which is a way of pre-fermenting a portion of the batter. It's pretty technical stuff, but imagine a halfway point between the way sourdough is made and the way a standard yeast bread is, including a lengthy rising time, and you'll get the idea. Does anyone else do this these days? No. Why? Because it requires so very much time when the dough isn't making anybody any money; it's just sitting around, taking up bakers' time and bakers' space while it rises and sits and does its thing. And if time is money, you can't use a poolish followed by a long rising time, and if money is money you can't use artisanal butter--it costs two to three times what standard butter does.
And if time is money and money is money, you definitely can never have an almond croissant: For these over-the-top works of passion, the Turtle bakers make a poolish, make the dough, roll it out with butter again and again to get the zillions of minuscule layers of dough and butter that make croissants great, let them rise, half-bake them, take them out, slice them in half, fill them with the most sweetly haunting combination of imported almond paste, real kirsch, and sliced toasted almonds, then put them back together, glaze them, cover them with more almonds, and bake again. Does this make them good? Oh, Lord: The thing is ringed by a crisp pool of what was a briefly molten sugar glaze. As the skin of a fried chicken is to the chicken, so is this crackling layer of stuff to the croissant. For a brief moment in its company I thought: Oh, yeah, I could be a vegetarian. The kirsch within it is like a spray of flowers arching from a vase--the lilt that makes an indelible impression. The filling is dewy and potent, the whole thing largely unbelievable. At $2.29, it slips the bonds of economics: Is it expensive for a breakfast treat? Cheap as an endless labor? Just right as art? I do not know.
I do know that it's in the same Turtle aisle as the chocolate croissant ($1.99), which has the nubs of thin bars of Belgian chocolate sticking out the side, like a tortoise's peeking face. Yes, rich, smooth, elegant Belgian chocolate, joining Vermont butter, a French poolish technique, and hours of handwork. Which, to me, brings up the question: Why is there a place in the world where time isn't money, and money isn't money, but time and money are the things you leverage to get greatness, to get pleasure, and to get the things that are the next step beyond money--or, rather, a good croissant?
Why? Because Harvey McLain has slipped the bonds of common sense and run off down one of those paths of uncommon thinking, uncommon vision, and uncommon values that make people like me want to follow people like him around and make page-a-day calendars out of what they say and what they think. "All we do here at Turtle Bread is free people and let them be great," says McLain. "If you just tell people you want them to be great, and you make the environment for them to be great, and you help them with the support they need to be great, they will find their greatness. Which is the most freeing concept there is." And so the head baker, Solveig Tofte, was encouraged to try making the croissants with French Plugra, with traditional butter, with whatever she saw that worked. Tofte, McLain, and the rest of the Turtle crew tried dozens of brands and types of chocolate before settling on the Belgian one they use now. They constantly retune, reformulate, and reimagine every aspect of the bakery. "We just try to ask ourselves all the time: How could this be better?" says McLain. "When people succeed, they blossom. You can see them become a bigger person. Their shoulders get thrown back. They feel braver for the next challenge. That's all we do here. And of course, in the food business, the rewards are fairly instantaneous. We get love letters now, because of some of our products."
Love letters, of course, often go hand in hand with daffy ideas. Like the one tendered by one of Turtle's regular customers, who frequently stays at the royalty-friendly Paris hotel the Georges V and who thinks that the Turtle croissants are better than the $12 room-service ones on the other side of the Atlantic, and perhaps there's some way to get them over there? Or raise the prices here? Apparently, slipping a cog when getting to thinking about Turtle croissants is a popular local pastime.
The last morning I got to going off the deep end about the Turtle croissants, I was sitting in the bakery, drinking coffee, looking at the chains of straw baskets that dangle from the high ceiling like gigantic grape clusters, and eavesdropping. A mom at the next table was having coffee, too, and sharing a croissant with her towheaded toddler. He feasted happily on bits of croissant his mother pulled free for him, and the two discussed the grand tableau outside the glass on 44th Street: a doggie. A car. A baby. Another doggie. He kept showing his mother strips of his pastry, and she'd say "croissant," and by the end of a half-hour, he about had it. Croissant. And I thought: My God, this child. His baseline definition for croissant is this highest pinnacle of what a generation of us could produce. We had to go to the brink of industrial farming and industrial pastry and come back and reinvent the wheel, reinvent butter, reinvent bakeries and so much more, and now our pinnacle is his baseline. And I understood for the first time what my grandmother, who left school in the fourth grade to work in a shoe factory, must have felt looking in her grandkids rooms littered with shoes with heels that light up when you run. And I thought: These children gumming on Turtle croissants, they are going to go to, their pinnacles of achievement are going to be so unimaginably out there.
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